FAQ: Encouraging Talk in Writing Workshop

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Last time, I encouraged you to have LOUD, boisterous writing workshops full of writerly talk between writers and between writers and teachers. Our confident writers benefit from identifying sounding boards in the classroom; our insecure writers can often do more in their speech than they can through their written language, so intentional classroom talk time becomes a springboard to writing for them.

But this is going to be a different kind of FAQ for this series because, interestingly, all of the questions I received this time centered on one, single topic — peer-to-peer writing talk.  Some of the strategies I shared last time (like using the Author’s Chair or using students as skill consultants) do encourage students to talk to one another about writing.

But if I were to wager a guess, I think what readers are truly wondering about is ye olde peer editing — how do we get students to talk to one another about their writing in a reciprocal way that actually improves writing?

Here’s the thing: I don’t think ye olde peer editing works. There are certainly hundreds of teachers on Twitter who will tell me that I’m wrong, and it works flawlessly for them, and here is their 60-step process for getting it right. I’m just here to tell you that it has never, ever worked for me. I have some theories about why:

  • Peer editing asks student writers to do too much.

Even when I give kids checklist of things to look for, it seems to be more than most of my writers can manage well. This makes sense to me — assessing a student’s paper is challenging for me! Trying to decide where that paper fits on a rubric is agonizing. That’s why it takes me so darn long to assess a whole class set!

At best, our students are apprentice writers. Asking them to read a peer’s paper and give them meaningful feedback on the ideas, the structure, the organization, the grammar, the conventions — that is too tall a task. I’m not surprised we get lackluster results.

  • When we ask students to peer edit, we usually ask them to focus on the least interesting part of writing.

We know that our writers need to be invested and engaged in order to write successfully. Thus, it seems reasonable that peer editors also need to be invested and engaged in order to successfully provide meaningful feedback. And grades are not engagement.

Because ideas are hard and nuanced and organization and structure can be tricky, we often consign the worst job — true copy editing — to peer-to-peer feedback time. I’ve met few students who were up to the task of deeply helping another student with their grammar and conventions. In most cases, the peer editor might catch a few errors. In many cases, the peer editor creates new errors.

I don’t think we should ask students to fix one another’s grammar.

  • We institute peer editing because we think we’re supposed to.

Friends, if this is you, I hereby free you of this false obligation today. Peer editing is not a requisite part of the writing process — feedback is. (“Peer Editing” isn’t even written on those linear, start-to-finish writing process charts, y’all!)

You are not a bad teacher if you don’t spend a day peer editing. You are not a bad teacher if you decide that, in the words of Amy Poehler, that’s “good for you. Not for me.” You can make sure your kids get oodles of feedback in other ways.

So what should we do? How can we position students to help one another so that better, deeper pieces of writing are created? Here are two ideas:

  • Center most of your peer-to-peer on ideas.

If we don’t really want them to touch the nitty-gritty of grammar and conventions, what should they be talking about? Kids are good at talking about IDEAS! Instead of asking students to find mistakes in their buddy’s paper, ask them to mark:

  • Lines / ideas you wish YOU had written yourself
  • Sentences that don’t make sense to you (DON’T worry about fixing them — just mark them!)
  • Places where you want to know more
  • Places where you have ideas for how the writer can expand (write them in the margin!)
  • Places where you start to drift off and daydream
  • Use peer-to-peer talk in the beginning of the writing process, not at the end.

In my peer editing experience, it typically happened at the very end right before we turned in a paper. That’s too late.

Student writers have the most impact earlier in the process. In the middle, use that Author’s Chair from last week’s post to give feedback on work in-process. But at the beginning, use Liz Prather’s fantastic writing pitches from Project-Based Writing. (This whole book is amazing and just NEXT LEVEL. Writing pitches are one small part of her bigger system of writing instruction!)

Here’s the gist: after students have spent some time doing idea generation and development, they write and deliver a pitch to their peers. It includes:

  • Here’s what I want to write about.
  • Here’s where my idea came from.
  • Here’s why this is important or meaningful to me.
  • Here’s my plan for getting it done

Students present this to the class, take questions (and suggestions!), and have to get approval from the class before diving in!

I’ve used this strategy with seventh graders to twelfth graders, and let me tell you — it works! The positive peer pressure of having to share ideas early spurs them on to meaningful brainstorming and idea development. Moreover, the questions and suggestions friends make during the actual pitch feed the writer’s idea from the get-go; they leave the pitch with even more than they came with, which is an amazing way to begin the writing process. You can implement this on a small scale or a big scale:

  • Small-Scale Pitches

During Notebook Time, ask students to imagine they are writers in a newsroom. Every writer is pitching an idea based on this Notebook Time, and you want YOUR idea to get chosen because you want the byline. Pitch your idea to the editor (me) for how you would use this tiny notebook time to grow a big, polished piece of writing. Students naturally start playing off of one another — stealing good ideas and expanding them, twisting them, and making them better in order to “win” the game.

This is GREAT practice for bigger pitches down the road, and also just really fun. Students BEG me to “play newsroom”.

  • Medium-Scale Pitches

Have students pitch their writing ideas to a small group of friends or to their table-group. They get feedback and approval for their ideas without the hubbub of pitching to the class.

  • Pitch It to the Class

Have students pitch to the whole group! This can happen informally or you can move it

screen shot 2019-01-16 at 5.55.14 pm
The template my students will be using for Genius Hour pitches later this month! 

along more quickly by having students fill in a pitch template (right). I put all of these together in a single slideshow that rolls merrily along every few minutes! (I stole this idea and the basics of the slide from this amazing post by Making Good Humans.)

 

There are many ways for students to give one another writing input without the ineffectual torture of peer editing! What other ways do YOU get students to talk to one another about writing in your workshop? Share below!

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