Sharing: The Value of Peer-to-Peer Feedback

Before I finish this post, more than one person will read it. I will send it to my husband for review and then to the One World Education office where several minds will think about it. I will read it and revise the wording about 30 times myself.

On the radio this morning, I heard Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for President Obama, describe the week-long writing and revision process for a State of the Union address. He spoke of the President’s tendency to complicate ideas, only to have speechwriters attempt to simplify them again. Favreau noted that the President did not want to take any shortcuts when communicating complex ideas to the American public.

Today in class, my ninth grade students read the first draft of their Odyssey essays aloud to several different partners. They marked what they were proud of and what they wanted help with, then worked together to make their ideas more clear.

Although we sometimes think of writing as a solitary process, it is very much a social undertaking. We write to make our ideas understandable to others, and one way to ensure that our text is intelligible is to hear others’ feedback.

When I participated in the One World Education College and Career Senior Challenge this December, I was impressed to see both the amount and quality of peer-to-peer feedback taking place. As an English teacher, peer-to-peer feedback is one of the most important skills that I can teach my students. I want to instill them with the confidence to be proud of their work, and the strength to ask for assistance when they need it.

An essential part of empowering students to give each other useful guidance is providing them with the academic language they need to communicate their writing strengths and weaknesses. At the preparatory sessions for the College and Career Senior Challenge, students held a checklist in their hands as they provided feedback to a peer. Student A would listen and check-off all of the components of Student B’s presentation. Engaging hook? Check. Clear thesis? Check. Detailed support? Not quite. Students also had time to discuss and space to record their ideas for improvement.

These are the kinds of speaking and listening activities that benefit our student writers the most. In the midst of a similar exercise in my AP English Language & Composition class today, I asked an expert (my student) if getting peer feedback was helpful. Yes, she said, this is actually useful to me. Because students often communicate most effectively with their peers, providing them with the language to be precise about what writers are doing well and not-so-well is essential.

Tonight, I reviewed three essays for a former student’s application to the Gates Millennium Scholarship. Aside from small grammatical revisions and wordsmithing, my most frequent suggestion to her was to use specific examples in her writing. As my high school English teacher used to tell us, write for people who don’t know. Help them to clearly see your ideas. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.

Besides the revision process, the advantage of students sharing their work with one another is that they are also sharing their passions and making connections with one another. At the College and Career Senior Challenge, I was most taken by the students who shared their personal stories and convictions. From the student who openly shared his reading level, to the students who spoke about education in single-parent homes and exploring alternatives to college, their emotional appeals pulled at the audience’s heartstrings. Undoubtedly, students who live across the city from one another found that they have as many similarities as differences.

Students in the District are lucky to have events like the College and Career Senior Challenge that bring young writers together to recognize, support, and strengthen their skills. Writing is, after all, a social process that requires both input and celebration.

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