Lately there’s been more and more discussion about the need for teachers to talk less and have the students talk more. The adage, “The one who’s doing the talking, is doing the learning’’, has been gaining in popularity. Long story short, if we want kids to learn more, they need to be the ones doing the talking. Hence, the need for teachers to develop more opportunities for students to collaborate with each other in a constructive, meaningful manner has never been more important. Peer conferences are one avenue that our class has been exploring to provide just such opportunities.
This week students completed their persuasive writing rough drafts. I’ve always thought of persuasive writing as the writing genre with the most power. When I introduce persuasive writing, I share examples of how the “pen is mightier than the sword”. It is in this writing genre that students truly begin to see the power words can have.
After previewing several persuasive topics and editorials, students are then free to choose their own topics for their persuasive essays. There are mini lessons throughout the workshop on writing thesis statements, claims, research, supporting evidence, counterclaims, outlining, etc.
Finally the rough drafts are complete and we’re ready to start revising. But before we can start the work of making our writing even more powerful, we need to share it with others we trust, here is where the power of peer conferences and feedback can make all the difference in student writing.
During peer conferences, it is important that the author reads his writing out loud to his or her partner. Writers need to hear how the words they’ve written sound when read aloud. Much revision can be started with just this simple step. However, it is important that the partner, the listener, have some direction to follow. Too often the student doing the listening may be unsure what kind of help to provide the author. Simple guidelines, such as a form to fill out while listening, will help the student to shape her thoughts into feedback that will be helpful to the writer.
The conference/feedback form used for our persuasive writing provides areas for the listener to record the thesis statement, supporting reasons, and counterclaims. There are also areas to note the type of evidence that is included for each supporting reason (this is an important area, adding more supporting evidence is a frequent area of revision with persuasive pieces). However, the most important part of the form is on the back, the “stars and wishes” section. I began including “stars and wishes” on writing conference forms a few years ago. This is how I explain it to the students:
“Stars” are what you like about the writing. Everyone needs to hear something good about his or her writing. We all need to hear positive comments about the things we do. Then I offer the students the following analogy: if the principal were to come into my classroom everyday and tell me all the things I was doing wrong, what would happen? Eventually I would just give up. I would feel like what’s the use? I can’t do anything right, so I just wouldn’t try anymore. People, all people, need to hear what they are doing right, so find something you like about your partner's paper and share it with them as a “star”. The “wishes” section is for something you “wished” you had heard in your partner’s paper. Give your partner an area to focus on.
Then the magic happens, I get to walk around the room and listen in on the writing conferences. So much good writing, listening and feedback in one room is inspiring! But as I was doing this, I was also thinking about the advice I gave the students concerning the “stars”. Too often, too many of us hear only what we’re doing wrong. We all need to hear the “stars”. Even as adults, we need that positive feedback to continue to grow as learners.