First Year Writing Teacher Support: Use Your Resources

As a first year teacher, I was so excited to teach writing.

When I sat down to plan my year the summer before it started, I had so many writing units planned.  I wanted my students to write paper after paper, knowing they needed the practice but also hoping they would begin to view writing as the empowering, therapeutic exercise I had come to love.

It didn’t take long for me to cut down on the amount of writing projects I had planned.  After the first writing unit, I found out that teaching writing is hard work.  Students struggled with a lot more than I had anticipated, and I didn’t know where to find the time to give them the feedback I felt they needed.  The only way I felt like I was going to survive that first year was by cutting down on the amount of writing I had my students complete.

As time went on and I continued to educate myself on best practices, I realized my 1-2 writing projects per semester were not going to cut it.  Students needed to write.  Daily.  And they likely weren’t going to do it anywhere else.  So in order to make this happen, I started following the tip I’m going to share with you today.

First Year Writing Tip #5: Use the students in your class as resources.

In an ideal world, we would be able to provide daily feedback to our student writers at every step of the writing process.  But that’s just never going to be possible.  However, our students are in a lucky position; they are sitting in a room full of other writers embarking on the same journey.  Instead of feeling overwhelmed by how many writers I had in my room, I started seeing the situation as an opportunity.  Maybe I couldn’t provide a lot of individual feedback to 60+ writers, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t utilize my students as resources to achieve this goal.

What’s more, students learn about their own writing by being exposed to the work of others.  The other day, for example, a student in my class was reading over a peer’s editorial and questioned why there was a last name in parentheses at the end of a sentence.  This student had been absent during our discussion of parenthetical citations, but he learned what they were and why they’re important through the peer feedback activity.  Students can also learn what they don’t want to do from peer review; I showed an example of an editorial that ended by explaining that the writer did not have a strong opinion on the issue.  The class discussed how the lack of a strong argument made the purpose for writing the editorial unclear, causing some writers to more clearly state their own arguments.

Peer review is not a new concept by any means.  I also did this as a new teacher.  There is a big difference, however, between how I did it as a newbie to how I do it now.  First and foremost, I recognize that students are not experts at giving feedback.  They tend to overly praise or overly criticize a piece of peer writing, depending on whether or not they know the author.  I have learned to spend time training them on how to give feedback that I feel will be useful to other writers.

I like to start by selecting a specific “system” for how I want feedback to be given.  I’ve used several approaches, but my favorite is Sarah Zerwin’s “I heard, I noticed, I wondered” sentence stems.  With this system, students comment on the way they understood a piece of writing (I heard), what stands out to them in the writing (I noticed), and questions they have as readers (I wondered).  

I love using this system because it guides students in providing feedback.  As teachers, responding to writing comes second nature to us; we sometimes forget that students don’t have the experience and expertise in this area that we do.  They can pick out what they like and dislike about a piece of writing, but they often don’t know how to give feedback that will make the writer think about what they are doing and how they can improve.  These sentence stems, however, give students the ability to tell the reader their thoughts without telling them what to do.  The writer is able to read them to understand what the reader is getting from their writing and then make revision moves accordingly. 

I spent a whole class period a few weeks ago training students to use the “I heard, I noticed, I wondered” system.  The previous day, I had asked each student to complete a Google Form that indicated whether or not they were willing to have their editorial shared with the class anonymously for peer review.  I then randomly selected one editorial for each class.  First, we read the whole editorial together without comment.  Then, each group of 3-4 students was handed a set of index cards (one for each of the sentence stems).  

Together, the students talked about what they heard, noticed, and wondered about the example editorial and provided at least one comment on each card.  After students talked in their groups, I led a full class discussion, encouraging students from each group to share the comments their group had chosen.  Together as a class, we decided which pieces of feedback to give the writer.  As we talked, I added the class’s comments onto the document, and the writer was able to access them later in the unit.

The next day in class, students were given another writer’s editorial.  They were instructed only to use the “I heard, I noticed, I wondered” stems to provide writers with feedback.  As students worked, I noticed they had a lot more confidence when giving comments.  The stems and preparation we did the day before gave students a clear direction and cut down on the “I don’t know what to say” comments we have all experienced.  

The next day, however, I was reminded that not only do students need to be trained to give feedback, but they also need to be trained in how to use feedback they are given.  Students are used to a teacher telling them specifically what to do to “fix” their writing.  The “I heard, I noticed, I wondered” stems are not designed to do this; rather, they are meant to show students how the reader understands their writing and encourage the writer to make their own decisions.  After hearing some writers express frustration that their comments didn’t “help them,” I had a conversation with them about how to use each type of comment.

I don’t think any of us will ever find a “perfect” way to have our students provide comments to other writers.  As my experience above shows, it is a messy task with a lot of variables we simply cannot anticipate.  But remember— giving and receiving feedback, like many other difficult skills we teach, require a lot of training, repetition, and patience.  Don’t give up!  Make it your mission not to lose sight of what is gained during the experience, both for the writer and the reviser.  You owe it to yourself and your own sanity to pass the torch.  And you owe it to your students to find a system where they write as frequently as possible.

—Paige

What do you do to prepare your student writers to give and receive feedback?  Tell me about it on Twitter @TimmermanPaige!

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