Why Students Often Struggle With Peer Review and What We Can Do About It

When I was an education school student, I feel quickly and deeply in love with Nancy Atwell’s In the Middle thanks to quotes like this:

We laid down the old, stodgy burdens of the profession—the Warriner’s Handbooks, the forty- five minute lectures and canned assignments—and embraced new roles . . . These were heady times, as many English teachers abandoned the old orthodoxies and cleared the way for our kids’ voices.

The idea of laying aside the orthodoxies that I hated as a student–the endless worksheets and 45 min. lectures on parts of speech–and putting more emphasis on students talking with each other about their reading and writing was for me, like it was for Atwell, intoxicating.

Consequently, I remember with great clarity the day of my first peer review because I’d been excitedly waiting for it ever since reading Atwell’s words. The students were working on a hero’s journey–the Harry Potter books were all the rage–and I gave them 45 minutes to read and respond to each other’s papers. I was vibrating w/ excitement when I introduced the idea, and yet the students showed little reaction, with most averting my gaze. It didn’t take long for me to realize that something was off, and I grew more than a little bit annoyed as, regardless of my prompts and prods, most students did little more than scatter a few vague comments like “Nice work” or “Good job”  and/or provide a handful of grammatical corrections that even the more primitive spelling and grammar check programs of the early 2000s could have fixed. 

This was my initiation into peer review and unfortunately my second and third attempts yielded similar results. Soon, after enough reconfigurations without any noticeable improvement in the outcome, I wrote off peer review as something that sounds great in books and professional development but doesn’t really apply to my classroom, and for years I did no peer review at all. 

Fast forward to today and peer review is a foundational element of my classroom. It is one of the most effective pedagogical tools I have, and by the end of the year, many students identify it as the most useful thing we did in class.

The secret behind this huge swing? When I first tried peer review, I assumed that the key to peer review was getting out of the way so students could talk about writing. But it turns out that exactly the opposite is true. I now know that peer review is one of the most complex and intimidating things students are asked to do in school, and like most complex and intimidating things, we need to give students lots of preparation before expecting them to be able to properly engage in the process Here is how I do that: Continue reading “Why Students Often Struggle With Peer Review and What We Can Do About It”

A Practical Guide to Teaching Grammar Outside of Worksheets

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 5.03.06 PMIn 1963, Richard Braddock, Richard Lowell-Jones, and Lowell Schoer set out to answer the big questions concerning how to best teach writing. They collaborated with NCTE and poured over every study and paper possible concerning the subject, and the result was Research in Written Composition, which among other breakthroughs made a startling claim: direct teaching of grammar to students generally does not improve writing and in many cases it may actually do active harm.

This result shocked the writing teaching world. It frankly seems nonsensical, and yet it has been confirmed time and again since then–in well over 250 studies–leading to one of the strangest questions in all of teaching: How is it that directly teaching grammar via worksheets, diagraming, and learning of grammatical terms often has a negligible or even negative impact on writing?

Last spring, I wrote a post for Edutopia where I examined this riddle, but the word count was small, so it mainly discussed the broad take-aways. In the last week, after a mention of it in a recent post, I have gotten a flurry of questions from subscribers and readers asking for more specifics, so I thought I would take the post today to welcome you into my classroom by walking you through my thinking and giving you the exact lessons that I used this week to teach those little core pieces of grammar: punctuation. I hope you enjoy, and if you want any more details, let me know! As I often say, we are all in this together! Continue reading “A Practical Guide to Teaching Grammar Outside of Worksheets”