Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Power of Student Samples

This is my 5th year of teaching Humanities and English 11.  Because I'm somewhat of a digital pack-rat, I've accumulated quite a number of student essays over the years.  I hadn't done this with the intention of building a collection of potential samples--that is simply how it turned out.

My students just finished the first draft of their Unit 3 essays, and they will spend our Culminating Event time next Wednesday revising so they can submit a final draft for me to grade en route to the States for Christmas Break.  For the Unit 1 essay, I personally edited and commented on each rough draft.  This time, I am having the students develop their abilities as peer-editors.  I should note that I did give each essay a once-over (maybe 2 minutes tops) yesterday evening after receiving them, and jotted down major areas of need that had been obvious even after a cursory examination (e.g. missing thesis; lack of citations; organizational issues).  Beyond those comments, the lion's share of the feedback which the students receive will come from their classmates.

In past years, I have had difficulty with peer-editing activities.  One student's image of a classmate plays a big role: if a student happens to be editing an essay written by a classmate who they view as an academic leader, they may have difficulty detecting areas in need of improvement.  Social dynamics also play a role: it may be uncomfortable offering an honest critique of a friend's work for fear of how the friend will respond to criticism, no matter how constructive.  More than this, it can be difficult to articulate why a line on the rubric was scored low or high, what specifically needs to change. 

As early as a month ago, I was starting to brainstorm ideas on how to actually teach some peer-editing skills.  Then, a PLC meeting provided me with the answer.  In November, our English/Social Studies PLC (Professional Learning Community) spent a meeting calibrating our rubrics.  Our department chair gave us a sample essay and we each filled out a rubric to evaluate the sample.  We then talked through our completed rubrics line by line and learned where we'd agreed on the scores, where we'd disagreed, how we'd interpreted the criteria, and why we had graded as we had.  

I decided that it would be worthwhile for the students to go through this same process as it would force them to grade objectively and to firm up in their own minds just what the criteria on the rubric meant--perhaps with that in mind, editing each other's essays would become a more fruitful undertaking.  

So, I printed and distributed two student essays from 2010, names removed--all I told the students was that one was slightly above the standard, and one was well above the standard.  In groups of three or four--the same groups in which the students would eventually peer-edit--the students read through and rubricked the two sample essays.  They graded individually at first, but then had to talk through and agree on an official rubric score with their fellow group-members.  Then, they had to list 3-5 specific positive aspects and 3-5 specific areas of need in each essay.  I averaged each group's scores: the first sample essay received a 2.7, the second a 4.4 (compared to the 3.4 and 4.5 that the essays had actually received).  The students were amazed to discover that they had actually graded more strictly than I had, as I have definitely developed a reputation for being a strict essay grader with this class.  

What followed was an immensely productive discussion of why the students had scored the essays as they had.  In our normally quiet and reticent Humanities class, nearly everyone had something they wanted to say about the problems in the first sample essay: "It had no sense of organization!"  "The vocabulary was so repetitive."  "The in-text citations were formatted incorrectly!"  "The thesis had no preview of points."  Then, I asked what the writer had done well.  This took a bit more thought, but every student was clearly thinking, several even leafing through the essay again on the off-chance that something would leap off the page.  "Well... they do address the prompt."  

"Okay," I replied, "and how many of you gave them a low "prompt" score?"  Most hands went up.  
This provided an opportunity to talk through what it meant to address the prompt, and the fact that this student had in fact done a reasonable job, but this had been unfortunately masked by a lack of organization.

"Now do you see why I put such a strong emphasis on thesis and direction?"

I asked the class if they thought the first student had been a bad writer and most replied that no, this student was actually a decent writer.  This gave me the chance to reveal that this particular student had started the school-year with very low scores, but had ended the year near the top of the class--what they were seeing was a piece of evidence from roughly halfway through the journey.  I certainly hope that this was a source of encouragement to any students who had been disappointed with the scores that they had received on our last essay.

The second essay provided an opportunity to look together at a good thesis and strong sense of direction.  When I asked the students what the biggest problem was (what I'd actually graded down was the fact that the third point had no specific support), I got a variety of answers that intrigued me.  One student had really disliked the bubbly and emotional writing style: "The voice is terrible!"
I explained to her that for this particular student, the bubbly writing style had fit, and that this student's personality came through in her writing.  "However," I added, "This bubbly style would not fit for everyone.  If you turned in a really bubbly essay, I'd probably be worried."

All in all, it was a lively discussion--the best we've had in Humanities this year.  We were able to reach a common understanding (or at least a more objective understanding) of the writing rubric and to talk through a variety of criteria including 'voice', which is next-to-impossible to teach on its own.  

When the students settled down to work on editing each others' essays, I noticed a level of focus and determination that I simply hadn't seen while peer-editing in previous years.  I am truly excited to read the students' final drafts next week!

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