Monday, September 12, 2016

Using Comments to Foster Community & Communication

One of the biggest problems I have when teaching peer revision is getting students to comment on each others’ drafts. Student often lack confident enough in their own opinions and reactions, so they believe they have nothing of value to say when giving feedback. So while I’ll never completely prevent their reticence to commenting, I chose to do some work that might warm students up to the task. 

For homework, I asked students to reflect on their time in college. Since most (with the exception of two or three) of the students in my classes are entering freshman, I’ve been assigning reflective writing assignments over the weekend. This particular assignment was the “4S” reflection. Students wrote about what Surprised them about their first weeks in college, what Sacrifices they are making to be in college, what Solutions they are having to come up with for the problems they are encountering, and what they think or feek about becoming a Scholar. Low stakes writing. But meaty enough questions relevant for students transitioning into college.

The following class period, students sat in groups of three. I asked them to exchange papers. For the first round, they silently read one of their partners papers. Then, I presented them with three different types of comments to make on their partner’s paper: Affirm, Solidarity, and Critique. For each type, I provided a few simple stems for them to use. I asked students to highlight or mark the quotes in their partner’s paper, quotes they wanted to affirm and mark quotes that communicated an idea for which they stood in solidarity. And they were to mark quotes they wanted to offer a gentle critique. I also urged them to jot a comment or two for each quote they marked.

I adapted (stole) this activity from one of my peers from the San Diego Area Writing Project. She called these “social justice stems,” and I figured they’d be useful for not only building community but for giving students an easy “in" to making comments even if they believed they had nothing worth noting on their partners’ papers.

After a few moments, I asked folks to pass the marked paper to the other member of the triad, instructing that person to read the comments and to add her own affirmations, statements of solidarity, and critiques. These two rounds were held in silence. Next, students returned the papers to their author, and the author took a moment in silence to take in the comments.

Here is a sampling of their comments:

  • I honestly thought I was the only one who noticed this. 
  • I appreciate that you said this because sometimes I don’t know what to say, either. 
  • I hear you! I was a nervous, too. 
  • I also feel a difference in the way teachers talk towards students. We’re treated as adults now. 
  • Have you ever thought that the other students in your class are thinking the same thing? 
I originally hoped that the exercise would get students comfortable writing comments. And that happened. You can see from the photos I’ve included that students took to commenting. Next round, I’ll add more questions, walking students toward giving and receiving comments about content, structure, and craft.

What I didn’t realize is that these kinds of comments “close the circuit” of communication that in my classroom is often left incomplete. Because I’m not always able to comment on every paper, students written words must seem to just float about in space, waiting for a grade. 

This lack of back - and forth communication, the closing of the circuit, may account for why students don’t take to writing. They experience that their words “land” anywhere outside of aiming for a grade. And if developing writers don’t experience their ideas “landing” on a real audience, then writing risks becoming a pointless exercise - an activity to be evaluated rather than to foster communication. 

The other realization I made was how important students' feedback was to each other - they were so focused on reading what their peers wrote. Their comments to each other resonated with them in ways my feedback may not register. As much as my comments may help them become better writers (crossing my fingers!), so too do their comments to each other help them to build community and to value this kind of writing as a mode of communication.

As the semester progresses, I plan to loop back to this activity. I can see how this activity helps prepare for peer revision and commenting.  But making sure that I provide writing events that close a circuit, relevant writing that reaches a real reading audience and encourages dialogue.