Monday, February 17, 2014

Gimmie Feedback

Photo by Avolore
So with a bit of a stutter start due to a freak number of snow days this month, I've gone back to school. Full-time. My sabbatical this semester has me in three graduate courses, one being my required research methods course. Now, I just need to decide what I want to research. In the past, I've done action-research on mastery grading and written some about my interest in engaging student writers with authentic audiences. This time around, I want to spend time thinking about ways to grow stronger writers through feedback.

I’m hoping to conduct my research on student writing and ways in which I can help students better understand their own process of production and engage more deeply in their reflection and revision process. This is a topic that has been written about extensively by many others, and the works of Ralph Fletcher, Kelly Gallagher, Troy Hicks, Penny Kittle, and Nancie Atwell have certainly shaped how I interact with my student writers. However, I want to take some time to focus specifically on what is happening in my classroom, what I’m actually doing to teach and support my emerging writers, and reflect on my teaching strategies and assumptions of how my students learn their writing skills.

Photo by Mortsan
For the last seven or so years, I have almost exclusively taught tenth grade English at a suburban high school just outside of Philadelphia. With about 450 students per grade level at our high school, I usually end up teaching somewhere between 140-170 tenth graders each year, about a third of the grade level. I am generally teaching either honors level or academic level students, though those distinctions are often blurred as our district does not have true levelling system in that students with their parents self-select the level of the course they will take. My classes are diverse in that our district brings together students from a wide socio-economic range, and it is not unusual to have students who come from homes where both parents have advanced degrees and students whose parents did not attend college in the same class. That said, although our cultural diversity is increasing in the district, the majority of students identify as Caucasian, and I would guess that about 80% of my students started in the district as kindergarten students. As such, most of my students have come through a system that focuses on teaching the basic expository paragraph which culminates in writing essays formatted on the five-paragraph style of writing. However, as students get into their sophomore year, that formula for writing breaks down. Content teachers across our high school complain that student writing lacks analysis and critical thinking. So I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on how to teach writing that both encourages students to engage deeply with their content materials as well as reflect on how they are organizing their message.

In my classroom, I have moved away from writing on paper, finding that using online spaces to write, namely blogs and shared Google Docs, allow for greater feedback and for me to act more as a coach during the writing process rather than simply responding to student writing after the final copy has been turned in. I can give feedback as they write. When it is working well, students are not simply writing their own work, but engaged with their peers in a collaborative feedback process. This, however, has been difficult to manage. Generally speaking, the students that enjoy writing, who already write well coming into my classroom, are the same ones that spend the most time engaging with their writing and with the writing of their classmates. The students that need the most support are also those that rarely take time give to feedback to other students. This makes sense. The students comfortable and confident with their writing also feel comfortable helping others. However, the students that need more support, who would benefit from both giving and getting feedback, are those less likely to get it. And as a teacher of about 70 students each semester, I find it difficult to give feedback at multiple points to each student during their drafting process. So even though I know from research that students benefit from feedback during their writing process rather than after they complete it, I struggle to make that happen consistently for all students. This is where I would like to focus my research: How can I use digital tools to provide feedback on student writing that encourages revision and reflection on the writing process? And, how can I get all students involved in that process of feedback as well?

Here's where my research starts - with questions:
  • How do I get all students involved in the process of giving feedback to their peers?
  • Is it helping or hindering the giving of peer feedback that I do not grade peer feedback?
  • What types of feedback do students find most helpful during their writing process?
  • At what point in the writing process do students find feedback most helpful?
  • What inhibits students from giving feedback to their peer’s writing?
  • If my goal with feedback is to get students to go back into their writing to make content revisions and reflect on their writing process, should I grade student interaction with the feedback that I give?
  • How much is access is reliable wireless devices an issue?
  • How might the use of digital tools help the feedback/revision process become more transparent for both the student writer and the teacher?
As a National Writing Project (NWP) fellow, I am invested in students exploring their process of writing. In fact, on the very first day of each semester, the students and I begin by writing a short piece describing a metaphor for our writing process. How do we come up with and then refine our ideas through composition? I clearly approach the teaching of writing from a post-process approach, which means that I share with students, both explicitly and subtly, my understanding of writing as a non-linear process that is public, interpretive, and situated. My understanding of teaching writing influence by this post-process approach as well as by critical theories and is steeped in the writing of Alfie Kohn, Paulo Freire, Grant Wiggins, Allen Webb, and most recently by Troy Hicks, another NWP teacher who has focused his recent work on crafting digital writing with student writers.

And my own writing experiences have shaped how I teach writing. Many of my secondary school teachers and some of my undergraduate professors would share feedback in the form of one or two sentences and a grade at the end of my essays, which did little to encourage reflection on my own writing process. Yet, I was always writing, both for school and for pleasure. It really wasn't until I attend a small liberal arts college for my Masters in Liberal Arts that I began to reflect on how writing happens. My graduate professors gave extensive feedback not on my grammar or sentence construction, but on the content of my writing, talking back with me about how I constructed my ideas and rationales. And, our writing assignments were many times for larger audiences. We were sharing our essays with the other students in class, and many times we were submitting out for publication as well. It was in this program that I learned HTML code, not because I took a course but because I needed to create a website to share a few of my essays for a course on American women writers. And it was this experience of writing for a real audience that changed how I thought about my own writing and about teaching writing. When I started receiving emails from people who were reading my work online, I went back and made deliberate revisions (I even noticed this past week that one of my pieces was referenced in a book). And, I also sought out more opportunities to publish. I've been fortunate to have a couple of my poems published, my essay for This I Believe published, and of course I blog. So in teaching writing, I have sought many opportunities for students to write for larger audiences, not just for me as their teacher.

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons
Technology has made this increasingly easy to do. My students blog, submit for publication through websites and emails, and create their own web pages. And this has had an impact on what they select to write about and share. However, many students still seem to view the writing that they do for school as school writing, meaning it is only important insofar as the grade they receive. I don’t know if this is because students are used to using digital tools (Google Docs, blogs, etc.) to share their work and so the unique sense of an audience has disappeared for them or if perhaps they are so disempowered by the types of circumscribed writing that they have been asked to do that by the time I get them as tenth graders they don’t see the relevance of the writing we are doing. Maybe a combination of the two. But whatever the reason, my students do not seem to engage in reflection and revision as deeply as I would like to see them do.

So this is where my research into using digital tools to provide feedback to student writers begins. I hope to share with other teachers how using digital tools to give feedback makes the writing process more transparent for the students and the teacher and can grow student investment in building their writing skills. To this, my goal is not just interview my students, but students from a variety of schools and settings about how they engage with feedback on their writing. If you are interested in helping (or know someone who might be), reach out! I'd love to make new connections!
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