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Peer Editing in the Classroom

Cassie S. Alber

May 7, 2003
DCI 593 Applied Project

Introduction

Peer editing has always been something I have incorporated in my writing curriculum. Currently I teach Senior Composition at my school. I helped to develop the curriculum three years ago as our school first opened and had the first senior class. As a result, I feel close knit to what is taught both in my classroom and in my colleagues’ classes. One thing that has always been a struggle is improving student writing over the course of eighteen weeks and giving them a chance to grow as writers and become confident before they head off to college.

History

I think one reason I feel so passionate about this area is because I have always enjoyed writing both for myself and for others. I began writing as a child because my grandmother and I would write poetry together. I then kept a diary for myself. In junior high and high school I was encouraged by my teachers to continue this creative writing. Then I joined the speech and debate team where my writing skills reached new heights because I learned both the art of persuasive language and the skill of rhetoric.

So I went off to college thinking I knew how to write an essay because I had done so much writing in debate and in creative writing classes. I was wrong. My professor was extremely frustrated because my content was strong but my style was random and disorganized. He taught me the skills I needed to make a solid argument while fitting within a provided structure. These were revision skills I had never been taught by a teacher.

In retrospect, I felt that my teachers in high school had done a disservice because I was not prepared for college writing and I was sure that my peers were feeling the same. When I became a writing teacher, I decided that my students would not experience what I had. I wanted them to understand the writing process and be able to succeed in college where I had failed.

Background of Class

Senior Composition is a required course for graduation at my school. If students do not take senior composition or Composition 101 for dual credit, they are unable to receive their diploma. The class, as a result, usually has a variety of writing strengths and weaknesses within it.

Curriculum Focus

Throughout the semester, students must write several five-paragraph essays as well as complete a group research project and a tolerance unit. During their freshman year and each year thereafter, students learn about the six traits and incorporate them in their writing. We review that in senior composition because each essay is graded on those traits. (See Appendix A) These six traits and the five-paragraph essay format are the core objectives for students to understand and utilize in their writing.

Teaching Environment

My classroom is a welcoming environment filled with posters that remind students of writing techniques such as the 6 traits of writing, editing symbols to use, and inspirational words about writing; i.e., "It’s okay to make a mistake when you’ve tried. It’s a mistake not to try," or "It’s exciting when you’ve written something that you know is good." All of these provide a welcoming environment for students to work and I provide writing experiences that give them opportunities to hone their writing abilities and experience success as writers.

I also pride myself in my relationship with the kids. I got to know each of my first hour students intimately and learned about what made them tick as students and teenagers. We often talked about the sports events at school or the dance that occurred over the weekend. I did not just get down to business each and every day. This was important for me as a writing teacher because it allowed me to create an environment where they felt free to talk and/or write about whatever they felt strongly about.

How Peer Editing is used in My Classroom

During the first essay, a personal essay, students reviewed the writing process. During the time we reviewed editing and revision, I revealed one of the many peer edit forms I use as an editing tool. I also went over the rules of editing with the students so they knew what they were expected to accomplish on any given peer editing day in class. The procedures were as follows:

Students brought two copies of their typed rough draft and broke into groups of three (sometimes choosing their own groups and other times at my discretion). Then they gave a copy of their paper to each person in their group. Each person in the group also had a peer edit response form for each peer to fill out after reading their partner’s paper (See sample form in Appendix B). This form that I created varies depending on the essay but asked questions about all six traits.

The students in the groups were then asked to sit and read each others’ papers, then go back and fill in their form, and finally, they talked to each of the group members and gave them suggestions for revision. After practicing this process once or twice, students understood the expectations and dove into peer editing. Each essay was peer edited at least twice which meant that each writer received at least four forms of feedback for revision.

Purpose of Study

So that brings me to the reason I chose peer editing and senior composition as the focus of this study. I think that peer editing is essential for students to improve as writers. I wanted to know if they felt the same way and took peer editing to heart or if they just did it because I told them to and then they wanted to move on to the next assignment. I had felt in the past that most students did not use the peer editing as a step in improving their writing and I wanted to know why.

Research Questions

The core questions of my study were:

(1) How does peer editing assist struggling writers in my senior composition class?
(2) How much revision do struggling writers do once they leave their peer editing circles?

Some questions I had as I began to research were: Do students look at what their peers suggest and use those suggestions to make changes? Does peer editing improve their writing? Or do students become too dependent on peer editing and become lazy? Is peer editing intrinsically motivated or is it extrinsically required of them? In other words, will students peer edit without the teacher instructing them to do so?

Methodology

Participants

Initially I had thought that I would observe the progress of four struggling writers, but soon found out that I had too much information to do so. Therefore I narrowed it down to one student. This made the information more manageable and less foreboding to tackle.

The participant I chose for my study was a senior in my first hour class. I chose Jameson because he was my only special education student and his accommodations were specific to his writing ability. It primarily said that he should be given extra time for assignments, given shorter assignments, and given additional instruction on assignments. I felt that he might be well assisted by his peers and as a result; both he and I would see growth in his writing abilities and confidence.

Data Collection

Data collection was the issue I had to tackle first. My initial step was to survey the students to see what their opinions of peer editing were. Then I gathered field notes as I listened to groups peer edit each essay assigned: comparison/contrast, persuasive, etc. I also collected the different peer edit response forms that I used for the different papers. I tried a plethora of ideas this semester to see which worked best or gave the best feedback for the writers i.e., short forms asking the editor to give positive feedback, questions they had and suggestions for improvement, oral critiquing as discussed later, and long forms such as the one presented in Appendix 1. The last part of the data collection was interviewing several students to get insight into their personalities and attitudes about their writing abilities.

Data Analysis

Sorting through all the data I had collected was both time consuming and frustrating. It was hard to figure out how to decipher what was worth keeping and what needed to be set aside. As a result, I spent many hours reading and rereading the information to see what common threads were emerging. The next step was identifying the codes I would use to sort my research into themes. Coding was a large issue because all of the papers I had assigned, and the different types of data I had collected were so diverse. Finally, I was able to narrow down my codes to the following: student editing critiques, student expectations, student reactions, and student outcomes.

After coding was completed, I started to write data summaries and memos to evaluate the information and determine where I might need to collect more data. This was helpful because I was able to reflect on all the research and came to realizations about what had happened in my classroom.

Jameson’s Background

According to his student permanent record, Jameson earned average grades in school. His core classes all were either C’s or D’s. I did notice that in English I and II, he received A’s; however, these were special education courses, not the regular track that most students in my class were required to take. Jameson plans on attending a community college after school. He shared this with us during one of the IEP meetings we attended. Senior composition was the only class he had this semester that counted towards his graduation requirements. Jameson was also involved with the school’s wrestling team which took up much of his time at the beginning of January and a little into February. He also had a part time job that took up approximately 15 hours of each week.

Jameson’s Attitudes about Writing

Jameson had a pretty relaxed personality. He came into class with a smile and listened attentively to instructions. He felt comfortable enough to ask for assistance, not only from me but his classmates as well. As a result, he seemed to get along well with all of his classmates. This was helpful because peer editing can be rather intimidating when you already feel that you are not a very good writer. Jameson said that when we started peer editing that "at first I was embarrassed about it. But now I just listen to what they have to say. That’s the way I see it now" (Interview 3/31/03).
Jameson’s personality helped him to see the value in peer editing instead of withdrawing and wishing that it was not going to happen. This was evident after one peer editing session where I asked students to read their papers out loud to their peer members to give feedback. Afterwards, I asked students to tell me what the positive and/or negative reactions they had to this type of peer editing. Jameson responded by saying, "I really liked this, because I had the chance to hear my paper and I got to hear the mistakes I made. I think this will help me out better…because I got everyone’s responses on it" (Oral Peer Edit Critique 3/29/03).

It is my experience that many students who struggle as writers usually do not have anything written for their peers to edit or do not attend class on days they knew peer editing was taking place. Jameson was not like this. He always had his work ready and was willing to let others read it and critique him. Likewise, he was willing to look at his classmates’ papers and give them feedback. He did struggle with the critique somewhat because he hesitated to give advice. He explained this to me on the survey I gave the class, "I know something is wrong, but I don’t know how to (tell them) to fix it, like spelling and punctuation" (Peer Editing Survey 3/23/03). Therefore, Jameson’s comments were limited to phrases such as "this was good," nothing needs to be fixed," or "just change that word" (Comparison/Contrast Peer Edit Form, 2/21/03). These comments did not help the writer he was assisting to revise.

Problems with Jameson’s Writing

Jameson has struggled with writing for "quite awhile" (Interview 3/31/03). He knew that he had specific problems. In fact, in my interview with him he stated that he struggled with "punctuation, just knowing where to put like a comma, just pretty much writing a sentence that makes sense. I mean I sometimes put words in the wrong spots" (Interview 3/31/03). This was demonstrated in one of his first drafts of his comparison/contrast essay, when he wrote,

"Say your behind 3 cars at a drive thru; stomach gurgling with hunger. You pull up to the voice box and finally the employee ask can I take your order? It … depends where your eating at…Say your at McDonalds, you could get a Big Mac and fries, and a drink (Comparison/Contrast Essay Rough Draft 2/20/03). Obviously, Jameson had many usage mistakes (underlined) when it came to words such as you are, your, you’re. Also he had mistakes with spelling, verb agreement, and word choice that a high school senior usually does not make at this stage in his writing career. Obviously, this must be where Jameson’s IEP stems from.

Unfortunately, Jameson was not so successful with his final draft of this comparison/contrast essay because he just changed all the words of "your" to the words of "there" when he meant "they are." When I read over the peer edit feedback he received, I discovered that he saw that he used the word "you" or its forms many times in his rough draft and concluded the he must have decided he ought to change that. This was a decision he most likely made on his own; not due to the advice from a peer (at least written advice). As a result, his essay was still littered with mistakes. Other changes he made because of his peer editor’s suggestions were mostly dealing with punctuation.

During one peer editing session, he worked with a peer who had read his previous papers. Some of the following suggestions were given to Jameson on his peer edit form, "Title is not creative but does fit the paper" (Persuasive Peer Edit 3/11/03). I believe Jameson did not change his title because he felt that as long as it fit, it did not need to be creative or he just did not know how to be more creative with his title. She also said to him "The first sentence of your introduction does not capture the reader’s attention." Again, I began to wonder if the reason he did not make a change here, was because he did not know how to follow suggestions that required more complex analysis - like capturing a reader's attention. Other suggestions the peer editor gave Jameson on this particular paper should have assisted him in revising. For example she suggested, "give an example of immigration." Still, he was unable to make a change in this part of his paper. At the end of his introduction paragraph, she further elaborated, saying, "I lose what the writer is trying to achieve. The thesis needs to be clearer, written out better so it’s easier to understand." Then she gave him an example of how to rewrite his thesis: "Many Americans think that immigration is wrong, that it needs to stop, and that it is too easy to enter into the United States." This is the one piece of advice that Jameson took and he made this change in his final draft (Persuasive Peer Edit, 3/11/03). From this example, it looks to me that he made the change when he was told specifically what to do, but when he was just told something in general, like to make it clearer; he did not know what to do.

This is further exemplified in other responses he received on his papers. On 2/26/03, we peer edited their comparison/contrast papers. Jameson’s partner suggested that he "add more details to back up his your thesis" (Comparison/Contrast Peer Edit, 2/21/03). Again his final paper was identical to that of his rough draft. One significant finding I made on this particular paper was that he did make all the conventional corrections that she took the time to write directly on his rough draft.

An example of this is illustrated in Table 1. In the comparison of his rough draft and final draft of his persuasive paper, some words in Jameson’s rough draft are underlined to indicate the revisions he made when he wrote his final paper. These underlined words also indicate the suggested revisions that his peer editor made to Jameson directly on his rough draft. She showed him how to do that by writing on his paper; either crossing out words or putting in insertions. As a result, he made these changes with ease but forgot about the purpose of his essay in the process. When he and I conferenced about his topic on 3/1/03, he told me that he wanted to persuade his readers that immigration was good. In the end, Jameson’s paper discussed why immigration was bad because his peer editor tried to make his paper make sense. This may have been why he struggled with the content of his paper.

TABLE 1 ROUGH DRAFT

What is Immigration? Its when a person or a group of people migrate into a place, (especially migrating to a country of which you are not native in order to settle there.) Why is it good for immigration. Immigration is what brought culture to the United States, which what make America the land of the free. A lot of immigrants immigrated in the 1880 to the early 1900s in America. What does the other side of think of immigration? While the other side thinks that immigration is bad, or that it needs to stop or that it’s easy to get into the United States. (Persuasive Paper March 11, 2003)

FINAL PAPER

What is immigration? It is when a person or a group of people migrate into a place, (especially migrating to a country of which you are not native in order to settle there.) Why is immigration good? Immigration is what brought culture to the United States, and that is what makes America the land of the free. A lot of immigrants migrated in the 1880’s to the early 1900’s to America. What does the other side of think of immigration? The other side thinks that immigration is bad, that it needs to stop or that it’s easy to get into the United States. (Persuasive Paper March 14, 2003)

I think maybe these changes were made because it was written on his paper, and these were easier changes for him, too. It was more difficult for Jameson to look at the peer edit form and his rough draft and try to figure out what he should have done to make it better. As a result, no new information was added to his paragraphs; only minor changes were made to fix usage errors and wording errors that were fixed on his rough draft by his peer editor.

Jameson’s Progress

As the semester progressed, I often observed Jameson asking his classmates nearby him to read his paper and give him suggestions. As a result, his conventional errors improved; however, the content did not always make such great strides. For example, on 2/11/03, he wrote in his analysis essay, "Why does society sterotype [sic] people, before they get to know the real them? …. In our society we judge before we get to meet the reel [sic] them" (Analysis Essay, 2/11/03). In contrast, on 4/28/03, he wrote in his research paper, "The way that Charles got into the pharmacy industry was when he accidentally cut off the top joint of his middle finger. Charles went to a pharmacist to get…" (Research Paper, 4/28/03). In these two examples I see a large growth because Jameson is using more difficult words correctly in his writing as well as getting the spelling correct. This was positive progress for him.

Conclusions on Jameson

As I looked at all the other peer edit feedback that Jameson received on his persuasive essay and others, I realized that maybe Jameson did not have the skills to transfer advice from his partner’s to his own writing or that he had not been taught to do so. Likewise from what I gleaned from all of his different papers and peer edit responses, the only advice Jameson followed as he revised his paper were those written directly on the rough draft. He did not utilize the advice from his forms to make his paper better. This might indicate that Jameson needed more one-to-one conferencing so that he had a more focused direction for his revision. It may also be that he was only able to focus on one paper and that he could not cross analyze from the peer edit form to his rough draft to make revisions.

I therefore have concluded that maybe a focus on one or two traits may have been more productive for Jameson then a whole writing approach. I believe Jameson needed more specific advice from his peers rather than general comments. Likewise, in the future, I probably need to go back to having conferences one-to-one with students. One approach I used to utilize was Nancy Atwell’s writing workshop format. She advocates allowing students to work at their pace and master each assignment. She says that by allotting three class periods a week …students (are) able to develop and refine their own ideas. ….Regular, frequent time for writing also helps students write well. When they have sufficient time to reconsider what they’ve written, they’re more likely to achieve the clarity, logic, voice, conventionality, and grace of good writing. (Atwell 91)

I have strayed away from this approach because of curriculum demands and time constraints. Yet what she says speaks to my curriculum and using the six traits as a measure of success. So maybe, I need to return to this approach next year.

Allowing my students to write at their pace and revise at their pace probably would have provided a better environment for Jameson to grow as a writer. The strides he did make over this semester were primarily in regard to the mechanics of writing. Yet, "conventions" is the last trait I am concerned with for growth because there are always going to be students who struggle with this. Nowadays students can use spell-checker, and so it is more important to focus on revisions in regard to the other traits.

Members in my research community in my Teacher as Researcher class suggested that maybe there was so much that he had to revise that he was overwhelmed and so he only focused on one area. This may have also been the case because there were a lot of problems with his writing, such as developing his thoughts and ideas and making his sentences flow. So the paper illustrated in Table 1 made progress only in the areas of sentence fluency and conventions, but did not improve in the areas of ideas and word choice because he forgot the purpose of his paper, which was to persuade us that immigration was a good thing.

Overall Study Conclusions

Based on my study of Jameson, I have concluded that maybe a focus on one or two traits may have been more productive for both Jameson and the other students in my senior composition classroom. It is nearly impossible for a senior high school student to be excellent in all six traits of writing in every single piece that they write. If given a focus for a paper on one or two of those traits, I think they might have had a better chance of experiencing success as a writer, which is the goal of my class.

I learned from my peer editing sessions that I am asking them to look at too much as well. Not everyone feels confident in giving feedback about conventions or voice. So maybe I should have "expert editors" for each trait so that when students are peer editing they can seek out a "peer expert" on voice or sentence fluency to look at their paper. This way, students who feel confident in their writing abilities for one or two traits can shine and assist those who struggle in those areas.

I also learned that my peer editing forms are too lengthy. They need to be reworked so they have a focus for the particular paper they are writing instead of being generic response forms. When given more specific directions and clarity, students respond in a more detailed and helpful manner.

Another conclusion I have arrived at is time. Not every student can write under pressure and be expected to revise a paper overnight. I need to allow time so that students can really take the time to rethink their papers and make revisions for publishing. These are just a few of the things I will try to incorporate into my classes next year.

Lingering Questions/Plans for the Future

I found as I was completing this project that more questions arose than were answered. Obviously my focus shifted from peer editing to revision. I really wanted to see what students would produce after getting feedback from their partners. For the most part, I was not happy with the results. I think that has made me feel like peer editing is not working in my classroom and I have to find a new method for teaching the peer editing process and revision process so that my students may become more effective writers. I wonder why we as teachers have to feel so pressured to get things done and not be able to meet the needs of our students instead? Our society has become so driven by standardized tests and how our schools appear to the public that we have forgotten why we joined this profession: the kids. I think that every single teacher falls victim to this at one point in his/her career. The fact is that the reason we all became teachers was namely to help students find a love for learning while helping them to learn.

As a result of these findings, I do intend to rewrite my curriculum over the summer to focus more on my students rather than my objectives. I also want to read Nancy Atwell’s In The Middle so I can get a better grip on the writing workshop process once again. I may also continue this research with adjustments next fall so I can see if there are any new developments as a result of the changes I make. All in all, I discovered many things about myself and writing that I probably would have continued to ignore otherwise. So despite the frustrations and anxiety, my research has helped to reignite the flame of passion I originally had when I began teaching eight years ago.

References

Atwell, Nancy. In the Middle. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook
Publishers,1998.
Steele, Kim. "Ideas for Teaching Writing." (1997-2001): n.pag. On-line.
Microsoft Explorer. 4/30/03.
http://www.angelfire.com/ks/teachme/writing.html

Appendix A

Six Traits of Writing Defined
These six traits are ideas, organization, voice, fluency, word choice, and conventions.

"Ideas is what the writer has to say, a message. The ideas should be fresh and original. Organization is the structure of the paper. Voice shows the writer's personality. With good word choice, the writer creates a mental picture for the reader by using words that are specific and accurate. Sentence fluency is the readability of the paper. The sentences should flow smoothly from one to the next. Conventions includes spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, and paragraphing. The writer should use conventions to enhance the readability of the paper" (Steele).Appendix B
Persuasive Paper Peer Edit Form
Name ________________________________
Partner’s Name________________________
Please read through your partner’s paper first. As you read, write notes outside (as I do when I grade your papers) of things that work well or things that need work. Also make any corrections for spelling, grammar, or punctuation.
Once you have read through the paper once, then continue with the peer-editing sheet below. This is a tool to help make your paper and your partner’s paper better. Please take it seriously and work to the bell.
Title of Paper___________________________
Is the title creative? Yes/No
Does it fit the paper? Yes/No
If you answered no to either question, what suggestions can you make?
Introduction
Does the first sentence grab your attention and make you want to read on? Yes/No
If not, what suggestions can you make?
Does the introduction develop from general information down to the thesis or is there too large of a leap and you lose the sense of what the writer is trying to achieve?
Is the thesis the last sentence of the intro? Yes/No
Does the thesis have 3 prongs? Yes/No
Is the thesis debatable and presents what the person is trying to persuade you of? Yes/No
If not, what suggestions can you make to improve thesis?
Body Paragraph #1
Is the first sentence the topic sentence? Yes/No
Does it introduce the first prong of the thesis? Yes/No
What logical reasons does the writer give to support this first argument?
Are the logical reasons effective? Yes/No
What evidence/facts does the writer give to support this first argument?
Are the facts effective? Yes/No
What expert opinion does the writer use to support?
Is the expert opinion effective? Yes/No
What concessions does the writer make for the opposing side?
Is there enough to validate the opposing side’s opinion? Yes/No
Does the writer conclude the paragraph and tie up this argument before starting the next? Yes/No
What suggestions for improvement can you make for this paragraph?
Body Paragraph #2
Is the first sentence the topic sentence? Yes/No
Does it introduce the first prong of the thesis? Yes/No
What logical reasons does the writer give to support this first argument?
Are the logical reasons effective? Yes/No
What evidence/facts does the writer give to support this first argument?
Are the facts effective? Yes/No
What expert opinion does the writer use to support?
Is the expert opinion effective? Yes/No
What concessions does the writer make for the opposing side?
Is there enough to validate the opposing side’s opinion? Yes/No
Does the writer conclude the paragraph and tie up this argument before starting the next? Yes/No
What suggestions for improvement can you make for this paragraph?
Body Paragraph #3
Is the first sentence the topic sentence? Yes/No
Does it introduce the first prong of the thesis? Yes/No
What logical reasons does the writer give to support this first argument?
Are the logical reasons effective? Yes/No
What evidence/facts does the writer give to support this first argument?
Are the facts effective? Yes/No
What expert opinion does the writer use to support?
Is the expert opinion effective? Yes/No
What concessions does the writer make for the opposing side?
Is there enough to validate the opposing side’s opinion? Yes/No
Does the writer conclude the paragraph and tie up this argument before starting the conclusion? Yes/No
What suggestions for improvement can you make for this paragraph?
Conclusion
Does the first sentence restate the thesis? Yes/No
If not, what suggestion can you make?
Does the conclusion tie up any loose ends of the paper and solidify the main arguments? Yes/No
Does the writer leave the reader with something to think about that further persuades the reader to his/her point of view? Yes/No
What suggestions for improvement can you make for this paragraph?

 

 

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