From the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium — “Supporting Multilingual Student Experience in the Classroom”

In January of this year, the Writing Program held a symposium that explored how issues of diversity intersect with the first-year writing classroom. The symposium began with a talk from Professor Haivan Hoang entitled “Why Diversity Matters in FWY?” Our instructors then participated in a series of roundtables that focused on language, teacher identity, access/technology, discussion strategies, and issues of disabilities. As a way to continue the conversations that we started at the symposium, we will bring to you an overview of each roundtable’s discussion. This week we are featuring the discussion led by Jenny Krichevsky for the roundtable “Supporting Multilingual Student Experience in the Writing Classroom.” Please add your own thoughts and questions.
Roundtable: Supporting Multilingual Student Experience in the Writing Classroom
Leader: Jenny Krichevsky

Overview of Discussion
In order to begin examining the ways we as teachers can support students in our classroom, we can first see that language difference is not a “special issue,” but rather an inherent aspect of teaching language and literacy. We can see language as a way to address the power dynamic of certain relationships to English and value the different ways our students have come to know English as native and non-native speakers. As teachers, we can understand that language acquisition is a long term, complex process and, as a result, we need to set our priorities for the semester. We also want to understand the external factors impacting our students’ linguistic experiences in the academy, and in addition, explore the ways our students are going to be read and listened to — or not — because of their bodies or other identity markers and the values and predispositions of their readers, listeners, evaluators.

This leads us to a larger question: What are our responsibilities as writing teachers with respect to preparing our students to write in the academy?

The roundtable participants identified the following “best practices” as ways to think about how we could structure activities to support all writers in our classes:

• learn students’ language repertoires and goals for the course
• set manageable goals for each student and yourself as an instructor
• encourage students to identify specific strengths
• use supplemental materials (PowerPoint, handouts) that iterate activity instructions and goals
• slow down instruction, and also talk and write at the same time (or use powerpoint)
• assume and give more: more time, more patience, more flexibility
• create threads for individual students; balance with course/group goals
• have whole-class conversations about the kinds of feedback that are useful
• have students drive peer response vs. teacher-led goals

Peer response can be difficult to manage within the classroom. For a range of reasons—students reading and composing times can vary. Below are suggestions developed by this roundtable to facilitate peer response:

  • Planning Peer Response:
    blind review — lead with strengths of essay
    more reflective writing that interacts with feedback — think about both receiving feedback and giving feedback
  • How to account for extra time?
    linking up peer responders online, to give them access before and after class for more time
    audio-record the essay for responders
    break up peer response into section (e.g., introduction)
    early in semester, give students a weekend to do peer response — build in time to read all materials

Repurposing Peer Reviews & Teacher Feedback

Hari Stephen Kumar is a doctoral candidate in Rhet/Comp at the University of Massachusetts. He teaches first-year writing and is on the Resource Center staff.

A student mutters to me one time in class, “Why am I doing peer reviews for others when I could be working on my own draft?”

A different student tells me, in office hours, “Your feedback was encouraging, but I don’t see why you can’t just tell me what’s wrong with my draft. That’s what teachers have always done for me.”

In an end-of-unit reflection, a student scribbles: “Doing reviews was very different from high school peer editing, where we would just kinda fix up things for each other. I hated doing that. I liked that people asked me actual questions this time. It helped me see where they didn’t understand what I was trying to say.”

Comments like these always spin me for a loop. And these are just from students – I’m not including here all the teacherly voices (both my inner doubts and the conversations I’ve had with other teachers) about our struggles with writing our own feedback on student drafts: how much, how much time, when, what (not) to say, etc.

And to a large extent, all these voices are in my head at the start of every semester, especially during that week when first drafts for Unit 1 are due. That’s the week when four different things have to kick into gear. Most pressing on my own agenda is the sheer reality of 15 (or 30) first drafts that I have to read through, and then write cogent feedback about, and then get that back to students in a timely manner as they work on their second drafts. Then there’s peer review, getting students to read each other’s first drafts and provide useful feedback to their peers, feedback that is more meaningful than just a “I liked it” comment. Finally there’s the students’ own reflective writing and revision work: how to motivate them to make that purposeful turn from 1st draft to 2nd draft, beyond just tweaking sentences and fixing up words? How to get them to reflect on other choices to try, larger changes to make, new purposes to pursue?

Then I realized that many of my students often see this very differently. Every semester I’ve had students say things like: “I’ve never done this many drafts for any paper before. I’ve always just written one draft and then corrected it before handing it in.”

Or: “Revision is basically fixing things that the teacher tells you to fix.”

Or, really worrying: “My friends in other 112 classes aren’t doing this much work!”

When I’ve talked with students at length about their previous experiences, what I’ve found is that for most of them teacher feedback was the most important (and often only) source of input during revision. Working on a paper, for many of them, involved just two pieces of “homework”: draft, and then fix. In my class, then, when they see all the other things they’re supposed to do, it’s easy for them to see those tasks as just “more homework.” And when they don’t see why they’re doing this “extra” work, it can become yet another chore for them to complete, to check off. It becomes just “busy work” for them. Peer reviews become a chore to get through quickly, to skim through and quickly comment on surface-level things. Reflective writing becomes a run-out-the-clock exercise. And, frankly, that generates “busy work” for me too. Teacher feedback becomes the one place where I put most of my effort, convincing myself that if I don’t say something useful then students aren’t going to get it from anywhere else.

To address some of these perceptions, this semester I’ve been working within a structured framework that connects all their “homework” back to the process of revision, back to the ideas of student-as-writer and writer-centered revision. Being in this framework allows my students and myself to always ask: so just why do I want them to do a particular piece of homework? And what should they expect to get out of doing that homework? The framework relies on the following core pieces:

  • Writer-centered revision: moving students to a model where they are at the center of revision, where they are motivated to make changes purposefully and proactively.
  • Peer reviews and teacher feedback linked to revision goals: providing a broader purpose for gathering different kinds of feedback from different sources.
  • Clearer expectations: setting defined goals for what different courses of feedback can provide, mainly to let me focus on specific things in my feedback to them instead of making me feel like I have to say it all.
  • Purposeful and specific feedback: varying the kind of peer review activities they do from unit to unit, so that they don’t feel like they’re doing the same thing each time and more importantly to develop writerly skills in soliciting in-depth feedback on their own over the course of the semester.

So during Unit 1, on the day that first drafts were due, I distributed a handout (Contextualizing Feedback within Revision Goals) summarizing the key goals for revision: re-seeing purposes, extending & complicating meaning, discovering choices, and testing out alternatives. I borrowed this list from the Teaching Database but I added a table at the bottom of the handout that showed how they could get help in achieving these revision goals from five different sources for feedback and advice during revision: peers, teacher, self, friends/family, and the WritingCenter. The idea was to show how each of these feedback sources support the revision goals in different ways.

Based on this handout, we then discussed as a class the different kinds of feedback that each of us could contribute to a writer in the class. We came up with three main sets of expectations: one for peer reviews, one for teacher feedback, and one for the writer’s own reflective revision plan. We decided that peer reviews would focus on the “Re-seeing Purposes” and “Discovering Choices” revision goals. For peer reviews I distributed another handout, also borrowed from the Teaching Database, on doing initial draft reviews (How to Do Peer Reviews for Initial Drafts) using the sayback-pointing-questions method. Meanwhile we decided that teacher feedback would focus on the “Extending & Complicating Meaning” goal. And lastly, the writer would focus on “Testing Out Alternatives” in their revision plan.

Having this structured process provided for a seamless Unit 1 feedback experience. Most students got a lot out of both doing and receiving peer reviews. Having the structured sayback-pointing-questions method meant also that students moved beyond a corrective “peer editing” approach and were instead actually asking genuine questions of each other. Meanwhile I was able to keep my own teacher feedback short and focused. In their revision plans, I was gratified to see them incorporating all three sources (their peer reviews, my feedback, and their own ideas) into generating some really specific and significant “alternatives” they wanted to try for their 2nd draft.

This process also allowed for changes initiated by students. When we did a debrief the following week, I asked students to reflect on how they would want to do this process differently for either the next unit or for a different stage of drafting. Many students pointed out that while the sayback-pointing thing may be good for initial drafts, they would prefer more detailed and focused critiques for mid-process drafts. Students who had more experience with college-level peer reviews also pointed out that the sayback-pointing exercise seemed to be overly structured. These were terrific opportunities for me to ask the class to “own” the feedback process more purposefully going forward. So, for the 2nd draft in-class reviews, we adopted a more writer-centered model where each writer asked for specific feedback from their group members. This allowed the review process to be more purposeful, shorter, more focused.

Then, when we moved into Unit 2, we made the review and feedback process even more writer-centered. For first drafts, I asked each writer to provide two cover notes: one for their peers and one for me. In each cover note they were to ask for specific types of feedback geared toward the revision goals. This is where the rubber really hit the road: students wrote very clear and specific notes, asking for different things from me and from their peers. And I could see this making a tangible difference in how students approached revision: their 2nd drafts took on more purposeful shifts, many more students tried more significant changes, and the in-class feedback discussions were much more specific.

Going into Unit 3, now, I am about to ask them to take this to another level still. I’ve been putting them into groups for Units 1 and 2, but for this unit I’ll ask them to choose the sources from whom they want feedback. I’m going to encourage them to choose especially people they know outside of class: their roommates, or a trusted family member, or a peer mentor, or the WritingCenter. That is, I’d like them to approach this the way they might if they were in another class where structured peer reviews are not built into the course. I’m hoping that this allows them to experience and develop more writerly ways of soliciting feedback for non-class/non-graded writing situations. I guess I’ll find out how this goes over the next few weeks!

The Do Nothing Teacher

This semester I’m teaching an experimental writing workshop. The class has 12 students and we meet once a week for 2 1/2 hours. The course is divided into three units and for each unit the students complete a writing project. The day the unit projects are due we spend the majority of the class reading one another’s projects. I should clarify here. The students spend the majority of the class reading one another’s projects. I spend the majority of the class doing nothing. I do have a pedagogical reason for doing nothing—since I’m going to collect and comment on all the projects I want to give the students the opportunity to read as many of their colleagues’ pieces as possible. I also find the discussion we have about the projects to be so much more productive because I have yet to read them. The students must carry on the discussion without me interrupting constantly with my 2 cents. So while the students are reading through their projects, I’m sitting there trying to look like I’m doing something. Sometimes I write in my notebook, sometimes I read the book I’ve assigned for the following week. I’ve considered bringing my laptop in order to do get some work done while they’re reading, but I don’t want them to think I’m checking my email or on Facebook (just for the record, I don’t have a Facebook page). I’ve also considered using that time to read, but I thought I would feel funny reading while they are working. I feel I must do or at least look like I’m doing something that is class related.

 This also happens to me when I teach College Writing. I set up the peer review activity or some other kind of revision activity and then I watch the students work. Sometimes I sit at the “teacher” desk in the front of the room, open up my lesson planning book and look at it. Sometimes I stand by the blackboard and pretend I’m gauging their progress with the activity. Periodically I circulate the room under the pretense of checking in with them, but really it’s only to give me something to do while they were working. During these days, like in my experimental writing class, I’ve been tempted to pull out a book to read. But it doesn’t feel right. I don’t want them to look up and see me reading The Hunger Games when I’m supposed to be teaching the class.

 I don’t think I’m alone with this problem. In fact I think this is a common problem in writing classes. When the students are writing in class, doing peer review, doing any kind of activity either in groups or individually, what is the teacher supposed to be doing?

We think that as teachers we are supposed to be doing something in the classroom. And of course we aren’t wrong in thinking this—we are supposed to be teaching the class. But sometimes we think teaching means we should be explaining something, lecturing about something, telling the students something, calling on people, and answering questions. Sitting at the desk, reading a novel is not teaching the class. So while the class is actively engaged in peer review, there can be such a strong temptation to interrupt the students as they work. Sometimes I catch myself interrupting them to further explain something, letting them work for a while and then interrupting again to tell them something else. Sometimes I find myself pacing around the room and hovering over them as they read and write. I don’t think any of this really helps them learn.

 Since this is such a strong temptation and since doing nothing can make me uncomfortable in my own class, I need to keep reminding myself that teaching just doesn’t take place in the classroom. Every teacher knows that all the work we do outside of the classroom – the papers we read and respond to, all the prep work, all the lesson planning is all a part of our teaching. But when I’m in the classroom pretending to be doing something “teacherly,” I have to keep reminding myself that I’ve already done a lot of my work as a teacher before I’ve walked in. The lesson plan I’ve designed for a peer review day or a revision activity is my teaching. And since writing is an activity that is best learned by doing, creating the space for the students to work through the activity and letting them do it is teaching the class even if on the surface it looks like I’m not doing anything.

Of course it’s difficult, and of course I’m not saying I would ever be comfortable with putting my feet up on the desk, drinking coffee, and reading the paper while the students are working. But I’m working at being more comfortable with taking on the role of time manager, being quiet, and getting out of the students’ way so they can learn.

Not All Responders Are Equal

As a teacher of first-year writing I realized something about peer review. I’m a better responder to writing than my students. Now I don’t mean to sound arrogant here, but for a long time I tried to conduct peer review as if I was just like every other responder in the classroom. I would begin peer review sessions in my classes by saying that all writers need multiple readers for their work. I would write a series of prompts on the board and then ask the students to give one another feedback. At the end of the peer review session I would pick up their papers and tell them I would give them feedback just like their peer responders. I would take their papers home, respond and then return them, once again telling them that I was only one responder in this whole process and they needed to examine all the feedback they received, determine what feedback was useful to them and revise accordingly. The students would do this, but usually it seemed to me that they would only use my comments and disregard their peers. When asked about what worked and didn’t work in peer review students would say the following: I really don’t know what to say because I’m not qualified to comment on other kids’ papers.
I never get good feedback from my peers. Peggy, your feedback is always the best!

For a long time I would address these comments by stressing even more the importance of peer review and working even harder to train them to be effective responders. I would work on the prompts I gave them, I would ask them to review and comment on ALL the feedback that they received—their peers and mine. I would try to boost their confidence: You don’t have to be an English teacher to be a good reader! You’re a reader and you know what you think! And I would politely tell them they didn’t have to suck up to me just because I was the teacher.

But of course I wasn’t fooling the students. They knew very well that I was the only responder in that classroom holding the grade book. But I think they also knew something that I wasn’t willing to admit—I really am a better responder to texts than they are. And then I realized that I should be. I have years on my students—not just in age, but I have years of training and experience responding to texts of all kinds. I studied how to be an effective responder. I’ve read and responded to hundreds and hundreds of pages of writing—mostly essays written by first-year students. I am actually a very skilled reader of these texts. Responding to texts is what I do, so I should be “better” at it than a first-year college student.

And then I realized something else. By not admitting I was a more experienced responder than the students in the classroom, I was consistently trumping everyone’s peer response. I would let the students go through the peer review activity, gather their responses, and then I would throw down my response—a response not only from a skilled and experience reader, but a response from the person holding the grade book. Let’s be honest. Whose feedback would you take? I was not only canceling out all the feedback that was given, but I was reinforcing how ineffective they saw peer review. In a sense, I was sabotaging the entire process.

So now I try to think about peer review in a different way. I still work hard at training the students to be effective responders, but now I acknowledge that I am a different responder than they are. I think about how their responses to one another and how my feedback to their work can work together and complement one another rather than compete. I try to structure my peer review sessions so that the peer responders provide feedback to specific things (sometimes very specific things) within the text and when I respond to their drafts, I respond to different concerns and issues. This helps to build the students’ confidence as responders because it enables them to give feedback that will be used by their peers. This also helps to make the peer review sessions more productive—the feedback the students provide to one another is useful and the feedback I provide is also useful. I still stress that all writers need multiple readers, but now I stress that different readers bring different strengths to the text and provide writers with different responses. As writers we don’t need a lot of responders attempting to compete for our attention, but responders whose particular strengths and perspectives will enable us to further develop our texts.

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.