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Commenting -- Overview

To create a writing classroom, feedback becomes an important part of the work. This is where youths learn that the secret to good writing is good self-editing, that exchange of feedback builds community and that external audience fosters purpose and self-motivation. In digital writing, the most complete method of providing feedback involves three and sometimes four circles of responses to the writing:

  • the writer reading his/her own work, 
  • the writer’s peers reading the work,
  • the teacher reading the work, and
  • the outside world reading the work. 

It is good for students and the teachers to talk about these audiences early on to determine their relative importance overall and in specific projects. How can these circles be involved in helping the students gain interest in, improve and polish their work? How can the students help each other? How can they use regular feedback to improve their ability to edit their own work?

Feedback Circle One:   Responding to One’s Own Writing
It is always important for the writers to know they have control and they need to crucial to take responsibility for their own learning, their own editing and for how the work turns out. It is important that they develop an ongoing reflective practice as they write. Here are some effective practices for a student writer:

  • Read a piece aloud, or, better yet, record it; reflect on what you noticed about the piece. Did it sound like you? Did your tongue trip up? Are their spots you want to change?
  • Set judgment aside: Too often we are hampered by our own self-judgment, "It's no good," "I'm no good at writing," or "I didn't have enough time." Those obscure your own ability to see what's good and what needs fixing.
  • Read and reflect: Read your post and then reflect on what you wanted the work to accomplish. Does it work? Are there some points not made? Some points that are not clear?
  • In a digital space, write a comment on your piece as if you were an outside reader. Notice what you are noticing and be specific.
The young writer should keep in mind that the process of reflection and reviewing one's own work never stops. The Nobel author Toni Morrison says that one time when she was publicly reading a passage of her work -- written 25 years previously -- she suddenly realized the word she had been searching for when she first wrote the piece.

Teachers, meanwhile, can help this self-reflection process by revealing their own early drafts, or finding drafts of famous authors' early work to slowly take away the great "mystery" of writing that so inhibits many young writers.

Feedback Circle Two: Peers Responding
Many teachers YWP has worked with over the years say that a key to good peer-to-peer feedback is trust. So from the first day of a class, students and teachers should work to build a classroom community in which students value and respect each other. It is important that the students feel they can take risk without being made fun of; they need to know that they are not judged. To gain voice, young writers need skills -- and confidence. This practice of building trust can be nurtured through a series of exercises, particularly in a digital space like the YWP classroom platform. It can be assisted by a regular practice of having students give each other constructive feedback on each other's writing. And it is greatly enhanced if the teachers are also posting in response to challenges and opening their own work to feedback.

In surveys and interviews with hundreds of young writers over the years, YWP has learned that students value peer feedback almost as highly as they value feedback from teachers and getting outside recognition (publication) for their writing. That is a remarkable finding. As adults, we tend to dismiss the power of peer feedback as a learning tool and look at "peer pressure" as a negative force.

So moving the students' writing out into a group, no matter how early on in the process, can be of real benefit. They can hear back what their writing means to readers who have only the words -- none of the thoughts or context or background that lie in the mind of the author.

There are several ways to do this feedback process:

  • Whether face-fo-face or on a digital classroom space, the rules of engagement should be clear. Allow the students to set the rules; YWP has done this exercise in countless classrooms and has been amazed to find that they prioritize exactly what adults would want, BUT since they are the students' rules, they are more apt to embrace them. The teacher can help the discussion by some well-placed questions, like, "Should everyone get a comment, and if so, how to we make sure that happens?" "What is the purpose of our commenting on each other's works?"
    • Overall, YWP suggests the 1+1 method, or ONE thing that the reader thought worked, or one observation they had about the piece or one thing that was surprising; and ONE thing the peer thinks the author could improve, or one thing that confused them or that they wondered about. 
  • Another suggestion: Make sure students go to the pieces that do not already have comments, that they choose students who they know least well and that they must accomplish 3 or 5 or 7 or whatever number within a certain time period. Make these comments part of their overall performance assessment. We also have developed in our own platform an ability for students and teachers to see whether responses to a challenge have garnered comments; this makes it easy to ensure that everyone gets some feedback.
  • In larger classes, set up feedback loops, groups of five students (rotating these groups every few weeks or so to keep the feedback unexpectedly fresh) per group, who, on the blog site, comment on each others' work.
  • Ask each writer to put in the comment section some questions of her/his own about the draft -- perhaps even suggesting some areas she/he needs help in.

There are a few things to keep in mind about peer-to-peer commenting in a digital space:

  • Everything the students write in digital spaces tend to be viewed as more harsh or more negative than they intended; they should watch the tone of their comments and ask themselves, "Would I want to receive this?" But students should be truthful.
  • Responders should be using phrases like "I wonder if..." rather than "You should do this..." This is all about honesty and respect.
  • From time to time, when you see comments that either really seem to do very little for the writer: “Hey, good job—I liked it a lot.  Keep everything just as you have it” or "that's amaaaazing" try to show the students that this is not what you -- or the student authors are looking for. Show this kind of response in class and talk about ways to work towards better responding. Some talking points:
    • How will responding well to other people’s writing serve our own writing?
    • How are reading well and writing well inextricably intertwined skills?
    • What is involved for us to read as writers and to write as readers?
    • How do we determine the intended audience of a piece? What are the expectations of different kinds of audiences? How can audience affect our choices in terms of content and expression? 
    • What are the essential elements to a story? A poem? An essay?
    • What is voice? 

Feedback Circle Three:  The Teacher Responding
Why not talk with the class about your role in the feedback circle? You have tremendous impact on your students. YWP has gleaned these interesting observations from students about their teachers:

  • They often put you in the same category as parents: "They had to tell me that it was good (or bad); he's my teacher."
  • They don't hear you clearly and often someone from the outside can say exactly the same thing and students will respond much more enthusiastically.
  • They see your primary purpose is to give a grade, to pass judgment.

Don't take it personally. Keep in mind how much help you can provide, but also understand that peers -- and even outside readers -- can help as much or more. A good rule of thumb in the feedback circle is to avoid full, teacherly responses for as long as possible, because no matter what you say, as soon as you do, the writer tends to not listen as much to his or her self or to peers. You then become the only audience that matters; you are the authority. 

Yet, particularly early in a semester, students crave your feedback; they want to hand things in the way they always have and get from the teacher what they need to do to make it an “A” level paper if it isn’t already. And, at the same time, you have much to offer -- you are experienced, you are a writer and you have opinions. So think about not writing detailed responses until the project is very near completion. And when you do respond, choose just a couple of issues most ripe for tackling and write about those.  Make sure you write about what works for you as a reader —where in the piece you find yourself thinking, engaged, enlightened.  She writes questions.

And make sure you can meet with students one-on-one in short (10-minute) conferences during which they are invited to bring something they feel is ready for your feedback. They must prepare for the conference by being ready to talk about their own response to the writing and about that of their peers. This is also a good opportunity to go into more detail about your written suggestions.

Here is another observation/siggestion that comes from YWP's experience of students doing digital writing: Teachers do not need to read everything students write on the YWP digital platform. This is a difficult concept. But students tend to write more online and you simply can't keep up. It's OK. In fact, a better use of your time is to provide honest, timely feedback on what you have read and on what is most important to the students.

The Fourth Circle:  Readers in the World

External audience is an extremely important part of the work in building a community of writers; this practice brings affirmation and internal motivation. YWP has worked with teachers who have brought outsiders into their sites or onto their students' blogs to comment. That's great but it is somewhat unwieldy. (If you would like YWP's help to set that up, we'd be glad to do so.)

But for the finished work, where is the audience? YWP suggests that the class, particularly when undertaking a part of the My Community Story program, think about who might be interested in what they create. School newspaper? School newsletter? Displayed on the walls? A public event in the cafeteria or auditorium? The local media? 

Think, too, about bringing other classrooms into the process or, even, pairing up with other schools in the state, country or across the globe. YWP can help with that, too.


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