One of my favorite classes in college was Writer’s Workshop. Even though it was a three-hour course every Wednesday evening, I looked forward to it each and every week. I got excited about going to class. The focus of the class was helping the students improve as writers. Each week, every student shared aloud a piece he or she was working on. Then, the class would discuss that student’s writing. What could he or she do to make it better? What did you notice? What did you wonder? What questions do you have about the piece? It was so much fun. I not only loved receiving feedback so that I could grow as a writer and make my stories more enjoyable, but I also loved being a part of fruitful discussions about writing. My skills as a writer grew immensely over the course of one semester because of that class. Effective peer and teacher feedback is crucial to the writing and revision process. We can only improve our work if we know what to tweak or fix.
Recalling how beneficial that college class was to me, I structure my Humanities class in a similar way. We utilize the Writer’s Workshop method of writing instruction so that the students are engaged in what they are writing and crafting. It also allows for a community of writers to emerge. If all of the students are working together to help their peers grow their writing pieces, then we are all focused on a common and compassionate goal.
Like communism, in theory this sounds great. Sometimes in practice, however, it is challenging to bring about effectively. How do we help our students learn to provide effective feedback to their peers?
Today in Humanities class, the students participated in Writing Groups as a way to receive more feedback on their vignettes. After modelling the process using a piece I crafted and a seventh grade student that we had in class last year, the boys got right to work. At first, things were going great. I noticed that the students were having insightful conversations about writing. It was pretty cool to listen to the boys offer suggestions to each other so that they could improve upon their writing in meaningful ways. The feedback was effective, for the most part.
Then, things started to go downhill. We noticed that some of the boys were focused on how the students were reading their pieces aloud and not the story itself. How does noticing the way one reads his piece aloud going to help him make his vignette better? It’s not. Some of our students have a challenging time consistently using a growth mindset. While some of the other comments and pieces of feedback towards the end were effective, I was still baffled by the comments from a few of the boys. Why is it that they focused on little, insignificant features? Is it that they weren’t paying attention and so they said the only thing that came to mind? They had their Writer’s Notebook in which to take notes while they listened, and all of the boys were recording notes while their peers read their story aloud. So what happened? Was it that 60 minutes is too long for the student to stay focused? We need them to build their writing, listening, and working stamina now so that they are ready for the next level in seventh grade. Again, it was only two or three out of the ten boys who struggled to effectively participate. But, we want to help all of our students see the benefit in providing and receiving effective feedback.
So, how do we teach our students to give effective feedback? What’s the secret? After unsuccessfully addressing this issue for the past two years and now this year, I feel at a loss. Every year, after the first Writing Groups session, we debrief how it went. We almost always talk about how feedback unrelated to a student’s story is ineffective and takes away from the experience. Your goal is to help your peers effectively revise their piece so that they can exceed the graded objectives. And every year, after this discussion, we continue to hear this same type of comment repeated in future Writing Groups. We’ve tried reminding them of the importance of providing feedback related only to the students’ story prior to Writing Groups, and we still hear the same comments spoken. Instead of having the student read the piece aloud, what about allowing the text-to-speech feature read the piece aloud? But then, are we taking away from the community of writers we are trying create? We want our students to embrace each other’s differences instead of noticing more differences. What about having each student share his writing via Google Docs? Then they could read it together silently. But, will they really read it all? That’s the big question. Is there any solution to this problem? How can we help our fixed mindset students see the value in providing effective feedback?