An Old Russian Custom…Or…Stopping for a Moment Before the Journey Begins: Responding to Student Writing

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At the end of the recent faculty writing retreat, when asked to share a choice that we had made over the past two days about our fall courses, several people spoke about awe in the classroom, a concept introduced the first day by one of our colleagues in response to a prompt about the role of reading and writing in our own lives. One faculty member, in wanting to establish an environment in which his first-year students could make note of and reflect on their awe at being in such a community engaged in learning, said that to open his course, he would tell a traditional story about Russian emigrants: Just before they set off on the long journey across continents and oceans to whatever new life awaited them, they would gather as a group and sit down upon their bags, look around them in silent awe and reflection. How important this is to stop and make note of the moment, at what has come before, at what it means to be in this moment—it is a lovely story that I, too, plan to tell my students on Tuesday the 12th when I meet them, and we’ll do our own version of sitting on our bags taking in the wonderment of this moment when we are about to begin our journey together.

Then we’ll write.

And we’ll thus have walked though the door of the semester, committed ourselves to this community of learners, of reciprocal apprenticeships (Levy), a moment indeed fraught with awe, a feeling that mixes wonder and fear. When we study together and write together, we open ourselves up to one another; putting our writing out there can leave us feeling exposed and vulnerable (particularly an eighteen-year-old entering college and quite sure that he or she was somehow mistakenly admitted in the first place and will be so woefully behind everyone else in the room) –ah, the delicate moment when there is the potential for response or evaluation from those around us.

After we write for ten minutes or so about this feeling of awe, we will talk about the gremlin sitting on our shoulders laughing derisively at us as we write for an audience, sneering at the very thought of us presuming to be a writer, at having something to say and being able to say it elegantly. We talk about ways to shut that gremlin down, how we can develop ways to write hot and read cold—to balance within ourselves the artist and the critic. We’ll talk about the evaluation process in the course, how they will see no grades until the end of the semester but they will receive a good deal of feedback from themselves, from one another, from me and perhaps even from people beyond our classroom.

Responding to Student Writing
We use three and sometimes four concentric circles of responses to our writing—the writer reading her own work, the writer’s peers reading her work, the teacher reading her work (and as much as I would like to place myself squarely within the circle of learners in all senses of that notion, whether I like it or not, I will always wield power in the classroom due to my position of experience, of expertise, of responsibility for grades and mentoring and crafting the parameters of the course—it is how I invite the students to use that power to their own learning advantage that makes the difference), and the outside world reading her work. We talk about these audiences as we work through a writing project, reflecting as we go on, deciding when we need eyes other than our own to reflect back to us what seems to be written on our pages.

Feedback Circle One: Responding to One’s Own Writing
First off, I think it is crucial to keep the reins firmly in the hands of the writer. We each need to take responsibility for own learning, our own writing. And so we develop an ongoing reflective practice as we write—sometimes we write letters to ourselves and/or to our writing about our own sense of how our ideas are moving from fuzzy shapes to clear articulations; sometimes we write in another genre about what we are working out; for example, I often talk about writing a poem version of an essay, or about writing a poem to our essay. Sometimes we tell someone else in a conference about our piece of writing, the other person asking questions and acting as scribe without offering opinions. Sometimes we record ourselves reflecting aloud on the process, the content, the writing—I am very much a believer in using many ways of expressing and thinking—using our entire creative & critical selves. Sometimes we dance our writing (yes, we do) or color it by using a range of tones—from cool tones where the writing and the ideas are quiet to hot ones where the argument might get heated, the imagery intense, the passion of the writer clear. These are all ways for the writer to respond to her own work and thus to deepen her own understanding of the tender shoots of ideas that need sun and water and tending, sometimes pruning or training, if they are to flower.

Even when we are adding other circles of response to this first one, we are still engaged in our own ongoing review of the work—(we are careful not to judge ourselves as writers in the process—keeping that gremlin at bay). I share my own horrendous early drafting of stories and papers. I show them blog posts that I keep in draft mode because they aren’t ready for the light of day—the ideas aren’t developing, the writing lies flat and uninspired, something just doesn’t feel quite right about it.

Feedback Circle Two: Peers Responding
If from the first day of a course, the community itself has been valued and nurtured through a series of exercises and downright open consideration of what an effective learning community looks like and feels like to us (I’ve written a bit about this topic before, but will perhaps return to it this week as it is foremost on my own mind as I get ready to step back into the classroom), then moving our writing out into the group, no matter how early on in the process, can be of real benefit. We can hear back what our writing means to readers who have only our words as they read and not all of what we meant to write down or that remains snagged on some corner in our mind.

In large classes, we set up feedback loops, groups of five students (I like to rotate these groups every three weeks or so to keep the feedback unexpectedly fresh) per group, who through the blog (RSS feeds and/or blog clusters moving off the Motherblog) have access to everything their peers choose to post. We post anything we want a response to, keeping off-blog that which is either private or not yet ready for the eyes of the world. Then the writer indicates what kind of feedback she is ready for and hopes to receive; she ends her post with her own sense of where she is in the process and what kind of feedback she seeks. Her readers first off read back to her what they think the piece is about. They let her know what they have learned through reading the piece and when it moved them, when it confused them, when it left them wanting more. Students write to one another via blog comments and/or email. They get together one-one-one and all five together during quasi-weekly feedback workshops to talk as a group—face to face discussion is essential during the process because body language and ideas generated through the give-and-take of conversation can provide feedback not picked up in written comments. Responders ask lots of questions, summarize; sometimes they color the piece with markers—red for when it really grabbed them by the jugular or showed the potential to do so. We talk about taking the work seriously but not ourselves—we are responding for the good of the writing and the writer, not because we want to sound smart or glib or talented. We talk a whole lot about honesty and respect. We don’t ever say, “You should do this…”

From time to time, when I see blogged responses that either really seem to do very little for the writer: “Hey, good job—I liked it a lot. Keep everything just as you have it” kinds of responses, I will show this kind of response in class, and we’ll talk about ways to work towards better responding. We talk about how responding well to other people’s writing will serve our own writing, how reading well and writing well are inextricably intertwined skills. We learn how to read as writers and to write as readers. We talk a lot about intended audience and the expectations of different kinds of audiences and how that can affect our choices in terms of content and expression. We look at a range of publications; we pretend near the end of the process to be editors at an appropriate periodical trying to help a writer prepare a manuscript for publication. We talk about what’s essential; we talk about voice. We talk a lot.

Feedback Circle Three: The Teacher Responding
We talk about my role in the feedback circle. I avoid full, teacherly responses for as long as possible, because no matter what we say, as soon as we move in to put in our two cents, the writer forgets to listen to herself or her peers. We become the only audience that matters; we hold the grading pen; we are the experts, the authorities; that’s what we’re paid for. Early in my courses, students crave this kind of feedback from me; they want to hand things in the way they always have and get from me what they need to do to make it an “A” level paper if it isn’t already. I of course resist that role because it jeopardizes what we are really after here—growing learners who see themselves as the experts on their own writing, and as reciprocal apprentices within the learning community. And yet I DO have things to say because I have spent many years reading student writing, my writing, published writing, It is what I do. And of course I am opinionated, too!

I do not write responses to student writing until the project is very near completion—then I choose just a couple of what I see to be the issues most ripe for tackling and write about those. I also write about what works for me—where in the piece I find myself thinking, engaged, enlightened. I write questions.

I meet with my students one-on-one in short (15-minute) conferences during which they are invited to bring something they feel is ready for my feedback. They must prepare for said conference by being ready to talk about their own response to the writing and about that of their peers. Often I find that they already know what works and doesn’t—they may need encouragement and a little help in the HOW—how to pare away the boxcars of overused phrases; how to integrate a particular quotation into their argument; how to find the ending. I never bleed a pen through their essays, copyediting, trying to cover every mistake, every clumsy use of language. Instead I’ll teach a little impromptu lesson in dangling modifiers, say, if the writing is hampered by them and have the writer search for more of them in her draft.

I do not need to read everything they write. I do not need to comment on everything I read. That is not a good use of my teaching time—pointed, timely feedback is crucial for them and reasonable for me.

The Fourth Circle: Readers from the World
I often try to enlist outside readers to take a peek into my classrooms and leave feedback for my students. I also encourage my students to get outside readers—the kind of reader they are thinking of when they write the piece.

EVALUATION

I do not grade individual essays, poems or stories.

I find that grading individual pieces detracts from the development of the writers—their early-in-the-semester pieces SHOULD be disasters, yes? If they are ambitious enough and stretching, challenging themselves to the core of their being, they will encounter numerous glorious failures along the way. And that’s as it should be. We talk about the writer’s rule that for every ten pages you keep, you throw away a hundred. That’s what good and messy creative thinking is all about. Often we have to write for a long time to get to our real subject. School is, of course, an unnatural environment. The writing assignments are not often useful in the world—they are exercises. Students write notes to themselves after each writing project about what they learned—the successes and the failures, and what they know they want to work on in the next paper in order to continue their development.

I write the students a short letter at the end of each unit (they collect their work in mini-portfolios—this way they take long hard looks at their learning journey periodically during the semester rather than just at the end) in response to the letter they write to themselves and to me about the work contained in that unit and in response to the goals they set for themselves in the upcoming writing assignments. My letter is based on notes I have taken during our conferences, what I notice about the evolution of their writing, helping them take a step back and see how their writing is working and how it is not.

At the end of the semester, they hand in one last portfolio which pulls in all the work (we do not have time in our semester for another series of revisions—I would rather have them treat each new writing assignment as essentially a revision of the one before and so we rarely do three drafts per essay even though we talk about how when we write outside of classrooms, we write many many drafts) and one last hyperlinked reflection on the entire semester. Even these are read by themselves and their peers –even these have the potential to move and teach those in reciprocal apprenticeship with them. For example, Zamir’s final reflection helped Leah to write hers; Katie’s moved several members of the class by its inventiveness and beauty as well as its spot-on self-understanding.

And grading? I do it at the last possible moment. At the end. Holistically. This way grades reflect where they get to, not where they were when they had no experience at the beginning of the semester.

A couple of helpful sites on responding to and evaluating writing–

U Washington’s “Responding to Student Writing”
An article from University of Michigan’s Sweetland Center –with a helpful bibliography

Michael Kischner “Should Teachers Comment on Drafts of Student Essays?” also with a helpful bibliography

Indiana’s “Articles on Evaluating Student Writing”

WAC Clearinghouse Bibliography

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