Over the past few years I have struggled to have students effectively peer revise/edit as part of the writing workshop model. When given the opportunity to collaborate and make revisions to their work, I would often overhear students say things like: “I really like your piece!” or “You’re a great writer!” Although these comments were great for one’s self-esteem, they did little for improving the actual quality of student writing.
Year after year I have remained hopeful that a new group of students and a new plan would in turn produce improved results. I have continuously revised my approach by adding check lists, allowing students to study “model” peer revision/editing sessions, while continuously praising students that were able to obtain any feedback, all to no avail. Although I knew that there was a way to have students at the center of their learning within the writing process, I wasn’t able to produce anything but courteous comments that had little or no positive effect on the final product.
This all changed this year as I introduced the P2A Constructive Criticism tool to my class. I began by having my colleague and co-teaching partner model the tool using a piece of art. As an accomplished artist, I allowed him to be the person giving the constructive criticism while I was on the receiving end. We began by having him take a look at one of my sketches that I had done on the chart paper for the class to see. Although most students know that destructive criticism is harmful, rude, and not helpful we made sure to start there. As my colleague looked over my artwork he started to laugh at the house I had drawn. He told me that the door looked foolish and that it was drawn in the same proportion as the windows and therefore looked like a “doggie door.” When we asked the students what they observed as they watched our conversation, they were quickly able to identify that the criticism was not helpful, but in fact they were hurtful and only created negative feelings towards my work and abilities. We asked the kids to observe once again as we continued our conversation. As I started to describe my drawing once again my colleague listened carefully. When the time came to critique the drawing he explained that he liked the colors I had chosen for the flowers in the yard, he told me house was pretty-good, and that he thought the overall picture was nice. When we asked the kids what they saw, they were able to articulate the fact that the information provided was polite, but it wasn’t truly effective in helping me to improve my drawing. As we started the final session it was clear that the students knew where we were going. As they watched our conversation they noticed clear differences from the first two examples. This time my colleague listened, nodded, and showed his interest by asking questions. When I finished the explanation he let me know that he liked the colonial style house I had chosen for my drawing. He continued by explaining that I might consider increasing the size of the house, the size of the front door, and moving the windows up in order to help with the overall proportions of the house. He continued by explaining his fondness for the trees and that if I wanted them to appear behind the house I could set them higher on the paper so that they would appear further back. We stopped our conversation to ask the group what was different about the third conversation that was just modeled. Over and over the students continued to talk about the specificity of the feedback that was given. The students were able to articulate that the information that I was provided with was useful, specific, and helpful. They noticed that the compliments were coupled with specific ways that I could improve my drawing.
So how does this fit with writing? When given the opportunity to peer revise/edit students now understand what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like to give constructive criticism in a way that will actually improve the overall quality of the writing. They are giving each other feedback that is helpful, specific and useful. Now when I circulate around the room during a peer revision/editing time I hear things like: “You might want to use a simile in this sentence; it would really help your audience see what you are talking about in this part.”, “You might consider making this a new paragraph because you have changed to a new scene.”, and “This section is so good; you might want to slow down your writing because it feels like it moves really fast.” Finally, students are giving each other feedback that can actually have an impact on their writing! And for some reason, not only is the feedback seeming to stick, it is generalizing into all areas of writing at a much faster rate than when it came from just “the teacher”!