4. Workshop and Peer Review Process
It is essential as the instructor to create space in the classroom for the students where they feel free to comment on and discuss each other’s work. Your feedback is important, and so is the feedback they receive from their peers.
For all major assignments, I give students narrative written feedback. I do not copy edit or make a large number of marginal comments. I find in my experience that the more you can tell a story in your feedback, the easier it is for the students to process and incorporate your comments. This may not be a method that works for everyone, but I have found it to produce the best conversations and results.
In the remainder of this chapter, I will outline the two major methods I use to help students give peer feedback.
As often as possible, I try to make time in the class schedule for a large class workshop. This means each student will get to read her or his entire short work to the class for feedback. At my home institution, we are lucky to have a manageable class size of eighteen or twenty for our writing courses, making the full class workshop possible for everyone. If you have a larger class, you can alternate workshopping assignments, splitting up students so that only a few read each class period, making sure that everyone gets at least one chance to receive a full class workshop on a piece over the course of the semester. Another alternative when time in limited is to ask them to engage in a common practice of sampling sections of their longer pieces to share with the entire class. This mimics the process of a public reading in which authors are often asked to share pieces of longer works in hopes of encouraging the audience to want to read more. It is an important skill to develop and helps students see where the heart of a piece lies.
The rules I use for a workshop are common practice for many creative writing classes. Students are asked to read their work as written without any explanation. This helps the class hear the work as it appears on the page, closer to the experience of an outside reader unfamiliar with the person behind the writing and that person’s reasons for writing it. We have the added advantage of hearing each student’s voice, and this is also good practice for students who might want to share their work in a larger forum.
When students first share their work with the class, we follow a few simple rules. I draw a lot of principles for initial workshops from the Amherst Writers & Artists method. Pat Schneider’s book Writing Alone and With Others is a great resource and includes guidelines to build support and community in writing groups. Drawing on Schneider’s book, we offer only positive feedback to each other initially. This kind of feedback can include what we liked about the text, what stood out to us, what we remembered. This creates a safe space for the students to share first drafts of their writing. This work has not been critiqued or significantly edited, so sharing out loud and commenting in this way helps build student confidence. Students read in succession without pause. I encourage them to jot down things they like during the readings or to just take careful notice of what stands out to them. We then share our thoughts as a group. I also participate, reading work of my own and taking notes to model the behavior. This is a great way for students to get to know and trust each other and you. They start building community by referring to each other by name with the aid of name tags they keep on their desks for the first four weeks of class. If room allows, it also helps to have everyone sit in a circle when sharing.
Peer review is an essential part of the writing process. To facilitate review beyond the larger class workshop, which is not possible for extended pieces due to time constraints, I break students into small groups of three to five members, depending on class size, and have them exchange drafts. The first thing students do is write down concerns they have about their own writing. These concerns may include doubts about whether the text is cohesive, anyone will care about the topic, or a particular sentence is properly structured. Each then shares these concerns with a peer reviewer, who takes them into account when reading and reviewing the essay. The reviewers are asked first to read the writers’ concerns, second to put down their pens and read the entire draft from top to bottom, then third to respond in writing to the writers’ concerns and a sheet of peer review questions. I have included sample questions here that can work for any of the extended drafts with minor modifications. I help students keeps track of time and encourage them to spend forty to fifty minutes with each draft, especially the first time they are doing this. The students usuallyfinish at about the same time with my help. Once they have finished, they exchange written comments. The writers then read the feedback they were given and talk with their peer reviewers to clarify questions they have about the feedback and discuss overall impressions.
By doing peer reviews this way, students are able to have meaningful conversations with peers about their work, have the opportunity to see in detail how someone else chose to approach the assignment, and have written feedback and notes to take home for reference as they revise. Although students may understand feedback at the time of review, they may have forgotten much of the conversation by the time they are able to revise the paper. Having the written notes helps with this problem. As previously mentioned, I also always provide detailed feedback on student drafts of longer papers.
A sample three-week timeline for the formal paper might look like this: I ask students to turn in a draft for peer review during the first week. I ask students to bring two copies of their drafts so that during the class session I can do my first read of their work. This allows me to answer any immediate questions that come up during peer reviews or address concerns they want to begin working on right away. I provide detailed student feedback in the second week. I have a larger class discussion with the students about patterns I see in the writing so that we can have an open dialogue and share concerns. The final draft is due in the third week. Students are asked to submit the original draft, my comments, both peer reviews and their final draft. This way I can evaluate the process from top to bottom. For instance, if both peer reviewers and I suggest a revision to the introduction, I will expect a student to address this concern. In reviewing feedback, I encourage students to listen to their peers and to my feedback but ultimately to make their own decisions about how they want to revise their essays. The grade I assign is an assessment of where each essay is in relation to the progress I think it should make in the class.
Because of its creative nature, many students are interested in the prospect of publishing their personal writing. This may be different from what you have experienced in a typical first-year writing classroom. At this point, the students will have read a wide variety of pieces from essayists, fiction writers and journalists. With a variety of topics and perspectives represented, students will be able to identify with some of the writers and wish to join the conversation in a more public way. In class, I explain that publishing an essay requires another process, one that would take considerably more time and different audience awareness to achieve. We strive for progress within the limitations and scope of the semester, and I offer to meet with students individually to discuss paths to publication.
Peer Review Sheet (Sample)
Writer, please identify any issues you feel you are currently having with this piece of writing so that your reader/reviewer can focus on these issues.
How well does the author set up the idea of place/event in this piece? Point to specific details that give the concept of character dimension or stifle it on the page.
Are you able to get a clear sense of setting? How well do you feel situated in the environment of the piece? Explain how this feeling is achieved, citing details from the writing.
Does the author give enough personal background to situate the importance of the place/event as well as his or her own point of view? If so, what details help the author do this? If not, what do you think is missing?
Does the piece seem to flow from beginning to end? Is there a natural progression of characters and story line? If so, how is this accomplished? If not, how can the author make the piece flow more effectively?
Where does the story begin, and where does the story leave you? Do you feel you are able to enter the narrative easily and let it end where it does? Why or why not?
Is there specific language that you feel is particularly expressive and effective in this piece? If so, point it out here.
Is there specific language that you feel is somewhat stilted or dragging the narrative pace? If so, point it out here.
Do you have any additional suggestions or comments for revision? Please also feel free to use this space to express what you like best about the piece of writing.
I use a variety of readings to demonstrate different forms to the class. Even in a short period of time, it is important to expose students to many forms of personal writing, not just one. I also include forms other than nonfiction, such as fiction and poetry, to demonstrate writing styles. I cannot encourage you enough to choose readings that are appropriate for your own student body. What works for my students may very well not work for yours. My advice would always be to represent a diverse range of experiences to give students more opportunity to find a voice they can relate to and possibly identify with. I will include some sample readings throughout the chapters to give examples of readings that have worked in my classroom.