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.