Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Information on Responding to Student Writing from Laura Baltuska

SNL Writing Instructor Laura Baltuska recently attended the Chicago Composition Symposium on new strategies for assessing and responding to student writing. Here she sums up what she learned from Nancy Sommers of Harvard University on responding to student writing.
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Responding to Student Writing:  Workshop, Nancy Sommers

Sommers began the session by exploring questions she poses for her students at the beginning of each semester:
  • What was your best writing experience?
  • What was your worst writing experience?
  • How did instructor comments on drafts affect this?
  • What comments do you remember the most?
  • What is the purpose of instructor comments?

Key points about comments:

All comments on student drafts should be written to the student as opposed to the paper, and the best comments will push students to improve for next time (push for revision) (ex.  Maybe next time, take a risk…To open a paper, try to ask a question or focus on a detail to grab your reader…Ask a question you don’t have an answer to (This is important because college writing is all about asking questions you don’t have answers to.), etc.).

There are lots of things you want to teach, but it’s important to really think about whether the comments you’re leaving on student drafts really teach these skills.

For each comment you write on a draft, think of specific lessons you can teach a student (maybe 2).  Think about why and how these comments would teach these lessons.

The language you use in the comments you make should reflect what you’ve talked about in class.  The same goes for the language used in all of your assignment prompts.

Give time to let your comments set in and for the students to work on revision.  Use classroom time for revision, and have students come up with specific goals for revision that they’ve talked about with you so they are focused and know what to work on for improvement.

  • After revisions, Sommers also stresses that students come up with “Dear reader” letters (cover letters) for their audience (you, peers, etc.).  It’s good to ask students to put in the letter for their rough draft, “If you had two more days to work on this paper, what would you work on?”   Doing so lets you know if the student is able to assess his or her own writing skills and gives you a way to enter into the paper. 

Speak to your students about comments in general:
  • Here’s why I write comments….  Include this manifesto in your syllabus.
  • Here’s what I’d like you to do with my comments.
  • Ask students about your comments at midterm.  They should give you feedback on your feedback so you can improve.
  • Comments should be treated as a text in the class. You spend time writing them, so students should examine them as a text.
  • Ask students what they do with your comments, and clarify what they are supposed to do with your comments.  Comments establish a dialogue with students, and they are to engage with your comments to enter into this dialogue.
    • Clarify that your comments are just as important as their writing, and that your comments are an invitation for students to ask questions about them.  Comments are part of a dialogue, not a monologue.

Consider adapting a response pattern to student papers in the form of a comment sheet, written as a letter:  Last time I asked you to do this…Moving forward…. For the next time you write….  For the next assignment….  Make your comments personal to the student.

  • Comments of this sort are good as a rough draft approach.  Your comments may differ for a final draft.

You can also have students talk back to you about your comments answering the following:  What do you understand about these comments and what will you do with them?  They can write you back a letter, too, which should amount to a ½ page to 1 full page revision plan for the paper before it’s submitted the next time.

In terms of responding to grammar, focus on the big picture issues in first drafts (not surface errors) and perhaps grammar related to content issues in later drafts (ex.  Comma splice before quotes).

Most teachers tend to comment on grammar because it’s easier, but it’s best to choose perhaps 2 rhetorical lessons that are harder to come up with and make you think before you address grammar issues. 

What you want to do is avoid becoming the student’s copy editor, “fixing” the paper for him or her.

If you see any “trends” in grammar issues, take time to go over these in class and note, “After I teach it, you should do it right.”

At midterm, you should take the time to ask students what they want you to comment more on, and they should respond in their “Dear reader” letters.  If they respond that they want more grammar help, then do mini grammar boot camp sessions in class. 

When writing comments, focus first on claim/thesis, then maybe transitions, then incorporating source material, then grammar. 

Keep your comments brief.  
  • Reading a 6-10 page paper should take you about 10 minutes.

We have lots of things we need to teach, and individual instruction in comments and conferencing forces you to prioritize.  Use each student’s priorities to take out the most helpful things he or she should focus on, and then that student will always refer back to what you’ve talked about.

We have a short attention span and so do they, so keep comments brief and specific.

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