Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Connecting Activity #1

I've linked my ENG/A101 (Composition I) class with Maria's ESL097 class. This is an intriguing pairing, given the disparity in writing skill between our students (in theory, at least!). For our first connecting activity, I asked my students to comment on short autobiographical essays by Maria's students, which had been posted on Blogger. Before the activity, I asked Maria for some ideas to help my students provide useful and constructive feedback. She suggested the following guiding questions:
a. "You wrote about..."
b. "You described..."
c. "Your story reminds me off..."
d. "I liked..."
e. "Why did you say...?"
f. "Tell me more about..."
g. "I didn't understand when you said..."
I liked these questions because they highlight writing as first and foremost a communicative act. I also appreciated the subtle shift towards elaboration and revision in the last three questions. Building on Maria's suggestions, I created a writing feedback handout for my students that incorporated these guiding questions. I also presented the following paragraph in the feedback instructions:
"Incorporate at least one direct quotation from your partner’s work into your paragraph. Please make sure to keep your comments HONEST, SPECIFIC, and SUPPORTIVE. Focus on the content instead of grammar or other technical errors. ESL097 is an entry-level course, which means the students are beginner-level English-language writers. Therefore, highlighting your partner’s grammar mistakes isn’t helpful or constructive."
We're currently working on the "sandwich method" in Composition I, which is why I asked my students incorporate a direct quotation from their partner's essay. I also made sure to emphasize attention to content instead of grammar, usage, or mechanical errors.

In terms of logistics, the connecting activity went fairly smoothly. Most of my students were able to get onto Blogger and find their assigned partner's work without any major hiccups. In this regard, Blogger seems user-friendly enough to not bog everyone down with technological problems. (The only source of confusion for several students was figuring out how to publish their comments, since this required logging in with a Google account. Once again, I find Google strangely indifferent to ease-of-use!)

In terms of the substance of the feedback, the results were uneven. Some students provided extensive, thoughtful, and useful comments that highlighted concrete passages and provided specific suggestions for revision. Others were overly general ("I like your essay because it was interesting."). Interestingly, quite a few students wrote more about their own life experiences than discussing their partner's writing, perhaps due to the guiding question "Your story reminds me off..." Several others commented vaguely on sentence-level errors, despite my explicit instruction not to do so, and some neglected to insert a direct quotation. These shortcomings aside, I found my students' comments generally kind, well-intentioned, and supportive, if not necessarily helpful with revision. (The one exception was a student who I suspect has some form of autism and seems inclined to harsh criticism. I intervened and helped her write a more balanced response. This raises the question of whether peer feedback is an appropriate activity for some students.)

If I had the chance to do this activity over, I'd spend some time at the beginning of class to model feedback. Above all, I'd emphasize the need to focus on specific parts of the writing when commenting. In terms of evaluation, the feedback exercise will count as one of our dozen or so "low-stakes" activities. As such, I gave it a credit or no-credit (i.e., quantitative rather than qualitative evaluation).

In all, the first connecting activity went well enough. While my students are generally much more advanced writers than Maria's ESL097 students, they are still quite inexperienced with providing thoughtful written feedback. Given this context, as well as the teaching lessons I've taken away from the first round, I think the second connecting activity will go better in terms of the quality and helpfulness.


  1. Hi, Irwin. I kinda comment on yours in my blog post, but thought I'd add this just so you have some comments. ;-)

  2. Thanks for posting the detail of the instructions. It gave me ideas on how to say and structure my own instructors.