Responding to & Evaluating Student Writing

Tomorrow, I head to Middlebury’s annual Faculty Writing Retreat where I’ll be leading a discussion on how we respond to student writing across the curriculum including evaluating the work. This is one of the trickiest and one of the most important topics to consider as we head back into our classrooms this fall. I will follow this post with one outlining how and when I respond to writing in my classes, and how I evaluate writing, but for now, I want to raise questions and see how the group responds.


When do we teachers respond to our students’ writing and when do we step back and resist giving feedback?

When are we not the best responders to student writing?

At what point in the process can our comments best aid the writer?

What kinds of comments help the writer develop skill and confidence? Do we address content over organization and style? How do we address mechanical errors? How do we find a balance between giving too little and too much feedback?

Do we have our students work through a drafting-revising process, with checkpoints along the way?
If we incorporate a drafting process, do we look at everything?

Do we expect students to turn in a rough draft? If so, are we the best responders to the draft or would it benefit the writer to work with peers or a tutor at this point?
(Some teachers do not read the papers until they are “finished”; others read and respond in depth to the rough draft but not to the final draft, which they read quickly to see how well the student executed the corrections/suggestions.)

If we do not respond, who does? How? Why? When?

Do we have students respond to one another’s work? When? Why? Do we provide them with rubrics? Questions to answer about the writing? Do we have the learning community itself establish rules of responding–the etiquette, the substance of the response? Do we let the writer lead the feedback sessions by asking the questions of the reader?

Do we have peer writing tutors assigned to our classes? How and when do they interact with the writing and the writers?

Do we have the writers themselves read their own work as readers, making comments about strengths and weaknesses during the process and at the end?


Do we use rubrics? If so, do we create them or do we have the class design them?

Do we show them examples of what we consider to be exemplary, satisfactory and deficient writing?

Do we have students self-evaluate their writing? With grades? Through an ongoing reflective process, conferences with us and class tutors, written self-assessments at the end of a writing project?

Do we give a content grade and a writing grade?

Do we grade the writing at all? If we do not grade written work, how do we factor this work into the course grade?

Do we use portfolios? eportfolios? In all courses with a strong writing component? Do we let students decide on the contents? How often do students hand in pieces of a portfolio? Do we respond to and evaluate each piece or to the whole? Do the portfolios have a narrative reflective component?

Links to helpful sites, including examples from Middlebury courses:

Middlebury’s Teaching Resources: Grading

From Harvard’s Bok Center: Grading Rubric

Amherst’s List of Words Faculty Say They Never Want to See Again

Dartmouth’s Detailed Website: Responding to Student Text, including Using Peer Groups and Model Responses (Dartmouth’s entire Writing Program Site is filled with terrific resources for faculty and students
U of Texas’s Site on Evaluating Student Writing
St. Olaf’s Web Portfolios
Kalamazoo College’s Portfolio SIte


The Tightrope of Blogging: A Week’s Adventure into the Public Nature of Social Software

Colin Brooke’s post today (his is one of my favorite academic blogs, btw) entitled, “Inching, Inching” is a wonderful reminder of the tightrope we walk as we blog (at least those of us inclined towards the long post, the discursive meanderings that are richly linked) between letting out the first inklings of ideas that have started to itch, and the need to write carefully considered, well-supported texts we can hang our EXPERT hat on. He opens his post with:

“It’s easy to come off, and to want to come off, as someone who’s already figured it all out–it’s a particularly academic attitude that’s all but hammered into us, that to “not know” is a sign of weakness. The unfortunately ironic part of it all is that not knowing is always an opportunity, for me at least, and yet I feel like I get caught up in papering over those times where I don’t know.”

It’s something we all blog about from time to time–something Chris Sessums considered a while back when he felt under some pressure NOT to blog or at least to rationalize the time he was spending blogging. I’ve written frequently about related tensions–here, for example in a post on the pull between time on- and offline.

All of these posts touch upon the individual as creator versus the group as creator along the lines of collective intelligence. Confused in Calcutta has a great post this week, called “Musing about Collaboration” in which he sketches a research project he wants to do about the nature of selection within collaborating groups. One line that really stands out is this:

What has entranced me since then is the magic of collaboration, the sheer unadulterated joy of co-creation.

How often do professionals say such things?! (It reminds me of Lanny taking me to task a couple of posts ago for using the term “authentic engagement” and not “falling in love”–it’s another side of the same issue of holding back what we know , this time by cloaking it in jargon vs. sharing it clearly, simply in hopes it will grow beyond us.)

Several moments this week during my whirlwind travels back out to California and back for the Center for Digital Storytelling’s three-day retreat pushed me up against the tensions between choosing to post, choosing to blog, choosing to read blogs at all due to concerns about boundaries of ownership and privacy. First off, it is still quite remarkable to me how many people I met in many venues really don’t get the potential of blogging and blogs even when they say they know a lot about blogs. Even people who spend a heck of a lot of time on the Internet reading blogs.
–I met with a lot of “Oh, right, you’re a blogger…I see…” during my travels as though that just about summed me up–they got the picture, no more info necessary. I also met with some hostility from people using fairly sophisticated digital tools when I talked about Web 2.0 possibilities–about putting stories and ideas out there for everyone to see, to respond to, to connect to, and to potentially build off of–well, there’s certainly the tricky arena of intellectual property–those who love and The Creative Commons, for example, and those who really really do not. It’s a vexing, thorny (but fascinating) issue that gets people rather heated.
–I heard a couple of horror stories about meetings being blogged (without anyone in the meeting knowing) the content of said kinds of meetings in the past having stayed safely within the group, or moving mouth to mouth rather than as they did in the stories, blog to blog to newspaper to television and ending up causing harm. As Henry Jenkins notes in the Introduction to his new book, through some astonishing anecdotes and simply-stated realities: Convergence Culture, Where Old and New Media Collide :

“When people take media into their own hands, the results can be wonderfully creative; they can also be bad news for all involved. ” (p. 17)

–I heard blogging being called navel-gazing by definition, soft, inconsequential–and I’m sure that’s true in a lot of cases. But what I find interesting about these criticisms is how they are evaluative according to some sort of scale that doesn’t suit this form. Blogs are being judged as though they are supposed to be printed media–finished, the end, the last word on a subject by an expert. But for me as a teacher, the absolute beauty of blogging is that it’s not that at all–it’s about developing thought, about pushing out tendrils to myself and the world in hopes that through collective intelligence and my own writing them down, the thoughts might both increase my own understanding of the subject at hand and even add something to the greater conversation by raising a question, reframing an idea already out there, contextualizing, adding extended commentary and case studies–we are building a wealth of new research and practice on teaching and learning through all of our reflective blogging chronicling our classroom practices; our reading practices; our conversations about these ideas; and our questions, doubts, concerns and fears about the whole messy business. It is about becoming, not about being there. It is about sharing and connecting and trying stuff out; not about knowing it first or best. It is learning in action. And so that’s why I urged a trio of remarkable teachers at the DS Retreat to take up blogging with their students and for themselves. They had great stories about how they are trying to change the educational system in their state, kid by classroom by school by schoolboard. But they feel isolated. Blogging could offer them a valuable approach: to help their students with a range of essential literacies while making the learning efficacious; to help themselves articulate and thus understand their own budding thoughts and lived experiences about how to keep passion for learning alive in their classrooms in spite of No Child Left Behind; and to connect with a community of other such teachers doing action research and trying to figure out this mess we call our educational system.

–And last night, back in Vermont, I urged our dinner guest who was skeptical about blogs for people in nonprofits wanting to convey ideas, to think of blogging in his world in pretty much the same way I explained to the teachers, instead of as just as another essentially static soapbox or as something potentially harmful because ideas could be co-opted or misconstrued. Don’t stay away, I say, but help us figure out the balancing act between private and public, between mine and ours.

I love the messiness of it–the need to let go of our perfectionist, achievement-oriented structures and mindsets, and play with ideas with other people who come to the work from myriad perspectives. It’s a bit like the Digital Storytelling Retreat, where the richness of the into-the-wee-hours talk with clutches of the fifty incredible people, who all worked with digital storytelling as an agent of change in schools and communities of all kinds, lay in the sheer smorgasabord of responses to the how, what, why, and the future of the work.

Indeed, here are a couple of the wonderful characters I had the pleasure of hanging out with and learning from–
bryan and helen.jpg Bryan Alexander and Helen Barrett.
(We were three of the few bloggers in the group, though I think we’ve made a few converts between us…)

For me, the lessons of the retreat will grow as I pull into posts from time to time some of the things I gleaned from my cohorts, weaving them into other thoughts I’m hatching, and then I’ll probably move some of the ideas worked on here into articles or presentations off-blog as well as on. But here, I feel absolutely free to post half-baked ideas I might even revise as soon as tomorrow once I hear how others respond–and there are many times when I have changed my mind about something I posted. And that’s fantastic. That’s what being passionate about ideas and learning is all about–and it’s okay if I get it wrong. We have to be okay about making mistakes in public, just as we have to struggle to articulate here as clearly and powerfully as we can our tender first stirrings of ideas or our considered responses to the ideas of others so as to use our and others’ time well.

It’s a tightrope I’m delighted to be on …

Books, Books, Books

Thanks to Chris Sessums (and I do thank you, Chris), I find myself returning again and again to my favorite books when really I should be paying attention to all manner of things piling up on my desk. This book meme is really impossible to adhere to in the strictest sense of offering one book per category– which Chris has nicely worked around with his friendly narrative style, moving from book to book, telling us his story while giving us titles to peruse. There’s the problem, too, of sticking to a list– I keep changing my mind. But the wonderful thing is that as with any decent associative exercise, thought of one book leads to thoughts of another, and then memories spill out from around the book, and before I know it, I am reliving the time when I first read the book, and plunge back into books I haven’t thought about for years. Suddenly I am ten, in the field in Maine, a book in hand, sun on my face, and no brothers in sight.
What fun.

But back to the meme.

1. A Book That Changed Your Life

Well, every book I read changes me in some way: characters move in with me and shake things up; ideas push me out of complacency; a writer’s magic with language can take my breath away . But books that have profoundly shifted something in me? When I was nine it was C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe–I thought, wow, you can be a writer and people will pay you to do this? What a marvelous way to spend a life. When I was eleven, it was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird–I thought, wow, you can be a writer and make people feel like that? Almost every year there was a book that changed everything for me. From reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles at age 12 to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude at age 18, my early years were marked by great books. And then in college there were Emerson’s Essays and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man & Ulysses (huge influences!) , and Virginia Woolf’s To A Lighthouse and Richard Wright’s Native Son.… the usual suspects… And then there was Shakespeare.
More recently bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress taught me about “teaching as the practice of freedom”; Pierre Levy’s Collective Intelligence opened me up to a positive wonderland of possibilities with online communities; and Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking really just blew me away about loving and dying at a time when I lost a dear friend. There are many more…

2. A Book that You’ve Read More than Once

Well, in addition to those books listed above, and restricting myself to contemporary books, I ‘d have to include Seamus Heaney’s Opened Ground: Collected Poems, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Stories, Alice Munroe’s The Beggar Maid and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. These books will all stand up to as many readings as you care to give them. I’ll stop there…

3. A Book You’d Take Onto A Desert Island
My Riverside Shakespeare is first off the tip of my tongue, but if I think about contemporary books, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy comes to mind. What a fabulously riveting, heart-breaking, wild tale of families in India and Pakistan during partition, and it’s three huge volumes!

4. A Book that Made You Laugh

Gerald Durrell’s My family and Other Animals –because it made me understand that other families were are crazy as mine and that a sense of humor saves many the day!
Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy— Hilarious romp through North Dublin life–

5. A Book that Made You Cry

Almost every nineteenth-century novel made me cry (think Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina or DavidCopperfield or Chris’s Wuthering Heights) but contemporary books? Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking She writes as James Baldwin exhorts us to do, stripped of all our disguises, as clean as a bone. Yehuda Amichai’s Selected Poetry and A. B. Yehoshua’s The Liberated Bride, too, for their unadorned truth within poems and novels–I was brought to the complex textures of life in the Middle East.

6. A Book You Wish Had Been Written
I like Chris’s desire to read Sappho’s autobiography: I’d also like to read Shakespeare’s autobiography, to clear up once and for all his story, and I’d like to sink into another volume of John Keats’ poems.

7. A Book You Wish Had Never Been Written
Ah, Chris is a much nicer person than I–Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged makes me angrier than any book I know, that and Anne Morrow Linburgh’s Gift from the Sea. There I said it. I’m not sure I wish they hadn’t been written, but I sure wish they hadn’t sold so many copies and been loved by so many….

8. A Book You Are Currently Reading
I admit, I have a stack and I’m reading several at once: Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near to try to understand the nightmare of our involvement in Iraq; Janet Abrams & Peter Hall ‘s Else/where Mapping New Cartographies of Networks and Territories to keep thinking about the ways in which the Web can be used well in my classroom; A. B. Yehshua’s luminous Five Seasons to feed my fiction fix; and Eavan Boland’s collection of poems, Against Love Poetry because no week should go by without the taste of an Irish poem.

9. A Book You Have Been Meaning to Read
This one makes my fingers itch to leave this computer and reach for pages: bell hooks’ Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope is one of the books that arrived in the mail today, and for some reason, it slipped by me when it first came out. I will read it soon. Perhaps on the plane to California on Thursday–or waiting in long lines for said plane… My husband is reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and it’s all I can do not to take it from his hands–yes, I’m greedy… I’ve also been meaning to read the Harry Potter books (I must be the only person on the planet who has yet to read them–but with so many books calling to me, I wonder if I’ll ever get to them…) and Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.

10. Now Tag Five People You Want To Hear From

1. Barbara Sawhill
2. Bryan Alexander
3. Lanny Arvan
4. Mary Ellen Bertolini
5. Ewan McIntosh

It’s tough to leave this post when there are so many books to consider– Argh–tomorrow I would probably write a completely different list. My students would be amused, I’m sure. So, I’m learning that this is an excellent exercise, not just for memory and affection’s sake, but as a way to remind myself that blogging can really be in the moment, ofthe moment. Tomorrow, I can take it all back….heheheheh….. And see if the five I’ve tagged get equally sidetracked….

Moving Student Blogging Beyond the Classroom: Another Look

emptyhammock.jpg lastfieldgrass.jpg rainyroad.jpg

This past week I’ve talked about social software in learning communities with a range of people ranging from teacher educators to doctoral students researching student technology use to state college system tech gurus to community organizers. Unlike George Siemens who wearies of the same old conversation in spite of understanding why it must be so, I quite enjoy both conversations, and find them equally important–the long-view-changing-educational-spaces talk he embraces, and the local-work-where-people-are-at-with-these-tools-to help-them-along talk of others. Both are crucial, and not everyone need do both. The buzz in the air about new ways of thinking about learning spaces, learning ecologies, seems to be driving the local talk around me, not the other way around. The irony is, of course, that just as some are trying to shut down equal and open access to the Internet and web technologies (i.e. DOPA and the Blackboard patents), teachers and community organizers are getting curious about Web 2.0 technologies, about ways to use them effectively to effect change. They want to change things, and they’ll use whatever tool will help them do just that. There’s a new fire out there, a calming of the fear of tools, an eagerness to try things out.

And I’m glad to say that among the many questions and concerns raised repeatedly in these conversations has been the crucial one of authentic engagement. How do we get our communities, be they students, teachers or activists, to use blogging and other technologies in ways that actually have meaning for that community and each indivudal participating? How do we keep the conversation going but not forced?

The answer is pretty straightforward and oft-repeated–before you blog, for example, you have to ask yourself and your group, why blog at all? How would connecting via blogs serve the community; how do you want the community to function? You also have to spend time forming the community, pulling each person in as an apprentice and as an expert (yes, I post about Levy A LOT ), thinking about how the community itself is an agent of learning. If your community-forming work is done well and is central to the work you are doing, then getting blogging going and keeping it moving and effective will happen pretty naturally in most cases. Of course there are always potential impediments, most notably equal access to the Internet and comfort using computers and fluency with writing with text and/or images and/or audio. You have to think quite creatively to get around some of those hurdles. And then when you do, you have to think deeply about your community of practice.

I spend a full three weeks at the opening of the semester talking about our community and about how we use various modes of expression to deepen the learning and to communicate it. We play around with the various tools and modes of expression; we play around with our community. Some faculty, in particular, might think I am squandering precious time that could be devoted to the subject matter. Hardly. A dynamic, strong community at work creates all kinds of opportunities to extend, deepen and accelerate our learning. Examining community processes and ways of reflecting and connecting and communicating provides students with a powerful sense of ownership over their own learning and a clear sense of their own goals and processes.

For me, one of the most important tests of the effectiveness of this work is to hear from students semesters and years later about the impact of this classroom experience. I’ve written about this before, here and here most recently. Today my thoughts turn to my students because it is clear that they are inching their thoughts out of summer and back to school–my email box has been hopping with messages from current students and grads. Some of them are giving me tips on software they’ve come across or links to article they wonder if I’ve seen; others have sent me links to their blogs for their study abroad year; several have asked me how they might get some of their writing published. This all points to the fact that this online work resonates with them; in some way or other, every contact has something to do with the blogging and/or digital storytelling we did in class. All of it has to do with the lasting connection they feel to the community we nurtured through the semester. In the pre-blog days, I’d receive a smattering of emails from students, but not this many, not about these kinds of things.

One student may just be moving his multi-media blogging skills into a job next year; a couple have left me wonderful comments on my blog–imagine college students spending precious summer time on their professor’s blog! Her entire comment is well worth a read, but for those not inclined to link-hop, here’s the final paragraph:

So asides from educating K-12 we need to think about our own college community, and how higher education programs need to be altered, re-designed and re-assigned to get the entire acadamia ready for this fast approaching technological, creative and intellectual change..

And we think that college students aren’t paying attention…Another student has started a new blog, her first post warmin’ the cockles of me heart, from which I’ve pulled this excerpt:

I think the reason I called this blog “On Second Tier” is because I find it very difficult to find an outlet in this stage of my life to release some of the thoughtful, idealistic, grandiose thoughts I have running through my head that end up shriveling up from sheer thirst of expression. Things like how blogging can really change the dynamic of education in that edublogging has established itself in an atmosphere in which young adult students are naturally comfortable in. It is about pushing the boundaries of which Internet has originally been set in and having young adults motivate themselves to bring that more introspective side to their usually gossipy, flashy, thrill-centered focus when on the Internet.

(I’ll add a link to the blog once I have been given permission–I like to do that with the new bloggers.) Her post reminds me of the opening post my daughter wrote about why she’s taking up blogging on her own. These twenty-year-olds are finding an important means of communication and expression through thoughtful blogging, and they are articulating quite magnificently much of what we are hoping they take from this experience.

To gauge the lasting impact of this new learning landscape, it is essential, then, to think about how students are using technology outside the classroom both while we’re teaching them and after they leave our classes. It is important to touch bases from time to time as they leave class, noting when and how and why they find the classroom practices feathering out, being integrated into their real lives. If that happens, we’ll know the classroom experience had relevance for them, we’ll know that something touched them and helped them along their way. We’ll know they are thinking deeply about positive change and their roles within the world. That’s enough to keep me coming back every day to talk with all kinds of people about why this work has real, lasting value.

Creativity and Community in a Web 2.0 Classroom–Not As Easy As It Sounds?

This has been a busy week back from BlogHer –the many meetings, phone conferences, workshops filling my days have revolved around incorporating Web 2.0 tools effectively into different sorts of learning contexts, a conversation I’ve been having for the past five years, but more urgently now. And it has been an unsettling, disturbing week with the tragedies of our policies in the Middle East bearing their explosive fruit, and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth reminding me of our horrendous domestic policies, too, making the calm of this Vermont summer surreal in its beauty and saneness.

And so in the spirit of James Martin, whose work inspires me to remain optimistic that we still have time to save this beleagured planet, and alongside so many committed colleagues online and off, I throw myself into trying to push ahead educational reforms classroom by teacher by conversation by blogpost by workshop. During this one week of conversations alone I have been asked again and again and again to talk about what brought me to blogging in the first place and how it is I know that blogging has directly affected my students’ learning experience. Especially now that social software is under threat, people want to hear about my journey to blogs, about how I was looking for a way to bring the world to my students and my students to the world through links to conversations beyond those in the classroom, and how I was desperately searching for ways to enliven the classroom dynamic and student written expression–to add authenticity and context to classes focussed primarily on something very few of my students had any real interest in–formal writing. Over the years I had noted an increasing rigidness in my students’ engagement with their learning–it seemed to me that they sought easy-to-follow rubrics, clearly defined processes that would help them arrive at the “correct” answer , the “well-written essay,” the high grade as painlessly as possible. I turned to blogging in part because I suspected it might help me shake things up. I had noticed that these same students were engaging in some really pretty creative work outside of class–online–making movies, chattering away on IM, writing ‘zines, playing around with music clips and multimedia expression, just for fun and as a way to communicate to the world. I was also alarmed by how in class students stayed almost indifferent to one another as members of a group experience unless I the teacher asked them to engage with one another-class discussion, even when lively and heated, seemed just another hoop to jump through with little resemblance or relevance to the discussions they had outside of class. School was just something you did on the way to real life. Sometimes students didn’t even know each other’s names even though they sat next to each twice a week for twelve weeks. When I asked them why, they’d shrug. It seemed like too much trouble to get to know people’s names just for a class. Something was going very wrong even though they were learning to write academic prose quite competently.

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