Apr. 27, 2011
And so little time.
How often we run into this time crunch in the world of writing and the teaching of writing. We don’t have the students write because there’s not enough time to get the laptops out, or there is too much required work to get done. And how often we don’t post a comment, or, gulp, a blog post, because, well, we’re too busy. But I say just do it. Make time for writing. Get kids writing often. And get them in digital spaces so they can read and comment on each other’s work. Regularly. Engagement, improvement in writing and community building will result.
Tonight we had the final meeting of the North Section of YWP’s master class in digital writing. Teachers shared their most successful experiences of the year and the discussion quickly gravitated to a fundamental observation: Peer commenting on their YWP digital classrooms had an enormous impact on the students — and the teachers.
One teacher polled the students about what they liked about the site, about writing in a digital space where they got regular comments from their classmates. “The thing that meant most to them,” the teacher said, “was getting peer comments. They really didn’t want my comments — they get those all the time. They wanted their classmates’ point of view on what they were doing.”
Another teacher talked about how she got the students to rate each other’s work on individual projects. She was stunned not only by how accurate the responses were but also how direct — they were not afraid to, politely, tell each other what they thought the other had done well and what they thought had not been done well. As the teacher was telling about this experience, another teacher said she now regularly has her students rate each other’s work — privately to her — and she then gives each student her grade and the average grade the classmates gave each student. Often, she said, the students were stunned by the grade given them by their mates. This was not possible, she added, when the students were merely writing for an audience of one and the rest of the class didn’t see each other’s work.
A sixth grade teacher had his class set up their rubrics for commenting. They jumped at the opportunity, led the discussion and established the guidelines for the commenting and even created samples for the rubric. The teacher said he had seen results: “I’m amazed at the incredible growth” of the commenting. He offered several examples, including this one:
- Good job on the work; it was amazing. I never thought that you could go to so many places in just in one trip. I have on question for you: How many days/weeks was the trip? Also why didn’t you bring me anything? Just kidding. But how come going to the animal shelter was your favorite part of the trip and also going to your uncle’s was you favorite part of the trip? I am just confused. I loved it when you said “Your heart was beating loud and how maybe everyone could hear it.” That was my favorite part. I think your writing was great, but there were a few parts that were iffy. I hope you find this comment helpful.
What I find interesting about the teacher’s example is the tone: The care, the civility and the specific observations.
A high school teacher said that the digital spaces — and peer commenting — had allowed her to “set aside my red pen” and encourage development of ideas. She also worked with the students in her AP class to establish that “each comment had to be unique to that piece. The comment could not apply to any other piece of writing.” Gone, then, were phrases like “this is a great piece of writing,” or “nice job.” The comments had to provide specific observation. The teacher modeled the commenting but then backed off as the class took over.
One downside: One teacher said that early on it was sometimes “devastating” to a student if he or she didn’t get a comment from a peer. All had developed ways to encourage, require, cajole, trick the kids into making sure everyone received comments and that students did not comment on only friends’ work. Among them: A shared responsibility — if anyone didn’t get a comment on an assignment, everyone’s grade would be reduced. Another told the students that she would not grade any of the work if he saw a piece did not have a comment. And still another teacher got the class to buy into full commenting coverage as a shared responsibility.
In last night’s session there was a consensus among the 15 teachers in class: Their students’ writing had improved as a direct result of regular peer feedback something only possible in a digital space.
Geoffrey Gevalt is founder of Young Writers Project, a small nonprofit in Vermont that works with hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in an effort to improve students’ writing skills and digital literacy. To see the project’s work, visit youngwritersproject.org, digitalteachers.net or ywpschools.net He can be reached at ggevalt (at) youngwritersproject.org or 802-324-9537