The Triad: Student Writing, Teacher Commentary and Grading /Evaluation: Sommers, Bean and Elbow

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The image shows a seed that contains immense promise. Like growing ripe fruit, writing is a process where no shortcuts can be taken in creating a shiny bite.
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Providing students with terse comments and a final grade often create a maelstrom of student confusion and frustration.

#1 Bean’s “Comments on Students’ Papers” invites educators to “think different,” something that was not implemented in my elementary school education (Steve Jobs). The author invites the teacher to act as a coach to draw out the best writing from students who thought they were unable to create, therefore “enhancing their sense of dignity” (317). When a young student is presented with a crisp, red-letter grade with either little or derogatory commentaries, it affects him or her negatively. I am reminded of my colleague Susan Wong’s evocative blog “The Gym Teacher’s Wife.”

Bean cites an important 1990 study conducted by Spandel and Stiggins, in which students were interviewed about their reactions to their teachers’ commentaries on their papers (318). The conclusions of the study are enlightening and they should be utilized as polestars by instructors who teach at every grade level:

Negative comments…stifle further attempts at writing. It would seem on the face of it that one good way to help a budding writer would be to point out what he or she is doing wrong but, in fact it usually doesn’t help; it hurts. Sometimes it hurts a lot.

What does help, is to point out what the writer is doing well. Positive comments build confidence…However, there is a trick to writing positive comments. They must be truthful and they must be very specific (emphasis added).

Stengels and Stiggins’ 1990 study at p. 87, Bean 319.

It is important to guide a student correctly and not just to ask him or her to be more concise or develop an example in greater depth. Students should know the truth and learn from their mistakes. Other than my occasional watching of World Cup soccer, Olympic gymnastics, figure-skating and ice-dancing , I am not a sports aficionada in the least. However, I have noticed that sports commentators tend to be immensely more honest than other media critics of live events. They tell the audience what a “player” did “wrong” and then he or she can go back to the footage to review the mistakes and listen to the commentaries (which are, more often than not, also filled with praise regarding the player’s performance). Like sports reporters, educators should not avoid the truth. Anything less than purveying honesty is harmful to a student’s development. However, the criticism should always be constructive and never vitriolic in tone. It is also an instructor’s duty to help a writer hone his or her writing so that is focused and clear.

In this vein, Bean underscores the importance of encouraging the writing of drafts. I find this to be critical to student development. Drafts are to writing are what pruning is to a grape vine. Writing withers when it is not revised and when the pressure to yield a finished product is rigorously applied. We learned this in our reading of Lauer last week.

I am particularly struck by Bean’s pronouncement that “[r]evising doesn’t mean just edition; it means ‘re-visioning’- rethinking, reconceptualizing, ‘seeing it again’ (321). Instructors must be active coaches, not merely signaling plays on the field; rather, gathering deep in the proverbial huddle (I have no right to reference football, as I cannot understand it, but bear with me and please correct me if I’m thoroughly wrong in my reference). It is important that instructors stretch their mental faculties to care about the progress of students’ drafts. Doing so will assist active learning and in the creation of writing that a student can truly claim to be his or hers.

I am in favor of Bean’s strategy of allowing rewrites after the return of ‘finished’ papers (321). This seems to be a much more organized process and the writing that is received is of a higher caliber and allows an instructor the freedom to apply “more rigorous grading standards.” Id.

Bean’s construct of the “new/old” contract model is also important (327). Students will benefit from performing a side-by-side analysis of their drafts (one containing the instructor’s comments and the other including the student’s revised response). I know that in my own experience, viewing my own drafts contemporaneously is eye-opening.

Bean’s explanation of the development of drafts is reminiscent of sculpting a work of art from the raw material of clay (i.e. words and ideas, a well-structured thesis statement, etc.):

This writer drafts early and often. The potter starts with a big, messy pile of clay and doesn’t hesitate to slap more material on the wheel in midstream. As the potter’s wheel whirls, the potter begins molding the material into a rough shape. He or she continues to shape the material, thinning a little here, adding a little there until he or she is happy with its design.

Loren Blinde, “How to Write Like a Pro: First Drafts.” April 28, 2015 (http://www.writingpower.net/index.php/2015/08/28/how-to-write-like-a-pro-first-drafts/) (accessed on 9/28/19) (emphasis added).
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My Graphic Response to Sommers’ Article

#2 Nancy’s Sommers’ piece, “Responding to Student Writing,” dovetails well with Bean’s article. It gives instructors an important guide on what they should avoid in their written commentaries on students’ drafts. Combined with other researchers and professionals in the field of writing, Sommers makes a finding that I have never seriously considered:

The first finding from our research on styles of commenting is that teachers’ comments can take students’ attention away from their own purpose in commenting. The teacher appropriates the text from the student…Students make the changes the teacher wants rather than those that the student perceives are necessary, since the teachers’ concerns imposed on the text create the reasons for the subsequent changes…In the beginning of the process there was the writer, her words, and her desire to communicate her ideas. But after the comments of the teacher are imposed on the first or second draft, the student’s attention dramatically shifts from ‘This is what I want to say’ to ‘This is what you the teacher are asking me to do.’

page 150

Sommers’ article is greatly enhanced by the marked text of student drafts. In these drafts, the author makes manifest that instructors’ vague and often contradictory comments serve to frustrate students and make them go on wild-goose chases of correcting their alleged mistakes. As implied by my graphic above, writers should not utilize a “red pen of doom” to be editors (from Linda Pham’s impactful post last week). To do so assumes that what the student has handed in is a finished draft that is simply in need of a bit of outpatient surgery. What is actually needed is development of ideas and “an inherent reason for revising the structure and meaning of their texts” (151) (emphasis added). As astutely explained by Sommers, students also need to reconsider a broader audience than one consisting only of their teachers. This is an active manner in which they can develop a unique voice and points of view.

Sommers also introduces a salient point: the “process of revising always involves a risk” (152). Students must be liberated from the notion that they need only address the changes that the professor has written in the margins. It is up to instructors, through comments on drafts, to facilitate students’ new discoveries, which may be tied to their original ideas. Additionally, peer review is immensely helpful to this process.

Like Bean’s article, Sommer’s piece helps to show that writing is an organic process that evolves and the professor should act as a constructive facilitator who strongly promotes writing as a process and not as a product. This is strongly tied to Lauer’s work.

Everyone wants to be a CHAMPION, but is the rabid pursuit of THE BLUE RIBBON A+ the Best Strategy for Writing?
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#3 Ranking, Evaluating and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment by Peter Elbow

Elbow seems to be virulently opposed to students’ pursuit of rank and obtaining the best grade possible. I agree with his assessment that students are often obsessed with getting A’s, rather than having knowledge develop organically. As an undergraduate, I was enrolled in the Honors Program, which is a four-year colloquia in which we learned religion, philosophy and literature, etc. from ancient to postmodern times; however, we were made to derive our own exegetic commentaries on the material that we explored. As freshmen, we were a class of 18-year old overachievers who thought we knew a lot because we had collected A’s like neat little soldiers on our high school report cards. So when it was not apparent what the professors wanted we did what all very “type A” folk do: ask the upperclassmen how to get an A on our papers. The fuel for this avid fire to be champions was stoked by the fact that written assignments were very often graded. However, as cited by Elbow, our professors were extremely open with us in providing relaxed critical evaluations outside of the classroom and encouraged the process of organic learning– i.e. learning the artful skill of listening and conversing with our peers. In later years, we also engaged in free writing, which led to many “lightbulb moments” for all of us. As cited by Sommers, our professors also drove us to develop unique points of view, rather than blindly accept any given pedagogy. We were made to challenge our initial assumptions, which is something that has always remained with me.

Elbow’s discussion of the rabid pursuit of grades also hearkens back to Sommers’ point that students are often driven to please their professors rather than discovering and molding their own independent ideas.

My disagreement with Elbow comes with what appears to be his suggestion that instructors should delay giving grades. This article was written in 1993. Since then, getting into undergraduate and graduate programs has become excessively competitive. The number of students seeking higher education has gone up and class rankings are always going to be benchmarks for admissions’ offices.

I am not averse to Elbow’s viewpoints in toto, by any means. I am attracted to Elbow’s ideas of creating students’ portfolios in which their work is aggregated. This is a great chance for students to see how they have progressed throughout the course of a quarter or semester. This builds confidence and a way in which students can learn from past errors.

I also appreciate Elbow’s approach of having students sharing their work with others and then engaging in critical peer review. This ties in with the organic teaching philosophies espoused by Bean and Sommers. However, I do not agree that students should be over-zealously encouraged to submit their writing drafts to class magazines (195). This may be highly intimidating to young freshmen beginning their foray into writing. It should be an optional exercise.

Elbow’s theory on contract grading (i.e. setting out his expectations of students) is highly important (195-196). This eliminates a lot of tension at the beginning of a quarter or semester when students are wandering listlessly in search of guidance regarding professors’ expectations. So often students are tersely told to simply attend class and do the readings. That form of passive performance is not conducive to true learning.

Elbow’s piece hits a sweet melodic harmony when he describes the critical practice of free-writing. This is often missing from curricula. It gives students an opportunity to learn about who they are as individual writers and what is important to them as citizens of the world. It is worth a considerable about of class time, especially in first-year writing courses, for students to spend time journaling. The power of the pen (or keystroke) is pivotal because it encourages them to write about developed and refined ideas. To me, writing is like photosynthesis: one needs exposure to unobstructed light in order for something to grow properly. Free-writing is an essential nutrient, like natural sunlight.

When I read the Elbow’s heading of Liking, I was expecting a “New Age self-approval, everyone should get a trophy for trying” exposition. I was so wrong! How can a student better his or her writing when he or she loathes what is on the page? Even if there are multiple grammatical errors, vague ideas or misspellings, the student has expressed genuine interest on that page and this is a valuable currency. Furthermore, Elbow elucidates:

…[T]he way writers learn to like their writing is by the grace of having a reader or two who likes it– even though it’s not good. Having at least a few appreciative readers is probably indispensable to getting better.

….Good teachers see what is potentially good, they get a kick out of mere possibility– and they encourage it.

page 200

I appreciate that Elbow sees writers as being seedlings who will grow into autonomy. He freely admits that after he serves as teacher and constant facilitator, his students get better without his help. This exhibits the true power of teaching.

#4 Equity Unbound

Entre [escritor(e/a)s] no hay fronteras

When I first learned about Equity Unbound, a phrase that I learned in Spanish I immediately came to mind: “Entre amigos no hay fronteras,” which translates to Among friends, there are no borders. In the image above, I have modified this phrase to fit our seminar: Among writers, there are no borders. In our exercises both in and out of class, the Internet has united all of us across time zones. Learning new perspectives is vital to living in postmodern times. Learning from your fellow writers across the globe is exciting, instructive and fun. Even when you disagree with a viewpoint, it is still extremely important to keep borders open so that different perspectives can be respectfully addressed. We are all in fellowship as writers.

Published by medeathewriter

Creative writer, lyrical gangster, poet, student of life and an attorney. Speaks Italian and Spanish.

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