We all know we need to incorporate writing into every aspect of what we teach. We love writing ourselves. We love getting out the thoughts and tweaking them and rearranging them and scrapping them and finally getting it down just how we want it. It’s a rewarding feeling to put words to paper and feel the creative juices flowing. We try to instill all of this pent-up joy in our students. We let them see us write, we confer, we encourage, we cajole, we edit, we help with ideas. Our students write and rewrite and peer conference and write final drafts. And then? We collect those beautiful pieces and they sit in a pile looking lovely, like hard work would look if you tied it up in a package to give to someone. And sometimes they look so pretty that we just can’t dive right into them, so they sit a while longer. Then they start to take up residence and we feel like we should be charging those piles rent. Guilty as charged.
I am a writing teacher who is overwhelmed by the stacks of stories and essays and claim/evidence paragraphs and reading responses and research papers that can pile up overnight (and they multiply exponentially . . . like rabbits) on my conference table. It’s shameful, really. How do you ask students to do all of this hard work and just let it sit? I’m willing to bet some of you are nodding in agreement right now—either because I’ve got your number or because you’re appalled by my honesty. Me too. Here’s what I did about it last year.
It all started with presentations. That’s right, not writing essays, but presentations. In October my students set about researching and learning about fear. They read historical fiction books based on the topic of fear, they read nonfiction books about something that scared them, and they found an infographic, video clip, or article related to fear in some way. Sixty kids in my two classes had their presentations ready to go on the due date. There was no way I or my students could sit through thirty presentations for two class periods in one day. What’s a teacher to do?
Kids should present so they can practice speaking about something in front of an audience. It’s in the Common Core, after all. But guess what else is in the Common Core? Not just speaking, but listening, too, and presenting to a small group, no less! The idea of peer review was born in my fifth-grade class. The more I thought about allowing students to review and evaluate, the more I liked it! Why should I be solely in charge of their learning? I wanted my students to have a real-world experience where they had to present and defend their findings to their peers. The playing ground was fair: they had choice within the theme topic, but they each had to find a piece of text about fear. Why not have them evaluate each other and themselves? In their presentation, they had to share their piece of text, summarize it, and explain why they had chosen it. The evaluator, in turn, had to summarize the text presented, respond to and/or make a connection with it, and complete a rubric that included rating the speaker’s volume, eye contact, and comprehension of what he or she was presenting. Then, they added up the points and gave a score. Students were put into groups of three and were captivated by one another’s presentations.
The room hummed along at a working volume while some students presented there and others were in the computer lab across the hall showing off their video clips to a rapt audience. They were attentive, and honestly, almost angelic. I got to facilitate and sit in on almost every presentation and enjoy the amazing things my students had found. After all kids presented, I collected their evaluations and stapled them together in packets for each individual student. Because I had the luxury of facilitating and not frantically trying to grade each child’s work like a crazed maniac, I could reflect on what I had seen both that day and while the students were working on finding their text choice. Between what I knew and the scores students gave each other, I was able to “grade” each project appropriately and in a timely manner. I could defend the grade students earned because they knew how their peers evaluated them and they knew I sat in on them and watched their progress over the course of the project. Best of all? The kids loved evaluating each other, especially in smaller groups.
It was such a hit that I started to rethink my grading process (or lack thereof) on projects and writing pieces—the two things that take me the longest to grade. If this worked so well, why not have the kids do it more often? It freed me up to really listen to them, and gave them practice and confidence and pride in sharing their work with others. I was happy to use this method again, but I wanted to see what my classes thought. I went to the jury. What did they think? A resounding yes! They enjoyed having the opportunity to see and hear each other without being in front of the whole class. They also appreciated being able to evaluate themselves, because they could tell me how hard they had worked (or hadn’t) on the project. They had the opportunity to have a say in the grade they earned.
Our next big project for evaluation was a fictional narrative based on the main character taking a journey or quest. We worked really hard on these, devoting several class periods to writing, peer conferencing, teacher conferencing, editing, and so on. The kids were proud of their work, and it was great fun to watch them create fictional pieces. I was familiar with all of their pieces because I had conferenced with each child during writing workshop at some point throughout the month. I knew they loved these stories and were ready to share them. Again, I created guidelines for peer evaluation. Students were put into groups of four and had to read their pieces aloud to one another. This time, the guidelines were a little different. Students had to tell the writer two things he or she did well, and one area in which they had a question or suggestion (something of the praise sandwich idea). They had to thank the writer for sharing his or her work and then fill in the rubric (which was the same rubric they had while writing their pieces) to give a score. Here’s a picture of what the evaluation form looked like:
So, what can you take away from this breakthrough concept (that is really not new at all)? Students love hearing each other talk and they love to collaborate, and when you give them the choice to do so, instead of grading everything yourself, they might just put a little more umph into their work because they know their peers will be hearing it or seeing it. You give your students a voice when you ask them to evaluate each other and themselves. I love rethinking a practice that is so ingrained (teacher grading everything) by shifting the responsibility just a bit. I invite you to rethink a practice in your classroom. Pick something small and tweak it. I still grade stacks of writing papers, but my job was made a little bit easier and certainly more rewarding by allowing my students to share their voices with each other and gain feedback from the people who matter most to them.