Let’s Compliment Some Students For a Change

As Thanksgiving draws upon us, I enter into the long weekend feeling very thankful for my job–and most of all, for my students. Yes, with so many teachers turning to Facebook and private blogs to “vent” about their kids, I’d like to bring some positivity to the Internet, and just in time for the holidays, too.

Last week, I wrote about my plans to have my students spend two days revising and editing their own essays, as well as the essays of their peers. When I promised at the end of the article that I would post a follow-up on my students’ progress, I had no idea what the nature of that follow-up would be. For all I knew, I would soon have t0 admit to the world that my grand ambitions had collapsed among the crumbled papers and used chewing gum on the classroom floor. Every English teacher knows that student peer reviewers can occasionally do more harm than good. After all, if a given student doesn’t know how to organize an essay or even structure a sentence, how can that student be expected to properly advise another?  It’s a no-brainer, really.

You may find yourself asking why teachers continue to utilize peer review in the classroom. The honest answer is that your typical English instructor is too darn busy to read through a hundred or so rough drafts. But someone’s got to do it–and just look at all those students sitting around, doing nothing! Like so many of my fellow instructors, I decided to put those kids to work. Even if they had no worthwhile feedback to offer, I reasoned, the students would at least benefit from reading other samples of the same essay.

Once all the rough drafts were complete, I had my students put their desks in a circle. I then had each student pass his or her essay to the right, so that everyone had a new essay to read. Once each student had read and commented on the paper in front of them, everyone passed to the right again. By the end of the activity, every student had had the opportunity to comment on four of their peers’ essays. While all this was going on, I took extra care to walk around the circle a few times, monitoring progress.

What I saw was enough to keep me in a good mood for the past six days.

My students read through their classmates’ work with dedication I rarely see in some educators. They commented positively where appropriate (“Very good points in this paragraph! I agree with all of your arguments!”) and gave their fair share of constructive criticism, too (“Your first body paragraph doesn’t match your thesis statement. Consider revising.”).

Once or twice, when I tried to move the class along, a few students would announce that they weren’t finished checking the paper in front of them. “I want to be thorough,” one girl insisted, her pen still poised to catch the next repeated word or spelling mistake.

At one point, I stopped by the desk of a student who was staring down at an essay, doing nothing. The kids had all been instructed to look for sentence fragments or run-ons, and only those, in the essay in front of them. This particular student has a habit of getting off task, so I offered a gentle reminder.

“No run-ons or fragments?” I said.

“Nope,” he said. “Not a single one.”

With a let-me-show-you-how-it’s-done smile, I took the paper from him.

And wouldn’t you know it–he was right. I sheepishly returned the essay and moved on.

Even the act of arranging the desks in a circle, and back again, went smoothly. Yes, few actions turn to chaos more quickly than a bunch of high school students moving their desks around; usually, I have to watch and bark orders until the room is arranged properly. On this particular day, however, I began to wonder if perhaps I could have slipped out after the first bell rang, leaving just a note that read, “Please revise/edit. Thank you.” The kids may have gotten more done if I hadn’t been there.

Typically, when a person wonders if the world will keep turning without her, she feels lonely and depressed.

But for a teacher, there’s no better feeling in the world.


Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.

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