I write about my successes and favorite writer's workshop activities often, but it's dawned on me that I'm not confronting the failures nearly as much as I need to. I wouldn't ever want anyone to think I have a perfect classroom, and I certainly wouldn't want someone to think I'm holding myself up to a "perfect teacher" standard. I fail all the time. Last week I had a peer response activity that failed miserably. Even worse: I didn't do much to stop it, even after I knew the ship was sinking.
Full disclosure: as much as I love writer's workshop, and as much time as I've spent researching and working on peer response, this is still the area where I probably stumble most. I know peer response and authentic sharing are essential. I know how much I benefit as a writer from sharing with peers. It's still ridiculously challenging to create structured, effective peer response in a variety of ways.
One format I turn to a lot is Kelly Gallagher's Read Around Groups, detailed in Teaching Adolescent Writers. Or I should say, I steal the name "Read Around Groups" a lot, while playing with the format. This time, I created a hybrid of RAGs with structure based on a Tweet from @LitLearnAct (Peer Editing blog post). Here's how that looked in simple, whiteboard terms:
For peer response groups that don't use "allies," I always make writings as anonymous as possible. When writers take the opportunity to write about highly sensitive topics, I discuss with them (days beforehand) how they'd prefer to receive peer response. Sometimes that means seeking out anonymous peers from other schools using my teacher-friend network, sometimes it means asking some trusted 8th graders to respond to an anonymous piece from a 7th grader. Sometimes it means having all sensitive-topic-writers gather in my room during my planning period to peer respond to each other, creating a sisterhood of the brave and vulnerable.
Directions were clear. Groups were carefully divided with a mix of ability and attention span levels. So what went wrong?
1. I did this activity on a Friday when we'd come back from two snow days and a late start, making it the only full day of school since Monday. Focusing on the task at hand was a Herculean effort for most.
2. I should have split it between more than one day. I am frequently guilty of rushing through peer response in order to provide more time for writing. Time for writing is essential. Not providing the same respect for peer response time is a mistake.
3. I knew from the first two classes (one 7th section, one 8th) that it wasn't going well. And I didn't stop it. I did not modify the activity in any major way. I did not change course for the later classes, aside from growing increasingly frustrated and sharper with my directions. I knew the activity was dead, and I didn't use my skill as a teacher to prevent the disease from spreading to all class periods. I am hanging my head in shame and frustration as I type.
4. The kids had already done a round of informal, unstructured peer response on the same pieces the week before. Maybe they're just over it and ready to move on, no matter how major the assignment is.
5. I was crabby that day before we even started. An overly irritable captain doesn't make for smooth sailing.
Why the failure of the activity is still okay:
1. Kids were still in groups, having real conversations about their peers' writing. Feedback happened.
2. They are in middle school and have probably already forgotten what we did on Friday. I'll remember it more than they will.
3. I know that it was a failure. Even though I didn't do anything to stop it, at least I'm reflective enough to realize it wasn't successful and the changes I'll need to make next time. At least I know I won't fail again in the exact same way. The next failure will be new and different, which is the wonderfully frustrating part of growing and learning.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.