Friday, December 5, 2014

Peer Critiques and Repurposed Fishbowls: Part I

This post is the first of a two-parter about using "fishbowls" in an English class. This installment outlines the purpose of the fishbowl protocol and how I used it to demonstrate a peer critique session. In the second post, I discuss what I learned from the process and what I plan to do differently the next time I use the process. 
In my English classes last week, I experimented with a protocol I learned in my counseling graduate program: the "fishbowl." We used the fishbowl technique to model a peer critique session to get ready for actual peer critiques students would do in a subsequent class.

I wanted to do something a little different than the kind of peer revision that relies on checklists. Those protocols are useful, but limited. Often, those revision sessions turn into editing and surface level exercises.  I hoped to facilitate meaningful conversations between students, and I think this process has potential. I did four different fishbowls over a period of three days and met with great success.


A fishbowl is a group process where a small group (dyad, triad, or larger group) sits in a circle surrounded by a larger circle of the rest of the students. The purpose of a fishbowl is to let a group of people (the outer circle) listen in on the smaller group's conversation. Ideally, the folks in the inner circle speak freely among themselves as if in a private setting with the outer circle listening to an unvarnished, "unplugged" discussion. Hence the name "fishbowl".

I've used the fishbowl technique many times in my past life as a counselor to help groups learn about each other, particularly groups that are separated by some significant social distance.  As a graduate student learning about race, my classmates and I sat in the outer circle, listening in to the inner circle of our African American peers talk about their shared experiences. 

Working with high school students, I facilitated a fishbowl of immigrant students speaking about the obstacles they face as the US born students listened. Another time, I co-facilitated a fishbowl where returning students shared their experiences joining a new learning community for the"newbies" to overhear. At a new student orientation, incoming first-year students listened to a fishbowl of college instructors talking about the joys and hardships of working with incoming students.

Instead of using the fishbowl to share subjective experiences, I used it to show students how to do peer critiques. In this case, the compositions we critiqued were drafts for a personal narrative, a story. And I wanted students to react more as actual readers, to discuss their response to the story rather than look for surface level errors. 

This storytelling assignment privileged creating a dominant impression rather than crafting a thesis bound essay. I wasn't looking for clearly demarcated, mechanically formulaic paragraphs with topic sentences, the kind we associate with freshman composition. So a checklist approach seemed inappropriate. 

Checklists and rubrics do have their purpose, but the ones I had devised and used failed to get students to share as they might in a peer critiques in creative writing workshop. The rubrics didn't help students to have a conversation about the text. 

For the demonstrations, the fishbowl consisted of three or four people: a writer-in-the-hot-seat and the two or three people critiquing her work. The folks doing the critique had prior experience; some were students, some were teacher-friends who volunteered to help out. 

Prior to the actual demonstration, my teacher-friend or I explained the process: the writer reads her essay aloud as others make notes to get ready for the discussion. We also reviewed guidelines for discussion (see the peer critique guidelines we developed). 

And then the fishbowl commenced, taking about 25 minutes total. The first five to eight minutes the person in the hot-seat reads. Then the peers discuss their notes with each other and NOT directing any comments or questions to the writer. This gives the writer an opportunity to listen and for the folks doing the critique time to talk through their ideas. Finally, they spend the last five to eight minutes for the writer to ask specific questions of the folks critiquing her paper. 

Students in the outer circle observed how the folks doing the critique spoke about text. The reviewers refrained from surface level criticisms and suggestions. Instead, reviewers used the stems provided in the peer critique guidelines to react to the narrative. The folks in the outer circle saw how using the "I-Statements" kept the tone friendly, precluding defensiveness from the author. And the observers noted that commentary wasn't about judging or correcting but more about sharing genuine response to a draft. 

After the class observed the fishbowl, we discussed what happened, and student took notes on the process. Because we didn't have enough time to run their peer revisions that period, I asked students to read through their partners' papers and use the peer critique guidelines to make preliminary notes for the next period's critique sessions. They had enough time in class to get comfortable with guidelines so they could complete their notes for homework. 


When I sent students to run their own critique groups the next time we met, they had a better sense of what they were supposed to do. They had a model. And they had written notes to get a discussion started. To be sure, the groups didn't run perfectly. Different groups experienced various obstacles - timing, sharing equitably, focusing on the author rather than the story. After all, it was their first time using this protocol. But this attempt was the most successful peer revision process I had ever facilitated, and I attribute that to the fishbowl demonstration. 

We urge students to "show" and not "tell" when writing. This experience reminds me to follow my own advice; the adage is true of teaching, too. Students need concrete models of behavior - not to imitate, but to emulate. 

I'm definitely going to use the again next semester - likely more than once per class. Perhaps some combination of the standard check-list version and this fishbowl would be effective. 

Check out thesecond part of this blog for my reflections - what worked, what didn't, and what I'd do differently.