Confronting the Inner English Teacher

As a writer I believe in peer review. Of course as a writer, I never actually call it peer review; rather I call it “meeting with my writing group,” or “showing my work to my trusted writing friends.” I can honestly say that I read every word of my first novel out loud to my writing group. I can also attest that the members of my writing group read draft after draft of my novel silently to themselves. And I have done the same for them—I have listened and read every word of their projects. So I can safely say that I believe in the process of peer review, the benefits of having fellow writers to work through the steps of the writing process.

So this is why, as a teacher, I want peer review to work in my class. I want my students to reap the same benefits that I, as a writer, reap from being a part of a writing group. I want my students to see that writing is best done in community, with fellow writers giving support, encouragement, advice, and suggestions along the way. I also want them to gain the benefits of being involved in someone else’s writing process. This all sounds great.

So why doesn’t peer review always work in the writing classroom?

I’ve tried a lot things to make peer review work in my class. For one thing I have avoided calling it peer review. Today we are going to work in our revision groups. I’ve also tried disguising peer review as some kind of fun activity. Today we are going to do speed-revising. I’ve also tried designing very specific, concrete activities. Today in our revision groups we are going to exchange papers. Who is the audience for this paper? Why? Only talk about audience. Don’t talk about anything else. Only audience. I’ve also built it reflection as a part of the peer review process. Okay, look at the comments you received from your colleagues (yes, I never call them peer reviewers) What suggestions will you use for revision and why? Which revisions won’t you use and why?

All these things work to varying degrees of success. Some work better than others depending on the usual range of factors—the students, the unit, the time of the semester, etc.

But there seems to be another problem. The inner English teacher. It seems that our students have hidden deep within them an English teacher wielding a red pen. As soon as I put a paper into their hands and ask them to respond, this inner English teacher emerges to find every error, every typo, to fill the margins with abbreviations like “trans,” “awk” and to write comments at the end that say “Be specific,” “Use more examples,”  “Develop.”

Where does this inner English teacher come from?

To be quite honest, I’m as guilty as my students when it comes to “correcting” typos and errors. I find whenever I’m given a paper at any stage of the drafting process, if I don’t stop myself, I’ll go through the paper circling the its/it’s errors, writing awk in the margin of sentences that are unclear to me, and deleting un-necessary words. I do this because somewhere I have internalized that this is the job of the English teacher—to correct and to fix what is wrong.

But this is also how I’ve been responded to throughout my own education. Yes, I’ve gotten insightful comments that have enabled me to revise. Yes, I’ve gotten great feedback that has encouraged me to keep writing and to develop my ideas further. But if I look back, the one thing that English teachers (and really all teachers regardless of discipline who have responded to a piece of my writing) have done consistently is to correct and fix.

So no wonder this is what our students think they are supposed to do. Since this may be the only consistent way of responding to texts they have received, when put in the role that usually belongs to the “teacher” they may feel this is what they are supposed to do as well.

So what can we do besides banning red pens from peer review sessions? What I’ve tried to do in my classes is to acknowledge the inner English teacher in all of us. As responders of texts, I say, we all have this built in reflex to correct an error when we see it. But for this particular revision workshop we want to focus on developing our ideas. We’ll all get a chance to be English teachers later on in the process.

I also try not to live by the “do as I say not as I do” motto. In other words, I follow my own directions. When I respond to initial drafts I make a very conscious effort not to write on the draft. This keeps me from circling errors, typos, sentence fragments, subject/verb disagreements that will be worked out for the final draft. This also helps to focus the students’ attention on my comments about how to develop their ideas; reinforcing to the students that revision is about developing ideas not about correcting and fixing.

But most importantly I try to remember that when I am responding to my students’ work, I am not responding as an English teacher to students. Rather I am responding as a writer to other writers. This helps to keep my own inner English teacher at bay and hopefully this enables me to model how writers help one another work through the steps of the writing process.

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