One of the biggest lessons we learned as a team of teacher-researchers in Michigan is that the scaffolding and teaching of “digital writing” begins before anyone gets on a computer. In this post, we’d like to share a story about how we, as a team of teacher-researchers, came to understand the importance of building classroom communities that support students as they write together in both digital and physical spaces.
Who we are and where we teach
We are a team of three urban educators who teach in a suburb of Detroit. Oak Park High School is located just over a mile north of the 8 mile Detroit border. We have been an open district for over 15 years, and that means a good number of our students come from outside of the city of Oak Park. This and other factors mean that we have a lot of transient students and a number of different attendance issues, sometimes seeing some students only a couple days each week. In 2010, Oak Park Schools was facing a $10 million deficit and Oak Park High School was labeled in the bottom 5% of Michigan Schools. While Oak Park High School has improved significantly since 2010, the transient nature of our school still results in many challenges for us as teachers. We try to overcome these challenges by working together.
As members of the English Language Arts (ELA) team at Oak Park and the Oakland Writing Project, the three of us meet for at least 30 minutes each day to collaborate. Our daily conversations allow for us to maintain similar pacing within our classrooms, assist each other with lesson ideas, reflect on what worked and what didn’t, share ideas about reaching students, and support each other in many other ways. Our community building begins with us as a team of teachers, and extends into our classrooms.
Collaborating as Teacher-Researchers
Two years ago, as part of our collaborative efforts to improve ourselves as teachers, we joined a partnership between Oakland Schools and the Writing, Information, and Digital Experience Research Center at Michigan State University. This collaborative was formed between multiple writing projects, including the Oakland Writing Project (an affiliate of the National Writing Project), Regional Education Service agencies, and MSU WIDE. The goal of this project was to research and develop pedagogical practices for teaching effective writing and revision. Specifically, our team would be using Eli Review to both develop and assess our students’ revision practices. This collaboration afforded us opportunities to learn more about writing instruction at other districts in the state of MI, as well as writing instruction at the college level. Also, we learned a lot more about peer review and revision and how we might use ELI to facilitate those skills.
(Mis)Conceptions about Peer-Review
One of the biggest problems we noticed immediately after introducing ELI and peer review to our students was that students either did not know how to give feedback, or they did not feel comfortable giving critical and honest feedback to a peer. Much of their comments centered around grammar, spelling, or were excessively generic- “good job!” This is where the real work began. Though we have been teaching for years, we noticed immediately that we have always assumed that students knew how to give each other feedback. We would ask students to work together and share their writing and they always “kind of” did, but the outcome had no bearing on the quality of written products.
Working with a bigger research team gave us the opportunity to talk with other teachers about our general misconceptions regarding feedback. Many of us agreed that feedback was something we knew about, but perhaps didn’t know how to do. We always knew that allowing students the opportunity to help each other write is a good idea, but we didn’t quite understand how to successfully scaffold these experiences in our classrooms.
Building Cultures of Feedback
What we learned through our research is generally simple: feedback is hard, really hard. It is hard for teachers to teach. It is hard for students to learn. However, our particular school and location gave us the additional opportunity to further understand that feedback is just as hard for students as it is for teachers.
Many of our students have been surround by teachers, peers, and family members throughout their lives who have not expected much of them- which has an inevitable impact on their self worth and self esteem. All of our students are capable of more than they know – and it is so important that everyone expects “greatness” from them. That is the only way that they will realize what type of greatness they are actually capable of. At the same time, regardless of what we are teaching, we cannot separate our students’ classroom experiences from their real-world realities. When we ask them to provide feedback to each others’ writing, we are asking them to be vulnerable. Outside of the classroom, these vulnerabilities often lead to violence for our students, making it even more crucial for us to acknowledge and value where our students come from before we ask them to take risks in our classrooms.
For example, as we introduced feedback activities in our classes, we had several discussions regarding the words we use to describe each others’ work. What does it mean for students to read that their peers think they’ve written a “bad” paragraph or a “bad” sentence? For many students, associating their work with “bad” yields negative repercussions. For our students, using words like “bad” or “horrible” reinforces what these kids have often been told in school settings—they’ve been told they are bad and that they don’t fit in. Our goal is to move away from this language in order to make spaces where students feel comfortable, both with sharing their work and with being in our classrooms. This is what we call Cultures of Feedback.
In order to help students develop and sustain effective peer-review and revision practices, we realized that we needed to do more work to build collaboration in our classrooms. These classroom communities or Cultures of Feedback are built on the following strategies:
Consistent modeling – This happens through direct mini lessons, but more importantly within multiple (maybe every) interactions in the classroom during a period. This culture or community of feedback is built by constant feedback between teachers and students and students and students every day. If everything is feedback (our facial expressions, our words, our adaptations in a lesson, students responses and reactions to each other), then building this community to be a positive, non-judgmental one that is about learning and improving is crucial. We had to teach our students what effective feedback actually looked like. We focused on three main components of effective feedback: specificity, respectfulness, and clarity. Once the students understood what these things were (we spent days looking at samples of feedback and discussed in varying contents what worked and what needed to be revised), this was a turning point for many of our students. Once they understood what they needed to include in their feedback, we saw the quality of what the students were saying to one another vastly improve, which in hand improved the quality of their writing drafts
Encourage risk taking by taking risks yourself: While we want students to feel safe and comfortable sharing work with each other, we also understand that we need to model this behavior ourselves. For this reason, we begin feedback lessons by sharing our own work—memoirs, stories, or other sample papers that we have written. We ask our students to provide feedback to us as we model the language and procedures we’d like them to share with each other.
Building community, continuously: Many textbook descriptions of effective pedagogies present community building as a precedent to effective teaching. We understand this to be true. However, after spending two years working to improve our teaching of feedback and revision, we’ve come to further understand the importance of consistently building community in our classrooms. With the transient nature of our school, we often have students moving in and out of our classroom. This pushes us to sustain classroom environments that are welcoming and trusting, and we work toward this every single day. We know that in order to help our students help each other, whether in our classrooms or in digital spaces, we need to build an environment that acknowledges and values both where our students come from and where they can go. This is no easy task, but part of the success comes from acknowledging the tensions that inevitably arise in our classrooms, and working through them with our students as active participants with significant stories and backgrounds.
Our collaboration with teacher-researchers across the state taught us that effective peer review leads to highly effective writing. We should all aspire to teach and sustain effective revision practices in our classrooms, despite the difficulties. Working together with other teachers to figure it out and learn from each other definitely makes it slightly easier, but we firmly believe much more powerful in the end.
While this project gave us the opportunity to assess our students’ work electronically through ELI, we have come to further understand that digital working environments require just as much work as our physical classrooms. Regardless of where we are teaching, we have to understand that our students are active human beings with important histories that influence who they are in our classrooms. We need to think about the language and the activities we are asking students to engage in, before we can help them improve their work in any significant way. The difference lies in the power of culture, community, and practice.