Pedagogy, teaching, Technology, Writing

“And now for something slightly lower-tech…”

Before the winter break I assigned my ninth grade students to write an argumentative position paper on one of three topics — an assignment described in more depth in this post. In the course of reading these papers over break, once thing became strikingly clear: developing writers are just that; developing. And thank goodness, too, because without that need for development I’d find myself adrift in a sea of existential angst. (Perhaps that’s a bit melodramatic, but seeing areas for student growth does provide me with a raison d’être or at least a raison de travail [did I get that right, French speakers? Full disclosure: I just cheated and used Google Translate]).

The particular (and as it turns out, recurring) area for grammatical development centered around three common errors — pronoun-noun agreement, verb parallelism, and the ever-pesky passive voice. Given that we’d just finished exams and the students hadn’t done any new content-based reading, it seemed that this first week back from break — a truncated one — would be an ideal candidate for a grammatical tour de force. So, I dug up some review sheets that I had made to address these problems, and we embarked on gaining a deeper grasp of how these grammatical errors occur and how to catch and correct them.

For going over this material I employed a very useful tool that I’ve had in my classroom now for three years, but that hasn’t received a mention on this blog (at least I don’t think it has): an AverMedia Document camera. I’ve used this tool on-and-off for the time I’ve had it, employing it more frequently the first year I had it, which was also the first year that I did away with desks and got a big seminar table. In that new context the document camera proved to be a particularly useful means of sitting at the table with the students while still be able to write notes for the class and have them projected for all to see. The only challenge there involved finding a very long VGA cable.

The tool, of course, also functions brilliantly for allowing students to share their work with one another. In essence it creates old school transparency by substituting paper and pencil for blogs, wikis, backchannels, and the like. I’ve used this approach to have students share their interpretations of political cartoons and their writing with one another.

For this particular grammar mini-unit we first reviewed the sentences that I gave them for homework as a class using the document camera. Then, for the next day, students had to select two sentences from their own position papers that exhibited these errors, identify the particular error, and then correct the sentences. The goal with both the worksheet and then this assignment was to get students lots of practice with these errors so that they’d be well prepared for a quiz on Friday. Moreover, because the quiz would involve correcting sentences from the students’ papers, I’d hoped that there would be extra incentive to essentially identify and review the answers for these problematic sentences before the quiz.

One surprising (unsettling?) discovery that I made in giving this assignment is that many students had not saved their papers or couldn’t locate them on their computers. Perhaps it is my interest in archives as a historian, but I can’t imagine not keeping track of the work one has done and having that work organized in an easily accessible manner. I guess I’m just banking on the fact that my Presidential Archives will certainly want to prominently feature all the notes I took and papers I wrote as a student. Needless to say, I used this as an opportunity to proselytize on behalf of Google Docs and the “Cloud” more generally. Thankfully (for the students) I still had hard copies of all their papers, so I could make them copies that they could use to complete this assignment.

Although I unfortunately didn’t have time for all the students to present their sentences and corrections, I did find the structure of this assignment to work really well. Asking the students to identify their own errors and correct them made the process of revision more accessible and less intimidating than it can be in other guises. With traditional peer editing I find that students are often unwilling to sacrifice social capital in order to be blunt and honest about the shortcomings of a peer’s writing. As a result, the excessive number of smiley faces and “you’re awesome” comments in the margins leave everyone with a warm fuzzy feeling inside, but also leaves the paper chock-full of crummy writing. Additionally, because this peer editing takes place in small groups I’m not privy to all of the precise feedback students give one another, so it is easier to provide a milquetoast critique without me discovering that the editor’s feedback was apparently cribbed from a self-affirmation “quote-a-day” calendar or came from this guy:

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve used the document camera to review students’ writing in front of the whole class. In this scenario, I have no trouble being blunt and honest about the shortcomings in the writing (though I try my best to frame these critiques in a constructively positive manner); however, students tend to perceive this type of critique as more akin to “hazing,” though I do my best to assure them that I’m not grading their souls. Moreover, I tend to get bogged down with the first few papers when using this type of review and end up not covering as many papers as I’d like.

Therefore, this assignment, which had the students critique themselves and then present that critique to the class, avoided the shortcomings of both peer editing and my public critique. Students demonstrated that all of their writing needed improvement, and in the course of their presentations we were able to discuss these errors and others (e.g. when to use “less” vs. “fewer,” how to avoid beginning sentences with vague pronouns, the conventions of formal writing that discourage contractions, etc.) in a productive manner. In many cases the students’ corrected sentences preserved the error or created a new one, but in the course of the presentations many students were able to identify these mistakes mid-stream and make the necessary corrections. Moreover, structuring the class in this way also moved us through a larger number of students’ papers that I’d be likely to get through as the primary document camera-jockey.

Now, let’s just hope doesn’t includes any of the skull-and-crossbones errors over which I just quizzed my students!

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