Peer Review, How I Hate to Love You

It’s a topic we have all thought about deeply. We have attended workshops and presentations, read scholarship, tried new and exciting ways of getting our students to collaborate during the revision process in our writing classes – and collaborate effectively.  I thought I had it down, really.  Then, the other day, I had a conference with one of my most impressive and hard-working students, and that all changed.

This student works diligently to revise his essays and to earn his grades.  He is straightforward and participates in class regularly, and has never missed an assignment. Overall, this is a student whose feedback I seriously value in terms of what might work in class and what might not work.  As we were conferencing over a draft of his essay, he asked, “Will we be doing peer review for this essay?”  When I answered that no, we would instead be using one-on-one conferences and instructor feedback for this one essay, he replied, “Oh good.  Peer review has mostly been useless for me.”

Punch to the gut!  Man down! Red Team Go!  S.O.S.! All manner of emergency exclamations ran through my mind.  Useless? How could this be? Grades are improving (for the most part).  Writing is getting better (through my rose-colored glasses).  In short, I had gotten cocky.  So, I asked my student, “Why do you say that, Student?”  His response was an eye-opener, and something I hope we can all use as a catalyst for discussion on the topic. 

Student said, “Well, the one time we sat in a circle was helpful.”  (To be clear, this is what I call “Carousel Peer Review.” I sit students in a circle and give them each four identical sheets of paper. Each paper contains a space for the reviewer’s name, the writer’s name, and three questions:

1. What is the author’s central claim?  Explain whether or not it is arguable and if not, how it could be.

2. What is the best part of the essay and why?

3. What part of the essay needs the most improvement and why?

Students pass their essay to the left once, read and fill out the sheet and when I call time, pass the essay to the left again and complete it for another, and so on. This way, they get four short but focused peer reviews, which I hand back at the end of class.)  So, I asked Student, “Is it because you got so many reviews back?” And he replied…

         “No. It was the best because everyone had to be quiet.”

He went on to explain that during past peer reviews, in which students had been placed in small groups with traditional and more elaborate peer review sheets to fill out, he felt that nothing got done, that it was just an opportunity to socialize and that the last time we had done it, the other students in his group had not revised their essays at all. “And,” he asked, “Why should I revise their papers for them if they do not want to do the work?” So of course, I start questioning my methods.  I mean, it’s not as if I do not circle the room and meet with each group during peer review, but we all know that small group work can be a tricky monster; students can seem really on-task when we approach their group, but then revert back to talk of Facebook and what is going on that night or what they watched on TV that week as soon as we are out of ear shot.  In addition, if we are using peer review as a way for students to receive revision comments outside of instructor feedback (say, for a middle draft when we have already extensively commented on first drafts), unless we closely evaluate each essay on peer review day (which sort of defeats the purpose), we don’t really have a way of knowing whether or not a student has truly revised the essay. 

Several ideas are coming to the surface. Should students show up to peer review day with a written summary of their revisions?  Should a requirement of peer review be that they somehow articulate their revisions to the group?  Do we have to be such police officers?

 So, I put these questions to all of you.  How do you handle the not-doers, the “I refuse to revise because only my classmates are going to be reading this anyway” students?  To beat a dead horse, how do you make your peer review effective?

 

 

Teaching drama in 106

(I’ve been meaning to put up the following since the workshop I did in February (I think). Since we’re almost into April, this might not be that helpful, but I’m hoping it sparks some ideas and conversation. Anyway, here goes…)

If I had to select my single primary aim when teaching drama, it is to have students approach and understand it on its own terms, rather than viewing it similarly to prose or poetry. To that end, here are a few of the approaches that I utilize, which I find not only facilitate the above end but also allow me to achieve a number of other things I want in the classroom.

(1) Begin by asking students their answers to the question of “What makes drama different from poetry and prose?” For the students who have little or no interest in drama, modify the above and ask them, “What—beside boredom—comes to mind when you think of drama? How do you visualize it?” The primary benefit of this step is to put preconceived notions on the table. Not only does that allow me to address (and, if needed, correct) such notions, but it provides useful material for me to reference back to during later discussions, as I build on—and/or take apart—these preconceptions.

Continue reading

Do I Really Scare My Students?

I recently observed a colleague’s class, during which I noticed that out of the relatively small-sized group, the same few students were raising their hands to answer questions and offer responses, while several others kept quiet for the duration. At one point during the discussion, the instructor reminded her students that she will only call on them if they raise their hands; she won’t ask anyone to speak if they’re not volunteering. Nevertheless, by the end of the class, the discussion had been pretty lively, prompted by a combination of large and small group work.

I was pretty surprised to learn of this instructor’s method, and when I mentioned it to another colleague, he told me that–again, to my surprise–he uses the same method in his classes: he only calls on students who raise their hands.

Both colleagues offered a similar explanation for this approach: the class participation component of the course grade is based on student participation in whole class discussions, in small group work, in various online activities, and the like. That is, class participation does not just mean raising one’s hand. Not all students are comfortable speaking in front of the whole class, and because they are offered a variety of ways in which to meaningfully engage in the coursework, they won’t have to speak if they don’t choose to. Students are made aware of this from the beginning of the semester, and so the classroom dynamic is initially established as non-threatening, the classroom a space where students need not fear being called on when they don’t have a response, when they might not feel like sharing their ideas with the class, or perhaps when they simply aren’t prepared to speak about the day’s reading or writing assignment.

As suggested by the title of this blog post and by my reaction to learning of my colleagues’ class participation methods, I take a very different approach. In all of my teaching, I have always striven to hear from as many different students as possible in any given class–and this sometimes entails calling on students who have not volunteered to speak. And, as I find unnervingly coincidental in light of just talking directly with fellow instructors about their reasons for not calling on their students, I received for the first time in my ten-year teaching career, a comment in a student evaluation speaking to this very issue: “Sometimes I felt scared speaking in front of the class & by calling on a student makes them more scared [sic]. When I was ready, I did speak in front of the class.” You can imagine my horror at realizing that I actually made this student (and I must be realistic here, maybe others as well) feel scared.

I hope this goes without saying, but I don’t ever call on students to scare them. Like my colleagues, I set out to create a safe and comfortable learning environment. I, too, offer (and count for students’ participation grades) various methods of student participation inside and outside of the classroom. Nevertheless, I have always felt that by talking in class (in whole group discussions), students have the opportunity to share and see the value of their ideas, however unformed or tentative their ideas may be; also, I believe students may be more engaged by talking rather than only by listening. Also, I think it’s important to hear a variety of opinions, experiences, and interpretations; the more frequent hand-raisers themselves seem to appreciate the inclusion of other voices in the discussion. Further, I don’t call on students totally cold; that is, when students have with them something they’ve written–either before coming to class or during class time–I feel it’s fair to ask them to share what they’ve written as a means to generate or to further discussion. I also always give them the option of reading what they wrote or just explaining/summarizing/rewording it–an option that it seems to alleviate some of the self-consciousness students may have about their writing. This way, they are still able to communicate their ideas, and this exercise may even help them clarify or strengthen their ideas through discussion, which they can then potentially translate to their writing.

There’s much more I could share on the matter, but in the interest of keeping this (relatively) short, let me conclude by saying that now having learned that I may in fact be scaring some of my students(!), I will continue to seriously consider what is best for my students and for achieving the course goals.

I’d love to hear how some of you handle class participation: do you call on students as part of your regular teaching practice? Any suggestions for doing so without scaring students?

The S-Word

By Maria Montaperto

Our FYW program’s custom course reader, Made With Words, includes several essays about “problematic” terms. For example, Andi Zeisler’s essay called “The B-Word? You Betcha,” is (not surprisingly) about the term “Bitch,” its use, and present negative meanings despite her and others attempts at redefinition or appropriation. Gloria Naylor similarly takes up the n-word, highlighting different uses, particularly among African American groups; while Lucia Perillo’s essay focuses on the word “cripple” and related terms in past and present use.

 These and a handful of similar essays are grouped into a thematic unit on “What Words Mean.” The objective of said unit, generally, is to have students examine the power of language – of words, of these singular linguistic units which we, as language arts experts, well understand the nuanced dynamics of. And the objective of the objective? To help students become more aware of and more sensitive about the rhetorical impact that something seemingly as small as word choice can have on the local level of an individual essay, as well as within the larger socio-political contexts in which we all live. And, the objective of this objective? For me . . . it is to enhance my students’ sense of agency – greater rhetorical and social awareness is power, power within their personal, professional and civic lives, power which I hope they will learn to use judiciously and equitably. Something which I hope I, myself, succeed at more often than I fail.

 It so happened I was working on such a unit when just a few weeks prior to beginning, I caught something slip from my mouth while talking to some fellow faculty about a particularly challenging issue I was facing with a student. I don’t remember the exact sentence, the student or even the specific thorn in my side I was experiencing. I just remember catching myself . . . . and then calling myself out.

 FADE IN:

 INT. UNIVERSITY FACULTY OFFICE

 Three instructors sit talking.

                                                     INSTRUCTOR 1 [me]

(a frustrated sigh)

 This student . . . (blah blah blahone or another typical teacher complaint) . . . you know, is such . . . . .  

a . . .  slacker. Continue reading

Introducing Poetry in ENWR 106

Not everyone likes poetry.  For me, someone who loves poetry deeply, this can be a hard reality to accept.  In fact, rather than accept it, I have tried my best in my years of teaching to transform even my most reluctant students into individuals who can appreciate the genre, and maybe even like it.

I begin the semester with a poem that challenges students’ assumptions about poetry and sets us up for a semester of active analysis.  That poem is Langston Hughes’ short 1925 poem “Johannesburg Mines”:

In the Johannesburg mines
There are 240,000
Native Africans working.
What kind of poem
Would you
Make out of that?
240,000 natives
Working in the
Johannesburg mines.

On a practical level, the poem is short enough that I can provide hard copies for the students, which is an added perk at the start of the semester.  Though it may be short, there is nothing simple about this poem.  I introduce the poem by giving background information on Hughes and his role in the Harlem Renaissance, and the way in which his poetry works to advocate for the rights of African Americans.  We also talk briefly about the history of mining in South Africa and apartheid. Continue reading

Naked Co-ed Composition

By Nancy Méndez-Booth

Of all the things I taught my ENWR105 students this semester, the lesson they embraced most enthusiastically was how to get naked. Please let me explain before you alert the First-Year Writing Program and Campus Security.

It began when I read my nonfiction essay “Tilted Naked Weirdo” at the October 10 Live Lit! event. My students were in the audience, and I worried that my selection revealed too much about my own challenges as a writer. They heard about my anxiety each time I face a blank page because I know that to fill it well requires taking risks and getting naked, i.e., digging in the don’t-go-there places for truths I’d rather leave untouched and hidden. I was mortified when they asked questions during the Q&A (why had I encouraged them to be so participatory?) and I had to answer that yes, it is tempting to write “safe, nice” stories that don’t ruffle feathers (particularly mine), and also tempting to not take risks that could end in failure. But, I reinforced, solid writing requires being bold with style, subject matter, and structure.

I didn’t give the reading further thought, but it seems my class did. It began with the semicolon that appeared with increased frequency after mid-October. They were not always placed properly, but I was impressed that my students dared press the key of the punctuation mark they most dreaded. I was more impressed when during class discussions and workshops, they shared with each other their tips on how they made sense of the semicolon’s proper usage. Continue reading

Integrating Learning Communities into the Classroom

In the first week of the semester, I noticed something odd in one of my classes. Rather than spreading out over the entire room, as students usually do, a large group of students clustered together on the left side of the room. All females, this group seemed to be self-contained, and staked out a clearly defined space of their own. The other students—about half a dozen—sat scattered in the seats on the right. Things felt lopsided.

I quickly learned that this group of students all shared the same major. This, I thought, explains their cohesion. They paid attention, but seemed hesitant in their responses and maybe a bit guarded.

During the first week I realized I would need to create a unified class that would engage both sides of the room. Given the shyness of the students on the right, I worried that I might pay the cohesive side too much attention. I also sensed that it might not be a good idea to force a separation immediately. Their solidarity seemed important. I didn’t want to disrupt their comfort zone right away.

I remember telling a colleague about the group one day in September when we were comparing notes. “It’s like they’re surrounded by a force field,” I said. “I can’t explain it.”

While I gained the attention of the group and managed to navigate the class dynamics, I still didn’t learn the extent of the group’s connection until weeks later. One student then volunteered that they comprised a learning community, which meant that they all lived together, took all of the same classes together, and shared vocational goals. This seemed ideal, in some ways, for a college freshman—power in numbers—an automatic peer group with which to confer about assignments and career issues.

After I found out about the learning community, the students and I had a short discussion about its merits. They agreed that it was enormously helpful. One concern I had was that the students would not experience as much social variety in their classrooms, but they said there were plenty of other opportunities to socialize outside of class. The homogeneity ultimately seemed a small price to pay for the security of having a defined peer group, especially as first-year students.

Finally, I found a strategy that seemed to congeal the class. First, I had students form groups away from their usual seatmates. They counted off in numbers 1-4 which forced them to move around. This worked well. The students finally mixed and the small group work that day was much more lively. Interestingly, before I created these numbered groups the learning community never ventured to the other side and vice-versa. It was as if they belonged to separate countries, the divide seemed so impermeable.

I also conducted “mini conferences” to touch base with each student. It was too early in the semester for regular conferences, so I briefly discussed developing drafts individually while the rest of the class worked on a their own projects. After these conversations, I noticed a major shift in the class. The learning community no longer felt like one large student but rather a group of individuals. In just five minutes of talking, we at least had one conversation in common, and discussions felt more open.

I wondered what other strategies I would have used if I’d known about the learning community before the first day of class. Would I have designed a few lessons differently? Different icebreakers maybe? I’ve had classes full of students who have known each other and other classes full of strangers. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Even though most first-year writing courses are collaborative, writing ultimately involves a solitary relationship to the page. The final work is the work of each student and each student alone. To progress, a student ultimately must separate, in some sense, from the pack, to identify his or her own learning points and strengths. In the case of this particular class, I felt that to truly have a “new pair of eyes” on their own drafts, the learning community students needed to mix with the others, and each student needed to work as an individual.

Now that we’re nearing the final weeks of the semester, I’ve finally gotten to know each student a bit more, even though the strong learning community group dynamic remains. I had a wonderful conversation this week with one of the students in this community during conferences and was happy to see that she seems to have developed her own distinctive voice in the class.

Do learning communities in writing courses present unique challenges? Have any of you taught classes that were difficult to unify?