English Comp Workshop, or How One Attempts Get Students to Quit Saying “Peer Review”


I’m a teacher. This is not a drill.

It’s official. We’re three weeks in and that means my students are about to turn in their first essays. We did our first workshop and I wanted to post before I got the papers in because there’s some chance my ideas about how workshop went will change (for better or worse) when I get the papers in.

I’ve attempted to create a classroom that is a studio for writing. My hope for my students and for our class is that we’ll develop a metalinguistic awareness. I want them to be able to write and to talk about language and writing in a meaningful way. Of course, we’re not using terms like metalinguistic awareness, but we are talking about writing, reading about writing, reading each other’s writing, and talking about the ways we use language to make meaning and how. 

Their first assignment is to analyze an ad from this archive: http://www.livingroomcandidate.org. It is an archive of campaign ads, but they are not able to use anything from the 2008 campaign. I encouraged them all to examine ads from before they were born and most of them did. I tell you this, just so you have an idea of the type of essay my students are workshopping. 

My workshop setting is somewhat different. Every day has some sort of workshop with specific goals. They are constantly writing and constantly bring that writing to class to look at and work with. The different things we do have a lot to do with reading from our textbook (Writing Analytically). For all of our mini-workshops, the students read each others work when they actually come to class. For our complete draft workshop, this changes. I might despise the term “peer review.” I might think it suggests something easy and low stakes to the students in a composition classroom. I’ve also noticed from my own experience as a student in first year writing and as a grad student observing first year writing that students think “peer review day” is a laid back day in which you “proofread” your group or your partner’s essay and they’ll do the same for you. Then you go home and correct those errors and that means that you have a final draft. I’ve even see teachers give students a list of questions to answer, and students mostly don’t fill out the form because the teacher doesn’t take it up. Maybe you do this and this works for you. I just can’t seem to make this work for me in a class. So I did something different. I took my creative writing background and decided we’d do workshop instead. 

To me, and to my class, this is what workshop looks like: We have a class blog (one blog, 26 authors). Two days prior to workshop, all of my students post a complete draft of their essay to said blog. They write an author’s note to go with it and here they say what they think works and what they think needs help. Each student is a member of a five person writing group. After they’ve posted their completed drafts, they read every member of their groups work. Then, they comment on the essay post. They address the concerns the author raised and anything else they noticed. They point out what works well and why and what isn’t quite working in the essay. All of this happens outside of our class meetings. They come to class, having read and commented on each others work. Then, they get into their groups and they pull up the blog and they have a ten minute conversation about each person’s essay. 

I prefer this structure for several reasons. On a blog, they cannot proofread. They can’t mark every little thing that is not grammatically correct. This means that they have to pay attention to the content of the essay. Students can still talk and point out those things (like “you capitalize everything” or “you boycott commas and that’s not good”), but they can’t go through and correct those mistakes and think they’ve done their job. I also find that the nature of this type of workshop is useful because you can learn so much about your own writing by giving others constructive feedback on their writing. It makes you put into words on paper and in conversation what you think writing/analysis/argument/language is/does/how it works. You also get thoughtful feedback from four different people. If four people say “I don’t think this paragraph works because you are leaping to a conclusion,” than you can be confident that you need to work on that paragraph.

SO, we did this. The first workshop happened. It was more on the awkward side than anything, but I think it was a successful first workshop. The students are still very much developing a language to talk about writing/analysis/argument/language and that was clear. I sat on one essay conversation for each of the ten groups. There was a fair amount of awkward silence, which I think has to do with it being a new class and the fact that we are still getting to know each other. I think it also has to do with the developing language/vocabulary to talk about writing. I was encouraged, however, because I heard several productive moves going on in most of the conversations. For example, a student would say, “I could see that you’re using evidence you gathered from ‘The Method’ (one of our heuristics) here…” and “I think you’re overgeneralizing in this essay because…” and “these details are nice, but I can’t see how they add to your conclusion because you don’t say why they matter.” 

The things that did go wrong were interesting. Most of my students were prepared in that they had read each others’ essays and commented. I had a fair few, however, that “didn’t get the memo,” which is just frustrating as a teacher. Those students had to read the essays in class and didn’t really add to the conversation because of it. I communicated my expectations clearly to most of the students, but the ones that didn’t understand aren’t asking questions and I can’t figure out how to make myself any more clear. I think the workshop was useful for the students who did properly prepare, but it was sort of a nightmare for groups that had a student who didn’t come prepared. I should have anticipated this, but I didn’t and I didn’t come up with a successful way to deal with that in class. I hope I won’t have this problem next time, but if I do, I think I may have the students who haven’t prepared go to a different part of the classroom and not participate in the conversation. I’m not quite sure. 

That’s where we’re at so far. I’ll report back soon. Thoughts and ideas are welcome and greatly appreciated! 


About michelleh7040

I'm a grad student studying creative writing and learning how to teach writing (of all sorts).
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