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!
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