Reflection, or a Note on Grammar, Peer Review, and WAW

keyboard-956466_640From Sarah Horning—

In experience, I am a neophyte to the world of teaching composition, but in spirit I am a composition battleax, Bedford handbook and red pens firmly in hand. By summer’s end, my lessons were planned with all of the ad rem material, plus “just in time” mini-lessons on grammar sprinkled throughout the semester so that I could collectively norm the class to avoid the things that always go wrong— misplaced modifiers, pronoun/ antecedent disagreement, passive voice, & etc. I uploaded exercises, chapters, and handouts to the course website. I spent copious amounts of time and red ink correcting the first few batches of essays.

It didn’t take long to set in that, usually (caveat below), my students couldn’t care less about my line item comments. My curmudgeonly resolve in high gear, I dutifully typed out examples and exercises from my handbook. My students listened politely, and seemed to genuinely care, but took no notes and probably didn’t retain much content. I got the distinct impression that correctness didn’t matter to them, even though at the start of the course they articulated correctness as one of their shared goals.

Eventually, I realized that the important goal is not for them to remember a rule (particularly since Mike Rose reminds us about how harmful rules can be for students’ writing processes) as much as it is to simply write well by meeting the needs of readers. Our intended audiences, after all, are the immediate judges of our writing before any Profs on an MLA committee will ever judge our work. I now use (anonymous) sample sentences from student writing to demonstrate errors by typing them into slides and projecting them for everyone to read. Students are quick to spot problems and correct them using their own ears and instincts—no rules required. When I do these lessons, students are engaged in the diagnosis and revision since they see it as a puzzle to solve, and they frequently copy down the examples—especially if the sentence in question belongs to one of their own. I might be reading with rose colored glasses, but since the switch, I see fewer of misapplications of whatever rules we’ve workshopped in their writing.

The practice of workshopping, in its various incarnations, has at some times succeeded splendidly, and at other times it has failed spectacularly. The first workshop was a spectacular failure—I created a cover sheet with what I thought were open-ended questions that would guide students’ responses to their peers’ work, but, contrary to my optimistic expectations, they approached the cover sheet like a form to fill out with efficient (terse) answers to each question. Added difficulty came with the problems of time and physical paper. Students felt rushed to read, evaluate, and write up their peers’ work in the space of an hour and fifteen minutes. Add to that the record keeping problem of “Who gets to keep the cover sheet?” and I knew my first peer review had earned the “epic fail” moniker.

Looking for solutions, I read Melissa Ringfield’s essay, “Do You See What I See? Webcourses Peer Review versus Google Docs” on the CCC blog. With the authority of failure, I enthusiastically recommend Melissa’s advice; I wish I had followed it to the letter, but I followed with trepidation and ended up with success at the price of efficiency. The technology is prone to error (I have to be careful to make sure no student gets left out in the shuffle of assigning pairs and groups.), students have a difficult time finding and retrieving the peer review, and comments in the margin don’t print to hard copy.

However, students do engage with online peer review enthusiastically. Students seem to like the interactive-ness of the software, since it enables them to comment and reply to comments in a thread-like way. Since I’ve started commenting online, students do seem to make the line item changes more frequently than they did with early writings. Even though I only assign students to review in pairs, several small groups have formed organically so that students review multiple drafts and receive multiple reviews. The peer review function in Webcourses solved the paper problem, since everyone can read, comment, and download within the software. I particularly enjoy the visual “conversation” that happens as students comment, respond to comments with sub-comment-bubbles, and as I respond to either support or correct peer review advice. This Spring, I’ll try the Google Doc method in hopes of eliminating software woes. (Super goal: design accountability mechanisms for small in-class workshops.)

Other adoptions for the Spring will include some simple changes that developed late in the term and have worked well. I now use engaging timers (embedded Youtube videos) for short activities; each class begins with my articulation of the goals for each session, including timing for each activity; in class writing will represent its own category and substantive portion of the overall course grade to better hold students accountable for readings. The readings will be fewer, and I’ll aim for a balance with a few lighter to read but still important readings (like other chapters from Bird by Bird, for instance). Bigger changes to come are additional orderliness in Webcourses, thanks to the calendar function, a revised “task one” that looks more like a proposal than a personal essay, and shifts in the overall workflow to provide more balance between students’ in class/out of class responsibilities. My goal behind all of these changes is to emphasize the scaffolded nature of the course—to provide students with cues about the connections between writing and reading assignments and how to progress at each stage in the course.

Teaching WAW has been challenging. The challenge, though, has made me engage with composition and with pedagogy in ways that I likely wouldn’t have if I had spent sessions dutifully (curmudgeonly) working through Bedford chapters. When students engage in a classroom activity and lose track of the time, I feel like I’m starting to get it right.

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