#WWW Writing Workshop Wednesday: Tips for Productive Peer Conferences

As both students and teachers, we’ve seen the many failures of peer review. We’ve experienced and witnessed students not knowing how to comment on another’s writing or how to identify flaws in writing, and sometimes we witness students who think that criticism is “mean” and they would prefer to be “nice.”  On the flip side, we’ve all seen situations where students are too mean on purpose and don’t take the assignment seriously.

So, how do we make peer review meaningful and productive in our classrooms?

This question arose out of a discussion of Writing Workshop during the 11th-grade full-day PLC.  Below is a compilation of our brainstormed solutions as well as a few additional ideas.

Whole-Class Peer Conferencing: Krystal shared a strategy she used with advanced students, in which students’ papers (the names blacked out) were projected from the document camera.  Krystal would then model peer review/constructive criticism, a process the rest of the class would ultimately join in on.  The class comments and asks questions about the paper, and the author has the opportunity at the end to respond to that feedback.  It both holds students accountable for producing quality drafts and provides practice for students in constructive feedback.  In addition, the process makes the writer think about his/her choices as he/she responds to the questions that emerged throughout the review.

Small-Group Read-Aloud & Annotation: Abbe shared a strategy that she and I have done with our AP Language students, which could be applied to accelerated and college prep levels with additional support and structure. In preparation for peer review, students bring multiple copies of their drafts, one for each member of their peer review group and one for them.  During peer conferencing, the student reads his/her paper aloud while the rest of the group listens and annotates the draft. After the student completes his/her reading, the group reports back their comments/questions, etc. and they discuss the paper.  This becomes a productive back-and-forth dialogue between the group and the writer.  Once they’ve exhausted the first paper, the move around the circle until everyone’s paper as been the center of attention.

I first did peer conferencing like this in a college creative writing class, and even though it made me uncomfortable to read my work aloud, it was a productive process as both peer review and self-evaluation.  In the college classroom, there was also a nice dialogue with questioning more so than strictly commenting, which would be the ultimate goal of productive peer conferencing.  Of course, with our various levels of students and abilities in high school classrooms, getting our students to ask each other productive questions that make the writer think and reflect and respond is more difficult than it would be in a college setting, but it is by no means impossible. 

Conference with a Question in Mind:  In a discussion about conferencing, Nicole talked about requiring that her students come to teacher-student conferences with a question (prior to them doing this the first time, Nicole models conversations to help student turn their concerns into viable questions).  The same expectation is feasible in a peer conference.  Often, we set the focus of peer review.  If we could work with students in developing those questions from the issues, weaknesses, or stumbling-blocks in their writing, then those questions could also drive a small group peer conference.  In a writing workshop model, where students will have had the same scaffolding, mini-lessons, etc., and in a classroom where collaboration and questioning is routine, students could productively help each other in working through those questions.

Peer Conferencing Circles with Roles: I suggested a peer-conferencing model that might look like an inquiry circle or literature circle in that we’d assign group roles.  What those roles would be would largely depend on the assignment and the strengths and experiences of the students.  Some examples of writing circle roles that could work are the “Format-Fiend,” who would look for adherence to MLA format, the “Transition-Tester,” who makes sure that paragraphs and ideas are connected through transitions, the “Thesis-Tracker,” who reads to make sure that the body paragraphs explicitly and clearly support the thesis,” or the “Audience Auditor,” who finds out who the intended audience is and evaluates the paper for the appropriateness and/or effectiveness of language and content for that audience.  These roles might be too much to start, depending on the level of the student, so they could also be simpler, including roles that focus on sentence structure, logical progression, a strong introduction and conclusion, topic sentences, evidence, citations, etc.  We can provide expectations/guidelines for each of the roles so the students know what to do and what to look for, and in doing this kind of focused peer conferencing, we’re also meeting some of those reading standards we’re always practicing.  The opportunities here are really endless. The benefits are that students can play to their strengths and have one specific focus for every paper they read in the peer conference.  This way, not every student has to look for everything, but the writer still gets a variety of specific feedback.

Must-haves: Modeling & Focus. Whatever approach we take, it is important to keep two things in mind: modeling and focus.  As teachers with extensive practice in peer-review from our education, we need to model what constructive criticism, academic conversation, and effective questioning looks like.  Students don’t often have the language to communicate effectively in peer conferencing, and this is something we can model and practice throughout writing workshop units. Even if a conversation begins with, “I don’t like this,” we can work with students to better zero in on what they don’t like by continuing to ask them questions in return, such as, “What don’t you like about it?” and starting to give them the language of word choice, sentence structure, etc.

While we’d like students to be able to work through research and writing with self-generated questions based on self-evaluation, we know that this is not necessarily going to happen immediately.  This is why helping students focus when conducting peer review is an important facet to productive peer conferencing.  Assignments that blankly ask students to “review” one another will end in little productivity.  If we’ve taught mini-lessons on thesis statements and organizing an essay from that thesis statement and that’s a focus of our rubric, then perhaps we have them review for those things.  We can give them questions and guidelines to help them evaluate those elements in the form of a handout, but because they’ve had the mini-lesson and the practice, they already have a basic working knowledge and language to discuss that component. The focus can easily be set by the teacher and align with mini-lessons taught before writing or in the revision process.  This way we zero students in on something they have had practice on and something they should definitely be looking for as peer reviewers, and the more we do it, the more experience they’ll have in the types of things we can revise for in peer conferences.

And maybe, just maybe, they’ll apply all of this knowledge to self-evaluation as well.

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