Monday, February 18, 2013

Peer conferences and peer editing: more outlets for classroom bullying

A reader of this blog forwarded to me an exchange she had with two teachers regarding a peer conferencing/peer editing incident involving her son (Thomas) and a classmate (Anastasia). (All names have been changed to protect privacy). In peer editing/conferencing, also known as “Writer’s Workshop,” and the second stage of a comprehensive writing process that begins with “self editing,” students are supposed to contribute “constructive feedback” and “new perspectives” in response to one another’s writing.

Thomas’ mother begins her own writing process with the following:

Thomas apparently made what he thought were constructive suggestions to which Anastasia took offense. She did not appreciate his suggestions, so re-edited his and ripped the s*** out of it.
What are they supposed to be getting out of this? Aren't the results of these evaluations going to depend entirely on whether or not the evaluators are friends? What do you expect to happen when 10-year-olds are told to grade each other’s work?
One of Thomas’ teachers (not present at the time) responds with the following perspectives on the virtues of peer editing and the problems Thomas has doing it properly:
I have to say that it [peer editing] is quite helpful for the students. They learn now to kindly and effectively communicate constructive criticism. Students learn to be thoughtful listeners and enjoy hearing feedback from their peers. This is usually quite a supportive process.
Having just observed Thomas working in his PBL [Problem-Based Learning] group, my guess is he was less sensitive than he could have been about his constructive criticism. He has a tendency to represent his opinion as fact rather than his personal feelings or beliefs about something. While working with his group he would become very insistent that his idea was followed even though other members had different ideas... It is wonderful that he is so sure of himself, however, he does need to make room for other opinions and possibilities.
Similar perspectives are contributed by Thomas’ other teacher (the one who was present):
I specifically paired Thomas and Anastasia together for peer conferencing as they are both talented writers. I thought that they would provide each other with valuable new perspectives. I strongly feel that peer conferencing is a useful strategy for getting students to apply skills learned in class, notice common mistakes in writing that they often overlook in their own writing, and help a peer in a constructive way. It is a widely-used and effective teaching tool, based on the understanding that kids learn best through application of skills and collaboration.
Yesterday morning, I sat down with Thomas and Anastasia to discuss what was going on with their peer conferencing, because Thomas had expressed some frustrations. Although Thomas is commended for his desire to complete the conferencing process, he had demanded a conference with Anastasia during the morning gym time, which was not an appropriate time given the fact that we would be working on conferences during regular class time. Anastasia did not respond to Thomas’s request in the most respectful way, so we discussed what could have been done by both parties that could have had a more positive outcome. We discussed using respectful language even when expressing frustrations with each other and finding an appropriate time and place to address our concerns. I also explained that they were both excellent writers who could offer each other some very helpful suggestions. By the end of the conversation, Thomas and Anastasia both seemed to understand each other’s feelings and were in a good position to continue their conference.
Once students are done with their peer conference, the next step is to have a one-on-one teacher conference. This is an opportunity for me to either confirm some of the suggestions for revision (done in both self and peer stages), make additional suggestions, and to make corrections to misinterpretations. While peer conferencing is a valuable step, it is by no means the final step. My evaluations of individual student work is based on the work of that student, not on the peer’s comments. I require students to go through the process of peer conferencing, but again this is only one step of the entire process.
Thomas is a talented writer and I respect how dedicated he is to his work. Being open to different perspectives and styles of writing can only make his writing even stronger. Tomorrow I will review ways of tailoring peer comments in a respectful way with the class again. I hope that this helps to bring more clarity to the structure of Writing Workshop and my intention to provide Thomas with the best possible instruction. If you would like to discuss this further, [the other teacher] and I would be happy to schedule a meeting with you.
Hopeful of their openness to novel perspectives and constructive criticism, Thomas’ mother replies with the following:
Writing is a very personal form of communication, because it can be picked over and critiqued after it has been written. The purpose of writing is to express thoughts and ideas. If a child is in fear of peer criticism and will be laid bare by teachers in front of a random child who may not like him very much, how is he going to feel free to express himself in writing? It does not seem that Anastasia was pleased with her assignment to work with Thomas and I suspect that Thomas was aware of that.
Thomas’ writing skills improved dramatically last year, largely because his teacher gave a lot of very constructive criticism. Thomas trusted her and respected her opinion, and would spend hours editing and changing his writing. He learned about style and writing for interest and he tried to copy the writing styles of his favorite authors. He could see that he was improving and was so pleased with the results that he was saying that he wanted to be a novelist someday.
It is hard to see how a ten year old child can inspire and direct the way that a teacher can. There is enormous peer pressure at this age to conform and fit into the social group. Thomas is a bit of a social wallflower and does not comfortably fit in. For him, the thought of humiliation in front of peers is the hardest part of school, and with his prior experiences at this school it is easy to see why he feels this way. If he is obligated to get the approval of Anastasia or any other child in the class before a constructive interaction with the teacher it is going to significantly impact what he is willing to put on the paper.
Peers at this age are not naturally kind. You may be able to get them to act kindly to one another when you are looking, although it seems that even that requires some work, but there is a lot more to their interpersonal relationships. When asked to evaluate each other, all of this will come into play. Children who are friends and who are popular will want to work together and are likely to evaluate each other positively. Children who are less popular and want to make friends will want to work with popular kids and will likely evaluate popular kids positively, because it may improve their social standing. But kids who are popular will not want to work with kids who are not popular, and will likely evaluate them more harshly and find subtle(and not so subtle) ways to make it clear that they do not want to be paired with unpopular children. Children like Thomas are very aware of their social standing and this kind of peer evaluation puts them in a no-win situation. It results in teachers essentially codifying their social position.
Thomas is not enjoying the writing process at all this year and no longer puts much effort into it. His writing has become formulaic and dull. He answers the questions succinctly and with as little personal information as possible. When asked to write a personal journal, he made up a fictitious child and an imaginary life, because he did not want to write about himself. I believe peer editing is a big part of the reason why.
I suspect that Thomas is not the only kid who feels this way. I would have felt the same at his age, and I think peer editing is difficult for many. The boys especially are very competitive now, and they can be very harsh with each other. Social hierarchy and bullying should be kept out of the classroom as much as possible and I think that this kind of classroom activity invites it in. Writing should be about freedom of expression, not fear of peer criticism.
In reaction to these novel perspectives, the second of Thomas’ teachers expresses appreciation:
Thank you for your message. I appreciate your perspective and will continue to support Thomas as a writer in ways that both support his academic and social growth.
Since this is all that she writes, it would appear that she doesn’t have any constructive criticisms or additional perspectives to add.

The perspective that is particularly novel to me in all this is Thomas’ mother’s perspective on peer bullying. This blog has discussed various recent classroom practices that create opportunities for bullying--particularly group activities, and differentiated instruction--but never before had I considered the opportunities opened up by Writer’s Workshop.


Niels Henrik Abel said...

[Thomas] has a tendency to represent his opinion as fact rather than his personal feelings or beliefs about something...[Peer conferencing] is a widely-used and effective teaching tool, based on the understanding that kids learn best through application of skills and collaboration.

I understand the comments were made by two different individuals (at least as much as one can speak about "individuals" when it comes to groupthink), but - oh, the irony...

Anonymous said...

What are teachers thinking? There is a reason people keep their journals locked up. Sharing personal writing is a lot like singing in public. It may be great if you are Miley Cyrus, but most people would sooner eat worms.

kcab said...

Thomas' mom's letter is excellent. She expresses the social problems with peer editing very aptly. I hope the teachers' minds are open enough to learn from her words.

Anonymous said...

Peer editing doesn't have only social downsides; it's also based on the premise that children know what's important when editing. Even children who are excellent writers don't often have the skills to edit others' writing.

Catherine said...

A few years ago, I came across a book of pre-written letters to parents intended for use by school principals. Now I'm wondering whether a companion volume for teachers exists. Or a pdf file that gets forwarded throughout the ranks of school personnel.

Much of the prose in these two teachers' messages strikes me as pre-written. Although the messages are directed to a particular mother and concern a particular child, the writing is cold and impersonal: change the names and the sex of the pronouns and these emails could be sent to any parent of any child.

These teachers are reading from a script.

The concluding prose-chunk is especially striking. I would bet a modest sum of money that it has reached the Inboxes of multiple parents:

"Thank you for your message. I appreciate your perspective and will continue to support [INSERT CHILD'S NAME HERE] as a writer in ways that both support [HIS/HER] academic and social growth."

Catherine said...

Anonymous wrote: Even children who are excellent writers don't often have the skills to edit others' writing.

I would add that most professional writers don't have the expertise to be professional editors.

I imagine most professional writers could readily gain that expertise, but writing and editing are different skills.

You can be good at one without being good at the other.

That said, in my travels across the web I've stumbled upon some 'scripts' or directions for peer editing that sounded OK (on a ***very*** cursory reading -- I aim to circle back to these things when I have time).

At this point, I'm guessing some form of peer editing could be a useful exercise if the kids are looking for very specific things like correct punctuation or a thesis statement or a topic sentence followed by a sentence of 'elaboration.'

I also wonder whether peer copy editing might be useful, partly in terms of training kids to SEE punctuation and syntax errors.

Open-ended peer editing strikes me as nuts, and I speak as a person who teaches freshman composition.

Teaching 10-year olds to provide 'constructive' criticism is a huge waste of time ---- they don't know how to analyze a paper at all.

Anonymous said...

Peer editing could also play a role in expository writing if kids helped each other do research or get the appropriate information in the text. But peer editing for personal writing is something else. I would feel really awkward sharing a diary or personal composition with a random peer at work and I assume that most students feel the same about sharing personal information at school. Maybe teachers should be required to participate and divulge personal information to be edited publicly by students!

Anonymous said...

I agree, the teacher's writing is boilerplate, but the language os also designed to intimidate parents.
First comes the insinuations that something is wrong with the child involved, from the teacher who was not in the classroom at the time;
"Thomas... was less sensitive than he could have been." He was "very insistent". He "needs to make room for other opinions".
Then the defense;
Peer editing is "widely used and effective". Is "based on the understanding that kids learn best through application of skills and collaboration".
Then the language is, ultimately, dismissive; "I will continue to support Thomas as a writer in ways that support both his academic and social growth".

This was clearly written by administration with the intent to tell parents that they don't know anything, are not entitled to an opinion about what goes on in the classroom, and are not allowed to question school authority. The final bit basically says that the teacher intends to continue with this and has no obligation to learn or change. Welcome to modern education

Anonymous said...

When one of my kids brought home pieces of writing that had been peer edited, the peer editor had struck out correct phrases/punctuations and replaced them with incorrect ones.

Kathy Howard said...

Thank you for sharing this! I think this is an important perspective, and as always you are sharing important observations about the ways in which our educational system's focus on collaboration can be socially problematic. I totally agree with the caution that this case raises. However, I would also just point out what many- even experienced- teachers fail to understand: The most important benefit of peer review is for the reviewer- not the writer. In other words, reading others' work and applying a set of evaluative criteria to it helps learners to become better re-readers of their own writing. It is not primarily about GETTING feedback from another student, it is more about learning about writing by GIVING feedback. If teachers conveyed that more explicitly to students, the students might understand that they can't expect their peer to make the revisions they are suggesting. We should be sensitive to students who struggle with social relationships with their peers, like Thomas, and perhaps provide other means of getting this experience. However, the teachers seem to believe that this experience is primarily about learning to be social, and about getting feedback on one's writing.

Anonymous said...

What rot. ES, MS and most HS kids don't write well enough to make constructive comments and don't know enough grammar to explain anything. There's too much story-writing and not enough expository work, so getting peers involved is trampling kids' feelings.

Save it for college - and MAYBE AP English, if the kids are already good writers. Otherwise, it's a waste of time, in addition to causing or exacerbating social problems.

Despite two grad schools, I've only seen the peer-critique once; in my freshman honors English Lit and Comp. We read a play a week (Ancient Greek to modern)and the instructor circulated a list of topics for each one, which we turned 2-3 SS typed page essays on dittos (1 student per topic), presented them to the class for content/style/grammar comment and turned in the revised version for a grade. It was an excellent way to cover a huge amount of material in a short time (most sections read only 3-4 plays from the listed choices; we read all) - IIRC we wrote a paper at least every 10d. However, it only worked because the class had the top 25 students -based on first-semester work (eval by faculty committee) from a freshman class of 1500 and we were willing to do the work.

Deirdre Mundy said...

We did peer editing in High School as part of our writing workshop courses. It was actually a great way to learn to write well, to self-edit, and to edit others.

BUT.... we were all 9th grade and up honors kids, and the teacher collected the edited papers and graded the editor on how well she edited. So you had a good reason to do your best, make sure you were correct, and to avoid bullying. If you edited someone else badly, YOU lost points....