Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Recording Feedback: The Potential of Recording Writing Conferences with Students

I've pulled out back issues of the English Journal, dusted off my copies of Kelly Gallagher's work. In the course of my research on using digital tools to provide students access to audio versions of writing conferences, I have reviewed what compositionists from Peter Elbow to Ralph Fletcher have said about the need for supportive, verbal feedback during the writing process. Lucy Calkins and Nancie Atwell, two gurus of conferring in the classroom, strongly advocate for face-to-face writing conferences with students over the more traditional written evaluative feedback. Verbal feedback is powerful. And although technology has certainly changed how we work with practicing writers in our classroom settings, there are a few things that remain constant. First and foremost is the idea of student ownership. In order for students to remain invested and engaged in their writing journeys, they must maintain authorial control over their content and rhetorical choices. As a result, when teachers provide feedback to our student writers, we must engage in that process in such a way that does not hijack the writing from our students. As Lucy Calkin once wrote, "Teach the writer and not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by what might help this writer rather than what might help this writing." Our students learn to write when they experience the writing process on their own terms and not when teachers dictate when, where, and how to revise a single written assignment. But, as Peter Elbow suggests, writers also need supportive feedback in the form of interested readers. This insight, evolving out of a process-based approach to teaching composition, suggests that feedback from an engaged reader is a crucial component in learning to write with confidence. Supportive, verbal feedback helps writers maintain ownership over their written work as well as helps student writers clearly imagine the position of their reader.

Enhancing Feedback from the University of Edinburgh
And this is why writing conferences can be powerful tools to support developing writers. Not only are student writers better able to descern the tone of the feedback given by a teacher during a face-to-face conference (rather than attempting to interpret the disembodied written comments of the teacher on paper), but the verbal conference allows for the student to maintain control over his work. The teacher is not marking up the student's work. Instead, the act of conferring is a dialogue between writers about rhetorical choices; the act of conferring supports the writer and not simply a single piece of writing. Additionally, because these conferences happen in the presence of other students in the classroom, there is the added benefit of supporting other writers in the room who overhear. Penny Kittle writes in her book Write Beside Them, "Students want to hear what other students are writing about and will listen in, doubling or tripling the value of that writing conference. Writing depends on talk" (86). So it makes sense that using audio recording tools to capture and share these conferring moments can become a powerful tool for providing feedback to student writers.

Co-director of the National Writing Project at Rutgers University, Sara Bauer published an article in 2011 in the English Journal on her experiences using audio comments to provide feedback to her high school writers. In her article "When I Stopped Writing on Their Papers: Accomodating the Needs of Student Writers with Audio Comments," Bauer writes, "...audio feedback enables my comments to become much more developed and targeted to the individual writer than they had been when I confined myself to cryptic and cramped notes written in the margins" (66). Using audio commentary allowed Bauer to more clearly develop her reactions to a student's written work, and in doing so, opened up opportunities for her students to reflect on their rhetorical choices. Bauer's comments were not limited to fixing grammatical or content errors, but instead focused on how she responded to her students' work as an interested reader. What did the writing evoke in her as a reader? What did it make her wonder? Where did her understanding break down? "The practice of making audio comments goes beyond assisting students with revising a particular assignment," Bauer writes. "I was able to target my instruction so that students could learn about themselves as writers and develop strategies for avoiding common pitfalls on future assignments, thereby strengthening their writing performance over the year" (66). However, Bauer used her audio comments in lieu of written feedback. Her comments were not a recording of an actual conferring session with her student writers. In some ways, her audio commentary was still her enacting her authority over the student's work as an instructor handing down directions for improvement.

Although there is a great deal written about the power of conferring with student writers and emerging research about the benefit of using audio comments to provide feedback, as of yet there does not seem to be research on the merging of these two feedback practices. However, there does appear to be an interest in the possibility offered by using digital tools to record student writing conferences. This past week I developed an online survey of writing teachers' attitudes and practices for providing students with feedback on their writing. Using social media and email, I have so far received responses from 22 educators from a diversity of teaching situations. Just over half of the respondants are from the greater Philadelphia area while the remaining hail from the Northeast of the United States to Canada's western coast. Educators from elementary school through collegiate level responded, and nearly all of the respondants voiced an interest in learning better strategies for providing student writers with timely, supportive feedback. Only three of the respondants felt confident in the ways in which they provided their student writers with feedback. Although a majority of the teachers who responded felt that they had more to learn about providing feedback, well over half had used digital tools to provide feedback to their students writers with varying degrees of success. Two of the teachers who responded were already using an audio recording Add-On in Google Drive to leave audio feedback on their students' written work. So there does seem to be an emerging trend of using digital tools to provide feedback and thus opening up possibilities as both teachers and students have the ability to access that feedback anywhere at any time. But the most often made comment was about timing and a wish for more time to work with students individually on their writing. Although this seems disappointing, in fact there is great opportunity here as using digital audio recordings during conferencing sessions may be a way to open up some of that time. Using and sharing audio recordings of conferences with a class of students may help to build a library of feedback which students would be able to access when and where ever they needed it. A digital library of recorded conversations with student writers about their writing process may be a helpful way to think about providing supportive feedback to practicing writers.

In the coming week, I hope to have more teachers complete my survey (hint, hint), and I also am looking to interview a few teachers who are already using audio tools to provide student writers with feedback. My goal is the connect with those teachers that are using digital tools to audio record comments in order to pilot the idea of recording conferencing sessions in addition to trying this approach in my own classroom. And I would love to hear from you!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Moments Like This

Moments Like This

Energy runs shoulder to fingertip
When I wrap my arms around her

I gather
This moment in my memory,
Room packed with writers

My heart around her excitement,
The nervous joy of her

Her voice to share
A moment of

I could not stop smiling last night.  Two of my tenth grade students not only have the honor of being published in the current issue of Philadelphia Stories Jr., but they both ventured into Philadelphia last night to read their poems to a packed room of student writers, teachers, family, and friends at Mighty Writers. And as I stood at the back of the room watching them read their poems with poise and confidence, I could not help beam with pride. These are the moments that push me to keep doing what I do, encouraging students to write creatively and to share their work with audiences outside of the classroom.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Power of Poetry: Teaching Resources

When I was 12, an aunt gave me my first diary as a Christmas gift. I filled its pink pages with descriptions of my day, drawings of outfits, song lyrics, details of my latest crush. That's what a diary is for, at least according to the knowledge I had gathered from 1980's sitcoms.  It was my seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Zeinstra, who introduced me to a different type of daily writing.

Just a few of my recent Writer's Notebooks
In our Writer's Notebooks, we created elaborate stories involving our classmates, played with words, and copied down our favorite poems to use as mentors for the pieces we wanted to write. I copied down line after line of Shel Silverstein, admiring his rhyme and humor. But I realized, probably not as quickly as I should have, that I am not good with rhyme. Mrs. Zeinstra gently guided me toward other poets. I discovered blank and free verse poets, the works of Robert Frost, e.e.  cummings, and William Carlos Williams, and in them found my own voice. My seventh grade teacher fostered in me a lifelong love of poetry. She did not tell me what to read or what to write. Instead, she rolled a cart full of poetry books and anthologies into our class and gave us time to read, to explore, to copy and craft. She opened a space for us to find poetry on our own terms.

The Power of Poetry

We hear it in the music of well-written lines. We feel a poem's power in the way its imagery draws us close to a particular moment, a particular time.  We feel it in the beating of our heart, the very life of the poem.  It speaks to our memory, awakens connections. Poetry pulses through the core of what it means to be human. Take for example the first stanza of James Richardson's poem "One of the Evenings":
After so many years, we know them.
This is one of the older Evenings — its patience,
settling in, its warmth that wants nothing in return.
Once on a balcony among trees, once by a slipping river,
so many Augusts sitting out through sunset —
first a dimness in the undergrowth like smoke,
and then like someone you hadn’t noticed
has been in the room a long time. . . .
April is National Poetry Month
Like those "older Evenings", we know the power of poetry, feel its warmth when it settles in.  National Poetry Month calls us to pay closer attention to those poetic voices that we have perhaps let sit a bit too long while we attended to other things. But when we do call up those familiar poets, we realize that their words have been guiding us all along. Their words reveberate throughout our lives.

And yet so many students come think of poetry in the way that former poet laureate of the United States Billy Collins describes it in his piece titled "Introduction to Poetry," as writing that must be beaten and tortured in order to "to find out what it really means." We ask studentsjo to define unfamiliar terms, to circle metaphors and similies, to hunt for symbolism, instead of simply letting students "waterski/ across the surface of a poem."  In an interview with BigThink, Billy Collins reflected on how poetry is approached in school:
"Well the way poetry is taught is with great emphasis on the interpretation.  So we have this thing, the poem, and we want to create this other thing called the interpretation of the poem which then almost begins to compete with the poem – and in the worst cases replaces the poem.  So once we have the interpretation, we can actually discard the poem.  That’s the worst case scenario.  The question, “What does a poem mean?” is a deadening question."
And so National Poetry Month calls us as teachers to reflect on how we are engaging our students with the music, the imagery, and the power of poetry.

Resources for Teaching Poetry

Picture of mosaic ceiling in Washington, DC by Takomabibelot 
In teaching both tenth grade English and Creative Writing students, I infuse my curriculum with poetry.  We use poetry to discuss authorial choices made in a particular work and how those choices impact style, tone, and meaning. Poetry provides an entry for us to reflect on writing as a craft, to think about how the economy of words, how sound and imagery, and how the arrangement of words upon the page impacts us as readers.  Poetry dramatizes the craft of writing for practicing writers.

So, I wanted to share a few of the resources that I use with my students as we read and write poetry:  
  • When I teach poetry, I try to avoid simply teaching a series of forms. Instead, like my seventh grade English teacher, I try to encourage my students to explore a variety of poets, a variety of poems, and to mimic their style for just a while.  We search for the voices that we connect to and reflect on how the poet forges that connection.  Here is a link to my poetry unit.
  • There are a number of writers that have helped shape how I think about poetry as well as how I teach it. I could not teach poetry without Georgia Heard's book Writing Toward Homewhich offers not only writing prompts at the close of each chapter but also lyrically written examples to inspire all sorts of writers. Susan G. Wooldridge's book poemcrazy is specifically about writing poetry, and her ideas translate very well to the high school classroom.  And of course there are the poets themselves.  As we study poetry, I bring in my poetry books and journals, anthologies and photocopied favorites.  My high school students gravitate toward Billy Collins and Robert Frost. As we shift through poetry anthologies, e.e. cummings and Dorothy Parker quickly become new favorites.  I bring in the work of the beat poets to challenge students about what poetry looks and sounds like.  And to help them hear poetry, we watch a number of performance poets, including Shane Koyczan and the Brave New Voices poets.
  • There are of course a number of online resources for teaching poetry, but I only want to share two so as not to overwhelm readers. In fact, I'm only really sharing one resource - Edutopia. There are two recent blog posts on Edutopia that share not only a list of valuable online resources but also serve as a good reminder of why and how to use poetry in the classroom. Check out Joshua Block's post on "(Re)Creating Poets" and Matt Davis's post featuring a great number of online poetry resources.
  • One of the most important moments in our study of poetry is when we invite poets to join us in class.  Students tend to think of poets as a bunch of dead writers.  Having the opportunity to hear a poet read her work and be able to ask questions of the poet has been one of the more memorable experiences of our class.  And, it is not hard to find a published poet to speak with your students.  I started with regional poet laureate programs.  Many communities around the United States have their own poet laureates who are happy to meet with students to talk about the art and craft of poetry.  My students met with Liz Chang, the former poet laureate of Montgomery County in Pennsylvania.  A simple search for your state's poet laureate (most have one) should help you find resources to connect with that writer.  If you live in a more urban area like I do, you may also have regional poet laureates.  In the Philadelphia area, we have a Philadelphia Poet Laureate and a Philly Youth Poet Laureate, in addition to poet laureates for Montgomery and Bucks counties.
  • But if you can't arrange for a poet to come into your classroom in person, there are many ways to bring in poets virtually.  Using Skype or Google Hangouts makes it easy to connect with poets from all over.  In fact, here are just a few of the online connections that you might use to bring poetry into your classroom:
    • Teacher Elissa Malespina hosts a virtual Poetry Summit in May each year where students write and share their work with other students and with published poets using Google Hangouts.  Learn more by visiting her site
    • Find a contemporary poet that you and your students have read and email the writer to find out if they will join your class by Skype or Hangouts.  It can't hurt to ask!  You'll find a list of writers that do these sorts of virtual visits on Skype's education site as well as on author Kate Messner's blog.
    • Join online conversations with other teacher poets.  Start by joining the G+ TeacherPoets Community. If you are involved with the National Writing Project, joining the Digital Is community is another great way to connect with other writing teachers. 
    • Use Twitter to connect with poets.  I love following Kevin Hodgson (@dogtrax) online because he shares so much of how he is using poetry with students as well as his own digital poetry creations. And did you know that you'll find the current U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey on Twitter as @NTrethewey.  Not long ago, Mashable also posted a piece on "38 Gifted Poets on Twitter."  Twitter makes it easy for both teachers and students to connect with poets. So, get tweeting! 

Poetry Publication Opportunities for Students

  • The AA Independent Press Guide is a listing of over 2,000 reputable American literary magazines and their submission guidelines. If you are interested in publishing your poetry or short stories, this is an amazing resource.
  • Teen Ink is an excellent web and print publication written by and about teens from all over the United States. Students can submit essays, reviews, short stories, poetry, and artwork online.
  • Figment is a community where teens can share their writing, connect with other readers, and discover new authors. Whatever teens are into, from sonnets to free verse poetry, they can find it here
  • The River of Words Project sponsors an annual, international, environmental poetry and art contest for children and teens. The contest's grand prize winners, students ages 5-19, receive a trip to Washington, D.C., where they are honored at an awards ceremony and public reading at the Library of Congress. Entry forms and complete rules can be found on their website.
  • The Claremont Review showcases young adult writers and offers resources such as writing tips from famous authors and an annual teen writing contest.
  • Philadelphia Stories Junior publishes the poetry (and other written works) of teens across Pennsylvania's Delaware Valley. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gone Hunting. Be Back Soon?

I have over researched. It is what I do. I get excited about an idea, and I start hunting for every book, every article, every blog post ever published on the topic. And I am a very good hunter. I have tracked down every mention of “feedback” hiding in the indexes of books that line my shelves. I have retraced my path through the works of familiar writers - Troy Hicks, Donald Graves, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher - and in these footprints, I have found new paths to follow. Unfortunately, I get so caught up in the hunt that I lose track of my starting point. And that is where I find myself today, lost in the woods, hunkered down in tomes on feedback and conferring as I try to suss out where to begin. So let me retrace my steps a bit.

Like so many English teachers, I spend hours writing comments on student writing. Having taught for just over a decade, you would think I would have gotten the hang of managing the paper load of giving student writers feedback. Yet instead getting better, I’ve gotten worse….much, much worse. When I first started out, I could get through a stack of 30 or so papers in a couple of hours. Today, it takes days...okay, weeks. But it is not as dire as I am making it sound. When I first started teaching, I would assign essays. Each student wrote to the same prompt. Each student would turn in nearly the same paper. Each comment I wrote was nearly the same as the last. What were students learning about writing? Nearly nothing. So over the years, I changed how I teach writing. When we write in class now, most of the writing that we do is for a purpose and an audience outside of just me as the teacher. The feedback I give students today is not simply in the form of grammar corrections and a paragraph at the close of the paper they have turned in for a grade. I have learned from the gurus - Penny Kittle, Peter Elbow, Ralph Fletcher - that feedback in form of questions helps my emerging writers reflect on the writing choices they make. And my students are writing and publishing in spaces where others can read and give feedback as well. Technology has changed not only how students receive feedback on their writing, but also when and where they get that feedback. This is what takes time. And unfortunately, I am frustrated in how I am using my time.

Because we use collaborative online writing tools like Google Docs to turn in our written assignments, students know they have access to help when and wherever they need it. Learning and writing are no longer confined to the classroom. The teacher-student relationship is no longer confined to the physical classroom. So as my students are working on a writing piece, it is not unusual for them to message me or shoot me a quick email to ask a question about a sentence or a paragraph idea. And wherever I happen to be, in front of a computer or shopping for groceries, that little ping from my phone alerting me that a student is working on developing their writing makes me smile. I must oblige, and so I send off a quick response, a question to guide their revision. But as you can imagine, the few days before a writing piece is due, those pings multiple becoming a cacophony of unmanageable requests for feedback. I see students engaging deeply in the process of their writing as they request feedback, but those requests are often last minute and many times requesting help editing rather than support for larger revision issues. So, how do I spend less time answering emails at all hours and encourage more meaningful revision and reflection on writing? Let me ask Nancie Atwell and Peter Elbow.

Both Atwell and Elbow point out the dangers of over evaluating student writing. Student writers are empowered when they maintain authorial ownership and autonomy over their writing endeavors. Marking a student’s paper with the dreaded red pen or even using digital tools to heavily comment in the margins of a student’s writing diminishes the control that the student has over his or her own piece. As Elbow points out in “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment,” we condition our students out of reflecting on their rhetorical choices when we over comment. Elbow writes, “constant evaluation by someone in authority makes students reluctant to take the risks that are needed for good learning -- to try out hunches and trust their own judgement.” And this is in part why Peter Elbow and Nancie Atwell among others advocate for teachers to instead engage in verbal conferences with student writers. Conferring with students maintains the student writer’s authorial control over his work and opens greater opportunities for teachers to have conversations with the writer about his rhetorical and content choices. Rather than the one-sided feedback that students get through a teacher’s written comments, writing conferences encourage reflection and support the student’s autonomy. But, conferences take time...lots of time. So, how might we combine the accessibility that the use of digital tools offers with the support that conferencing provides?

Audio recording! Here’s my idea: when I conference with a student writer about her work, I’m going to use the audio recording extension in the Google Drive Add-On menu to record the conversation that we have about a particular writing assignment. That student can then return to her document later and replay our conversation. And, because I have my students turn their work in using shared folders in Google Drive, if that student opens the privacy setting on her piece of writing so that others in class can see it, her peers will be able to also replay the audio file of our conference. Within the shared folder, students can have access to multiple writing conferences. In her book In The Middle, Nancie Atwell writes about the importance conferring with writers, stating that conferences have a greater impact on how student writers learn than any lesson or comment that a teacher could give (17-18). Using shared audio recordings of conferences to give feedback could open up new ways avenues for students to reflect on their writing choices. And there is some emerging research on the power of using audio tools to teach emerging writers.

Jeff Sommers in the recent volume of the Journal of College Literacy and Learning writes about the power of recorded voice responses to student writers, an activity he calls “Response 2.0”. He writes, “Response 2.0 can be fuller, deeper, and broader than written response because most teachers can speak faster than they can write or type, and the technology itself frees audio and video responders from the constraints of space on a printed page of text” (35). Sommers’ review of how university writing professors are using audio and video commentary to give feedback to student writers gives writing teachers from levels ideas for how technology may be able to help our practicing writers reflect and engage more meaningfully with their writing endeavors. His review of previous research and responses from his own student writers helps us to imagine how digital tools may enhance our classroom efforts and offer more supportive feedback.

In my hunt to find support for using digital recordings to give student writers feedback, I have found some promising leads. Now, I need to gather what I have found and make some tracks of my own.  Let’s put this theory into practice!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Unplanned Lesson in Empathy

Slice of Life Challenge, Day 31 

I'm taking some time to reflect on empathy this morning. I stumbled across David Theune's request for stories of empathy on Twitter not long ago. After reading Emily Bazelon's Sticks and Stones, Theune couldn't stop asking the question: "What can I do to help promote empathy?" And so he put out a request for others to share their stories about the power of empathy in hopes of compiling them in a book. His request has me recalling an unplanned lesson from a couple of years ago.

Every semester my tenth grade students and I read Eli Wiesel's Holocaust memoir Night. As we discuss the memoir, we also read poetry, news articles, and personal essays from those impacted by the atrocities of war. Our purpose is to understand the complexities of humanity, to understand where our humanity comes from and how it can be lost.  And each semester we are fortunate enough to have a local Holocaust survivor come into our classroom to share his story of surviving not one but three death camps. His harrowing personal tale, told with such grace and strength, never fails to move all those who hear it.

My students heard Mr. Herskovitz speak again in October 2013
A few years ago when survivor Michael Herskovitz came to speak with our class, one of my students asked if he ever felt anger toward the Nazis. Mr. Herskovitz's response moved us to action. He told us that he cannot be angry. Every day is a gift that he treasures, a gift that he will not give over to feeling angry. He freely shares his story in the hopes that history will not be forgotten, in hopes that the voices of those who had their humanity stolen from them will not be quietly lost to history. He wants students to stand up for one another, to empathize with one another.

Michael Herskovitz
My students were visibly moved by Mr. Herskovitz's response. The next day as we reflected on his story, my students overwhelmingly felt that they wanted to do more. They wanted to do something to share what they had heard and learned with the rest of our school community. It was not part of a planned lesson. Instead, my students took over our English class, and together we shared an important lesson on empathy.

The students split themselves into committees. They planned, prepared, and presented an idea to our principal. The students staged a series of "What Would You Do?" scenarios around the school and filmed student reactions. The students wrote the scenes, planned the filming, informed the teaching staff, and filmed three scenes in which students were being bullied in the hallways between classes. We didn't quite know what to expect.

What we learned is that students would step in and speak up when they saw classmate's being bullied. My students interviewed those students who intervened, some breaking down in tears when they were asked what prompted them to speak up. And my students used the footage of scenes and interviews to put together a short documentary for our school television station. The students shared reflections from their reading, from hearing Mr. Herskovitz, from what they learned about our school community, and what it means to be a bystander and what it takes to stand up. At the foundation of all they had learned - empathy. Following the project, some of my students started a school chapter of the Anti-Defamation League and our school has since been designated as a "No Place for Hate" school. And two years after meeting Mr. Herskovitz and reading Night, the club and the lessons we learned continue to be shared.

What the students learned from this experience continues to influence our school community in the conversations we have about personal responsibility, about humanity, about the bystander effect, and most of all in how we think about empathy. It was not part of my planned lesson. I could not have planned for the learning that took place over the course of those few weeks. I am so thankful to work in a district and with a community of educators who value these unplanned learning opportunities, who understand that teachers have as much to learn from students as students do from teachers, and who value they lessons that cannot be easily measured by a rubric or standardized test. In five years, my students likely will not remember a single test they took in my class. However, I can guess that many of them will recall this experience in five years. And I know that it was a classroom experience that will forever impact how I think about learning and teaching.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Making It Happen: The Maker Movement

Slice of Life Challenge, Day 30 

Check out all the Make 2 Learn organizations
By now you have heard of the Maker Movement. With hacker spaces and maker clubs cropping up in schools, communities, and online spaces everywhere, opening up time to tinker has grown from a small grass-roots movement into what some might consider a paradigm shift, especially when it comes to school settings. More and more are we seeing teachers and students engaged in hands-on, project-based learning that requires learners to think creatively and critically while collaborating to construct something tangible. Students are trying, failing, and trying again. Learners plan, play, and produce. The Maker Movement attracts many teachers and students because it is not simply about producing. It is about creating. It is about the connected processes of learning that students engage in as they think through problems and construct their own learning. And at the center of the learning, of the creating and constructing, are students.  Students own not just the product, but the process as well.

This distinction between products and creation is being explored by teachers in all sorts of classroms. Hands-on learning is not just for the science classroom.  English and language arts classrooms across the country are actively engaged in the Maker Movement. Support for these endeavors can be found in organizations like the National Writing Project (NWP), the International Reading Association, and Edutopia. You'll find playlists of TED Talks all about craftmanship and articles on the international impact of the Maker Movement in the Wall Street Journal. The Maker Movement is making more than just a few small ripples in education.  It is wave, changing the way we empower students.

And this makes absolute sense to me. I’ve always been a crafter. I come from a long line of crafters. When I was very little, my mom would have me clean the gallon milk jugs we collected for her mother, my grandma. Grandma would use the plastic handles to create kitchen dish washing scrubbies, which she sold in craft fairs all over western Michigan. My mom sewed. She sat me down at a sewing machine when I was eight to stitch my first skirt, and I’ve been crafting and sewing ever since. 

My little guy has some loose teeth. Together we sewed this tooth pillow.
Crafting is not only a way to express my creative side, but it is also my connection to others. The variety of people that I have met through craft shows and classes, walking through fabric aisles and in online communities, has enriched my life. Crafters see a world of possibility around every corner. We see opportunity in discarded glass containers and potential in torn clothing. We are never far from a needle and thread and always carry a notebook for when inspiration hits, which it does quite often. We are do-it-yourselfers that like to dabble and make mistakes, knowing that however a project turns out, we will learn from the process. We are a group that encourages one another, that shares what we have learned, and that look out for each other.

I am a maker.

So it is time for me to hit publish and go connect with some other makers!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Keeping Elbow Close at Hand

Slice of Life Challenge, Day 25 

Pic from Bernard L. Swartz Comm. Inst.
I first encounted Peter Elbow's work in my undergraduate writing methods course. His writing has served as inspiration both for how I write as well as how I teach writing. Today I had the opportunity to revisit his piece from the College English journal published in 1993, "Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgement." I've been doing some research on feedback, so it makes sense to return to my mentor, Mr. Elbow.

We are a culture obsessed with feedback. Just take a cursory scan of the books listed in Amazon's search list when you type in "feedback" as a search term. Over 100,000 items pop onto the screen, everything from books on neuropsychological assessment to a children's picture book. And recently, a number of news outlets have been featuring the recent work Harvard's Negotiation Project, a book titled Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. So even though Elbow's essay is over twenty years old, feedback is clearly a topic with which we continue to grapple.

Elbow's argument against ranking and grades, so closely linked to the writings of Alfie Kohn, Sir Ken Robinson, and many others, highlights what we have known to be true about student writers for a long time: grades kill writing. As Elbow points out, "Ranking leads students to get so hung up on these oversimple quantitative verdicts that they care more about scores than about learning - more about the grade we put on the paper than about the comment we have written on it." Any teacher of writing knows this. How many times have we complained that when we return their essays, after spending hours making careful comments and questions, students take a cursory look at the grade and toss the paper into the trash. Why is this? Elbow argues in part this happens because we have conditioned our student writers to be concerned with their rank. We have made them grade addicts.

And yet, we know this will not grow their writing skills. Elbow argues that students need thoughtful, evaluative comments that move their thinking forward, but which is mostly free of the ranking that can hinder their growth. I agree. We want our students to become reflective, confident, motivated writers. However, the threat of the red pen, whether in the form of a grade or in the form of over evaluating, can shut down the reflection and risk-taking that we need to encourage in our practicing writers to engage in. Elbow writes that "constant evaluation by someone in authority makes students reluctant to take the risks that are needed for good learning -- to try out hunches and trust their own judgement." We do not want students simply writing for us. What good is that? Elbow states that the worst influence of grading and over-evaluation of our student writers can be seen when students make changes to their writing “for the sake of the grade; not really taking the time to make up their own minds about whether they think my judgments or suggestions really make sense to them."

Instead, student writers grow when given opportunities to write for supportive readers. Students do need opportunities to write for both evaluation and (unfortunately) ranking, but we can lessen the negative impact these practices by carefully considering how to motivate student writers to reflect and revise through careful use of our feedback. As teachers, we need to be their supportive and not just critical readers.  We know this from our own experiences as writers.  I bet that most of us can recall that one teacher (or perhaps a few) who encouraged us to write more, who believed in our writing endeavors.  Elbow highlights this, too: "...the way writers learn to like their writing is by the grace of having a reader or two who likes it -- even though it's not good.  Having at least a few appreciative readers is probably indispensable to getting better." We help our writers grow when we put down the red pen and put on our reading lens. When we respond to our students' writing as invested readers, our feedback helps to support their endeavors. We highlight that connection between writer and audience, between writing and reading. And when we give feedback from this position, we help our emerging writers understand both the purpose and audience for their writing. This is where writing grows -- not in circling grammar mistakes or slashing out redundancies, but in highlighting our connections to the writer and the writing.