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Mara Corey

© 2002

Action Research:

Peer Conferencing

The Problem

When I first heard that doing research was an important piece of the Minnesota Writing Project, I thought, “Well, I know what I don’t want to do.” I have been struggling terribly in my teaching with peer conferencing, but I know that studies show undeniably that it works. Personally, I think research always seems to be conducted in some ideal classroom where the students do not want to talk at length about last night’s basketball game or the latest Mike Meyers’ movie (how boring!), but rather prefer to discuss a peer’s fascinating argumentative paper about school air quality. My students hate reading each other’s papers and constantly complain about the notes they receive. They all want me to spend hours of my time commenting on every draft. Of course, I do not. Thus, my dilemma. Articles, journals, and books by experienced teachers all prove that peer response is necessary for writing instruction, even though it has not worked well for me. Why would I want to spend three weeks during the summer and months throughout the school year banging my head against this same brick wall when I really believed the gap was in what students were willing to put forth, not in my directions?

However, many of the proponents of peer conferencing are my colleagues who work with the same non-ideal student population as I. They advocate a student-centered protocol with papers, and not just so they can have one quiet class period to themselves while the students dutifully jot down remarks. These teachers are people I respect, people whose opinion counts for something. Could they see something that I was not seeing? The final straw was an article we read at the MWP retreat. It suggested that writing groups perform a variety of functions, the least of which is to read a draft looking for the traits listed on a rubric—exactly what my peer conferencing groups were doing! The other ways of examining a draft seemed so common-sensical, so utterly helpful and constructive, that I threw my hands in the air and accepted my fate. I would have to delve into peer conferencing research and figure out, not what my students are doing wrong, but what I am doing wrong. This could revolutionize my writing classes.

The Pursuit
My first order of business in this quest for materials was limiting myself to only as many resources as I could do justice in the limited time available. ERIC lists thousands of articles of twenty pages apiece that deal with the elements of a successful peer conferencing program. I eliminated many of the papers on elementary education because they covered areas that I would not need to address with college-bound juniors and seniors in high school. Then I weeded out anything that discussed fiction writing solely. A large portion of those was too far off-base from traditional essay approaches. Still, I was left with a plethora of writings on my subject. Unfortunately, much of the information is not disseminated in a clear-cut manner. Most authors spend their time and energy proving that writing groups do work, not telling me how they work. A variety of books gave me clearer criteria to follow when developing a peer response program in my classroom. To separate out which ideas came from which text is nearly impossible because (fortunately, I suppose), most teacher-researchers agree upon the basics.

The Preparation

Primarily, it is important to show students what is expected of their participation in these cohorts. All of the research recommends giving students a clear explanation of the tasks they will be asked to perform for each other; showing them models from former students by keeping various drafts, videotape, or having ex-students reproduce a writing conference; and practicing in class with a teacher’s draft. Each of these steps can seem daunting, but individually they make sense.

Handing students a list of suggestions for peer conferencing is very different from handing them a sheet with pointed questions about a specific draft. Essentially, the most highly scaffolded portion of the training involves offering areas to be addressed. This is a good thing to present to students before the first draft to be conferenced, and review before the second draft. By the third draft, it should be integrated by students or revamped to suit their needs. Instructors differ on how to select these initial categories. Some writers refer to higher order concerns such as focus, purpose, organization, and tone, which students look for on first drafts; and lower order concerns, things like mechanics, grammar, and sentence variation that students examine in later drafts. Other writers prefer a three-tiered approach on every draft. Students begin by making observations, sharing what they believe the writer to be saying; move to evaluations, assessing strengths and weaknesses; and then provide end comments, giving guidance which should help the author to set goals. A third cadre of writers suggests not setting any parameters whatsoever, forcing students to come up with questions they would like the group to address.

The second makes more sense to me because it allows the student to see what the peers’ response to her paper is and to receive feedback for what direction others might head next. Perhaps meshing these three approaches would give writing groups the notion that their observations, evaluations and end comments should be in response to items the author is concerned about and should change in purpose from the first draft to the final, starting by clarifying the ideas and moving towards polishing. If that is not too complicated a proposition, I might use that convergence of theories.

After the teacher provides very general criteria, he could duplicate particularly good examples of peer-response work done by his own students from previous years to provide good models for current students to study. A variation on this theme is to have former students return to the class and perform a mock peer response group. This approach has two things going for it: students can see a good conferencing group in action and so believe that this task is doable, and they may ask questions about what they have observed. A third option involves recording a constructive writing group and playing the tape for the class. Obviously, any kind of modeling the teacher does will demonstrate how to do the job effectively. I am still up in the air about how I can do this when I am first jumping in to peer response.

The last set-up activity is practicing with the students, preferably using a draft of one’s own. Research shows that students respond well to seeing some of their teacher’s writing in class. It takes away the sensation that it is only student work that is on display, in need of help, worthy of criticism. Again, writers differ on the way we could approach this practice. Some have students work as a class to write down observations, evaluations, and end comments. Others believe that work in groups is the key to student practice. I would combine these two approaches and move from a whole class to an individual examination of my draft, monitoring how much of this process makes sense to my audience. For the modeling to be effective, the draft has to be pretty raw. The teacher gets to hear the students’ comments, absorb them, and then rewrite the paper. Although this suggests extra work on the teacher’s part, discussing where she followed their advice and where she chucked it allows students to notice how ownership and revising responsibility remain in the writer’s hands. Finally, a handful of instructors advocate using professional models to save time or alleviate discomfort with sharing a teacher’s own writing. These people argue strongly for their case, but I was hooked by the first passage I read. We advise students to show rather than tell in their work, and the same rule should also apply to instruction about the writing process. I believe I would project greater sincerity and have a greater impact on students if I show how a technique works for me rather than merely telling students what they should do
The Formation
Moving beyond the preparation stage, the books and articles vacillate on how many students should make up a peer-response group. Some propose partnerships and others recommend as many as six in a team. In a partnership, each person obtains more involved feedback and is validated for a longer period of time. In a sextet, every individual receives myriad comments but may become overwhelmed by either the diversity of responses or the extended waiting periods while others’ drafts are contemplated. Trial and error has taught me that four people is probably the best size for a group. In a fifty minute class period, allowing two days to conference, a peer group can provide useful feedback on four papers.

The membership of writing groups is also controversial. The divide between instructors who support student choice and those who prefer random assignment will never be bridged. Muriel Thompson recommended having students make a list of two people they would like to work with and two people they know would not be helpful to them because of personality conflicts. This approach is something I would like to assess in my own classroom. Teachers are equally resolute about maintaining the cohort all term or periodically rotating throughout the duration. As I have no preference, I will try first one method, then the other and decide for myself.

The Maintainance
Another question is how many times peer-response groups should meet for each major assignment. Several teachers encourage students to meet twice per paper, but one writer warned that those comments are too summative. Any time students see a completed draft before them they feel compelled to act as teacher surrogates rather than peer reviewers. This book implied that members should be involved at every step of the way. Teachers could place students in their groups for pre-writing activities, and when they handed out the explanation for the paper, groups could convene and throw out ideas as they generate them, in lists or free-writing, bubble activities or maps. Then they might meet to discuss research they found, clarifying the concepts by talking them out. If a student were struggling to develop a thesis statement, she could bring that concern to the group rather than relying on the instructor to produce one for her. In this fashion, I could still demand a completed rough draft by the second week of the project, but peers would be knowledgeable about the subject matter and the author’s intention and might be able to deliver more relevant and useful comments. This takes some of the onus off of me and places the burden of concoction squarely back on the student’s shoulders, or head as it were.

The question becomes, “Where does the teacher fit in the writing process once students learn the importance of peer response?” Most teachers advocate sitting in on group sessions, both to determine how efficient they are, and also to proffer advice when asked. A second way teachers can participate is by making individual conference time available for students upon request. In this way, we do not determine when and what input is necessary; students decide when they are ready for our suggestions and what specific help they require. By studying effective models—strong student papers and professional examples—as a class before we begin the writing process, we should reach a consensus about what elements comprise good writing. Then my critique would be only one source of recommendations, rather than the right source of recommendations. This approach to composition more closely resembles the writing students will do outside of school. I would like to implement this technique in the following school year.

The Plan

So my goal is to make students more confident and more independent writers. I believe peer-response groups will help accomplish this purpose. In addition, I think good responders will tend to become better writers. For most students, I would guess that as their ability as responders improves, their ability to revise their own compositions will improve because they will have a better sense of how to approach the task. I will know that I have made strides in this arena in a variety of ways. First, I should be able to appreciate a difference in the classroom. I imagine that peer conferencing time will be a hum of voices rather than the old scratching of pens. Second, I think that students will be less reliant on my commentary along the way once they come to trust their contemporaries. Third, I hope to see an improvement in the writing quality I see. Fourth, on my end of term evaluations, I would like to see a difference in how students perceive response groups. Last year, few people found them to be constructive or important in the writing process. Through these four indicators, I hope to move away from being a “writer seer,” who knows all and tells all about how to complete the assignment. Ideally, the conferencing cohort will move toward viewing writing as a positive experience rather than one to be avoided.

Creative writing:

Summer SquallStormcloud

This umbrage of light issues forth jagged pathway
into Like a flashlight moving under a black satin sheet
Lightning burbles in clouds, keeping his secrets.
the blind, unstarred night, he frets.
“Where is she?” he wonders, flashing and pacing,
silverquickfish trace his wake through the foam.
Then she comes back to him, mumbling and grumbling,
pent-up tension released as she returns home.
Thunder does not trouble the bed he left tumbled,
sauntering in with her night-rumpled robe.
The lace in her negligee peeks at him saucily
teasing with thoughts of the night they betrothed.
Lightning is fuming now, sending out sparks.
No action, just reaction. She knows his ways.
He darts about scolding her, while quietly
building her argument, she seductively lays.
But she’s been scorned too many times by him.
Thunder’s fury unfurls like a flag in the wind.
She rages back with bellows and sharp cracks,
and Lightning, fading at last, just has to listen.


Ambition's Steps (.pdf file)