Approaches to Student Writing 2: A Fresh Look at Peer Response by Neil Witikko

A Fresh Look at Peer Response:
Improved Writing and Talk that Hits the (Common) Core

by Neil Witikko
The College of St. Scholastica

The Students
Five minutes have passed in third hour, and the students in Composition I are hard at work in teams of three and four. Most groups are scattered around the classroom, finding what privacy they can away from the other peer groups. One team of four is working just outside the door of the classroom in the hallway. Any comments about the excitement of last night’s hockey game have faded in the first three minutes of class, and the only sounds now are comments about the papers that the students are sharing with each other.

It is a day for feedback on their cause and effect papers. Each student has had the opportunity to take their peers’ papers home, read them, and generate some ideas for response, based on a project rubric that guides the students’ writing. Now they have time to share those ideas in talk.

In one group, the discussion has already turned to some key content ideas within the essay:

Kristen: I love your opener. The whole thing of your grandmother and
you playing with the tea set pulled me in. What I am not sure about
is where you are taking us with your thesis idea. Is this supposed to
be about the relationship between you and your grandmother at the
time, or is it about how the relationship back then has affected you
Joe: Yeah, I had the same question. I think it is supposed to be about the effect on you now, but I am not sure that you get us there in your body paragraphs.
Rachel: What do you mean?
Joe: I mean I don’t see enough direct ties from the personal experiences
between you and your grandma that you share and your thesis, that
she has had a profound effect on who you have become. I don’t see
how one caused the other. Is there a way that you can connect them
more clearly?
Kristen: Yeah, like could you write on page 3, at the start of the second
paragraph, something like, “It was not just Grandma’s constant
kindness to me alone that affected me; she treated others in the
same way”? Because that is really what you are talking about in
that next paragraph. The direct link between those paragraphs
would help us see your point.
Rachel: Oh, I see. Yeah, that would work.

The Collaborative Method
In theory, it makes sense that what one can do well, two can do better. We see this everyday in the world around us: from construction site, to machine shop, to business office, team work is highly valued. This idea, however, has not always made the smoothest transition into the classroom setting. In many high schools, teachers have integrated peer response groups as a part of their students’ writing process. While some have argued that these groups can help students become better writers and more critical readers (Elbow; Macrorie; Miller-Cleary; Romano; Spandel; Spears, Peer Response; Spears, Sharing Writing), others acknowledge the tricky nature and potential shortcomings of using these groups effectively in the writing classroom (Berkenkotter; Brunjes; Harris; Newkirk; Zemelman and Daniels). At the MCTE spring conference a couple years ago, I listened to a group of teachers acknowledge that they have never been able to make peer response groups work effectively in their classrooms, and had, consequently, given up on this as a method that sounds good but is hard to employ effectively. These teachers talked about their difficulties in keeping students on task and their disappointment with the superficial level of feedback that students gave to their peers. My own experience as a teacher, however, painted a different picture: I have found peer response groups to be incredibly helpful to students as they work through their writing process, providing writers with fresh perspectives through which they are able to reexamine and strengthen their own writing. The results: clearer thesis statements, more detailed support of ideas, stronger voice, as well as more critical analysis of their own writing and that of peers.

I had been teaching composition for almost 30 years and had used peer response groups in my writing classrooms for most of that time. As a veteran teacher, I believed in their effectiveness. However, had I just been imagining these benefits to student writing? Why was my perception of peer response so different from what I heard in the voices of many other English teachers? It was time to take a closer look at what was really happening in my student groups and in their writing. I wanted to find out what students were really saying and writing to each other in their peer response sessions and how writers were using, or not using, that feedback in their revisions.

The Study
The research participants were high school seniors, members of eight different peer response groups, who were enrolled in my AP/College-in-the-Schools composition course in northern Minnesota. Response groups in our classroom do not take on the “writing-without-teachers-look” that Peter Elbow advocates. Rather, these students participate in a structured form of peer response which focuses on Spandel’s 6-Traits assessment methods, a model used widely in our school district. Students give each other two different types of response, written and oral.  Once groups are established, a great deal of time in class is focused on learning what effective written and verbal peer response looks like and practicing as responders. This happens in a number of ways. Students and I talk about the kind of feedback that is most helpful to them as writers. We spend time analyzing completed peer response sheets from previous classes, highlighting comments that help writers focus their revision. Then we practice giving response. I project sample essays on the Smart Board, and as a class, we analyze the essays, making marginal notes to the writers. In each case, we are concerned that our comments point back specifically to the students’ writing. After we have worked through a couple of essays as a class, students take sample papers home and practice providing response, always guided by the writing rubrics that direct the given project. When they come back the next day, we talk through the essays, sharing the response that we have provided. Students listen to each other as they talk about why they provided the feedback they did.

Finally, I select two or three students to work with me on a “fish bowl” activity: students take a short piece of my writing home, read it, and provide written response. When they come back the next day, we model a peer response talk session for the whole class. Most times, these students are very willing to give me feedback. If it feels to me like they are holding back, I frame some questions for them about the piece. This usually opens up the discussion.

All of this work takes place in mini-lesson format over the period of a week or so. In my mind, it is time well spent because students are not only learning how to provide detailed response; they are also learning how to become critical readers, a skill that pays dividends in all aspects of the course. This intentional scaffolding prepares the students to provide meaningful response to peers once they begin their group work.

When first drafts of an assignment are completed, students read their group members’ papers at home and fill out a written response sheet for each paper, focusing on several qualities of writing that were emphasized in the course curriculum: 1) the 6-Traits of writing, which function as a framework for writing and discussion of writing in this course, and 2) rhetorical methods that were specific to the mode in which students were writing (e.g. Can the responder see how cause and/or effect are being used in the cause/effect essay?) (See Appendix A for a sample response sheet.) The next day, each group has 49 minutes to talk about the writing. In these sessions students provide verbal feedback to the writers, building from the written ideas on their response sheets.
I collected data during the third and fourth essay assignments of the course. Consequently, through the first two essay cycles, students had gained familiarity with their groups, the group’s process, and how to give thoughtful response to peers.

The student data consisted of the following:

* the audio recordings from each group talk session during two cycles of writing (16 49-minute sessions). (Each group had an audio recorder and recorded their talk sessions. We practiced using these recorders in the second essay cycle of the year and continued recording during the third and fourth cycles, which were the focus of the research study.)
* the written response sheets, based on 6-Traits assessment model, that students completed before each talk session (two per responder, per essay)
* the first drafts of each essay
* the finished drafts of each essay
* the process journal entries. (At the end of each writing cycle, students wrote a process journal where they analyzed the effectiveness of their group function. Additionally, they wrote about the kind of response they received from peers, how they used it or did not use it, and why they made those choices).
Follow-up interviews conducted with participants after the process journal entries were completed.

I utilized an integrated ethnographic and sociolinguistic approach as the analytical framework for data analysis. When analyzing the audio tapes, I identified speech events, moments when students were discussing one common idea, and then applied the constant comparative method to both the written and spoken texts. I analyzed the data concurrently in order to search for patterns and themes in the students’ discourse. Once themes were identified, I was able to examine the revisions that students had made in their essays between the first and final drafts. I compared both drafts against the assignment rubric, focusing on the degree to which the students’ writing had or had not improved. After this process was done, I studied the students’ response journals. Based on that response, I conducted interviews with students, asking follow-up questions about their response and revisions based on what I had read in their process journals. In the end, I had a thorough understanding of the discourse within the writing groups and how that discourse affected the revisions of the papers. Fig. 1 provides a graphic representation of the data analysis process.



Fig. 1 – Data Analysis Process
Identifying Speech Events
The first level of analysis occurred with transcription of the students’ response sessions in order to identify speech events. In some instances, this talk was as simple as, “Your thesis idea is very clear. You are arguing that it is essential that we, as Americans, value the learning of foreign languages. Nice job.” In other cases, the talk about the thesis idea led to a ten-minute discussion about the lack of clarity in the thesis, and the group made suggestions to the writer about what they believed the thesis should be. The transcription and initial examination of these speech events allowed me my first glimpse into what it was that students were saying and writing to each other.

Response Sheet Template
A process pattern that emerged in the student talk was that peer groups relied almost exclusively on the peer response sheets as a template for their discussions. The students understood that they had the autonomy to decide what formats their discussion sessions would follow; they were not obligated to follow the peer response sheets, which only served as a framework that outlined the rhetorical concepts that should be discussed. However, most groups chose to use the framework of those sheets as their outlines for conducting their peer response sessions. What this meant in specific terms was that most groups first discussed the writer’s lead, the first item on the peer response sheet. Did the lead grab the reader’s interest? How might the lead be strengthened? From there, groups typically moved to the second point on the written response sheet: the thesis idea. Was the thesis idea clearly stated? If not, what did the reader suggest in order to clarify the thesis idea?

This process can be seen as one group begins their response of Emma’s paper:

1 Nikki: Lead. Nice. It’s long though.
2 Emma – They always are long.
3 Nikki – If there is a way you can make it shorter or something.
4 Emma – Yeah, I probably could.
5 Alex – I said, to be honest, your thesis is not as clear as it could be.
6 Nikki – No, I think you were like battling between two kinds of theses this time.
7 Emma – I was.
8 Alex – Although much good has come of the changes, chivalry should not
9 be compromised.
10 Nikki – Yeah, something like that and then men and women are different.
11 We shouldn’t erase their differences, but they should be credited and
12 respected. I think you are battling between those two.
13 Emma – Yeah, I know. Which should it be?
14 Nikki – I think you are talking about chivalry. I think you should keep it
15 on chivalry, the rest of the paper. Like, you see, I heard it in the
16 beginning, the one about the men and women thing, and then a little bit in
17 the end, and then nowhere else. And the chivalry was overpowering. You
18 can mention that, maybe more specifically, what you were saying before,
19 but keep it the thesis on chivalry.

In this excerpt, Alex and Nikki begin by responding to Emma’s lead and then move seamlessly to their comments that her thesis statement was not clear. From there, a rich discussion develops about which of the two topic angles she should pursue in her thesis statement.

Whatever the motivation, every group followed the general process that this group lays out here with the broad ideas of the response sheet to guide their discussions. In following the response sheet outline, students were sharing ideas that were thematically related. The conversation first focuses on the lead, then the thesis, then the opposing viewpoints, and so on, as laid out in the specific peer response sheets for that given assignment.

Establishing the Conversational Floor
Although most of the response was thematically connected based on the guide of the response sheets, key differences were found in how individual groups shared their feedback. Each group had a process for establishing the “conversational floor,” which Edelsky defines as “the acknowledged what’s-going-on within a psychological time/space” (405). In general, participants are able to identify the floor by summarizing the central idea of the conversation, as in the following examples: “Oh we are talking about his thesis idea,” or “We are responding to her use of detail in her support paragraphs.”

It should be noted that in this study there was a unique difference in the establishment of floor compared with what teachers frequently find when their students work in peer group settings. It is not unusual that after directions have been given, students will typically begin their group work with comments like, “Okay, now what are we supposed to do?” or “I missed it; what are we doing?” This phase of the talk, which Cragan, Kasch, and Wright refer to as the orientation stage of group discussion (35), helps students to create the conversational floor. The group orients itself to the task and reframes the assigned task as the group’s task. In making these kinds of comments, then, students are taking ownership of the assignment and, once they have done this, they will usually get on with the task.

In this study, however, in all 16 peer response talk sessions, there was never even a single example of orientation talk. The evidence suggests that the peer response forms, which the students had completed the night before the response sessions, actually worked to establish the conversational floor. Having completed these forms, the students came to the discussion with a very clear sense of what they needed to say. There was no hesitation at the beginning of any session. Students jumped right in by talking about the essay leads, which was the first response item on each peer response sheet. They did not appear to go through an orientation to the task stage.
Although each group started their response sessions by beginning with the first response item on the peer response sheets, the groups did not follow one process for sharing their response ideas with their peers. Rather, the groups continued development of the conversational floor using different processes. In some groups, one speaker spoke at a time, and in other groups, multiple speakers shared ideas in conversation that was frequently overlapping.

The one-speaker-at-a-time process. In two of the groups, a one-student-speaks-at-a-time process emerged, which Edelsky defines as the F1 conversational floor. Edelsky notes that in this F1 floor, a clear pattern of turn-taking emerges, one individual speaking first, followed by the next group member, and so on. One of these groups was forced into this process because they lost a group member, who dropped out of the class after the groups were formed. Consequently, there were only two members in that group. The talk in an additional group, however, emerged in this turn-taking pattern. This can be seen in the following excerpt of Lisa responding to Beth’s paper about the importance of learning world languages:

1 Lisa – I love your lead, even though I did not understand it, but one thing I
2 would do is that “Do you have any idea what I just said?” Then
3 you never tell us.
4 Beth – Oh, that’s what basically all this is.
5 Lisa – Oh, yeah cause then if you don’t have what it is in the intro,
6 something you could do is to put it in the conclusion. That way people will
7 continue to read so that, if they want to know what you said in that foreign
8 language at the beginning, they have to read to the end to find it out. Um,
9 your thesis is very blatantly clear—more Americans should learn a
10 foreign language, right there, very obvious. For your opposing viewpoint,
11 I wasn’t, I am guessing that it was that Americans don’t think they should
12 learn another language because they think the rest of the world should
13 learn English
14 Beth – Yeah.
15 Lisa – Okay, I wasn’t sure because if felt kind of hidden. You can try to
16 make that a little more obvious and highlight that a little more. Um, your
17 organization was very good. Your intro paragraph set us up nicely for the
18 essay, and you give us some clear examples. Then your conclusion
19 finalized it very nicely for us, and, um, you supported all of your ideas
20 very well when you talked about job opportunities for learning a foreign
21 language you give the example of the one guy who learned Japanese and
22 now he is working for Toyota, so that was a good way to support that.
23 And then you give examples of how you can understand culture through
24 learning a language, so you did a good job of supporting all of it with
25 examples. I think it was a really good paper. I don’t have any real
26 suggestions other than clearing up your opposing viewpoint.
27 Beth – Okay, yeah.

Lisa did not understand Beth’s opening lines because, to grab the readers’ attention, Beth wrote those lines in several foreign languages. In this example, other than a couple of quick responses from Beth for clarification, Lisa took the conversational floor, and her talk was guided strictly by the components of the peer response worksheet: the paper opener, the thesis idea, the opposing viewpoint, organization, and support. She was applying the curriculum and activity expectations in that she gave feedback, at least in one example here, that was very specific. It should be noted that one of the response strategies that students employed in their sessions is pointing back specifically to the writer’s words and ideas. Lisa did that here as she shared her own reaction to Beth’s lead, the use of the foreign phrases. Believing that it can be even more effective than it was in this draft, Lisa recommended a rewording that would keep the reader engaged at even a higher level throughout the paper (lines 1-10).

The multi-speaker approach. Talk in the other six groups emerged through a process that seemed to use the peer response sheets as a starting point only. They used the response sheets to orient themselves to the task but went well beyond the structure of the response sheets in their discussions. Building off of the basic ideas on the response sheets, these groups developed discussions that were both generative and synergistic. In these groups, spontaneity of ideas became the norm. Discussions were free-flowing, and these groups had a much greater tendency to launch into conversations with multiple speakers overlapping their talk and collaboratively building on the ideas of each other. Responders were not only validating the writers, but, through their verbal response, they were also validating the ideas of their fellow responders. In this response the students were showing an awareness of and respect for the social norms that had emerged within their groups. In these groups, students frequently made comments like, “I wrote that same thing” or “That’s exactly what I said.” These six groups were operating from what Edelsky defines as the F2 conversational floor, a discussion where two or more people participate either in a verbal “free-for-all” (384) or where two or more people collaboratively build a discussion around one central idea, each person adding to the ideas of the others. Brice describes this as deliberative discourse, where the students navigate simultaneously both the social norms and the task talk within the group in a generative manner.

An example of this kind of generative discussion can be seen in the following excerpt, where Becca and Will provided feedback to Jordan on her argumentative essay, which focused on what, in Jordan’s opinion, is the ridiculous nature of celebrating the Easter Bunny as an Easter tradition:

1 Becca – I think your lead was interesting because you gave the origin of
2 where the Easter Bunny came from, um, but like I also kind of wonder,
3 “what’s the point” of the subject. And I think you should also introduce
4 your arguments against it or for it, or whatever.
5 Will – I don’t know how you are going to do that though ‘cuz most of the
6 arguments are for.
7 Becca – Yeah, that’s what I kind of wondered too.
8 Jordan – It was mostly that it wasn’t logical. That’s about it.
9 Becca – Okay.
10 Will – Maybe instead of having it matter-of-fact, like, so it seems like you
11 could try to make it more funny, poke fun at the Easter Bunny or
12 something.
13 Becca – Yeah, that would probably give it a better tone. It’s not really a
14 serious subject so you could just be making fun of it. Thesis is clear. You
15 think that the idea of the Easter Bunny is really irrational and stupid. You
16 could explain a little better why it matters, and it’s a stupid idea and why it
17 matters, like kids don’t like
18 Jordan – I know what you’re saying.
19 Will – Isn’t Easter a Christian holiday though?
20 Jordan – No.
21 Will – Yeah it is.
22 Jordan – Technically, but the Easter Bunny doesn’t have anything to do
23 with Jesus.
24 Becca – Well, yeah.
25 Jordan – Easter was actually
26 Will – is a pagan holiday too
27 Jordan – celebrated in pre-
28 Christianity times like by Egyptians and stuff. It’s on their like pyramids
29 and stuff.
30 Becca – Yeah cause I always wondered what the Easter Bunny had to do
31 with
32 Jordan – It has nothing to do with it.

This excerpt provides an example of a discussion that brings each group member’s voice to the floor. Becca began the discussion by pointing back to Jordan’s essay opener, expressing a concern that her topic did not really have an important purpose (lines 1-4). Jordan clarified her purpose by stating to the responders that she was focusing on the idea that the Easter Bunny simply is not logical. Will suggested that Jordan change the tone of her essay to something that might poke fun at the tradition of the Easter Bunny (lines 10-12). Immediately, Becca agreed, noting that this might give the essay a clearer sense of purpose (lines 13-17). Will moved the discussion by suggesting that Easter is a Christian holiday. Jordan initially answered, “no,” but then asserted that the Easter Bunny has no link to Christian traditions and was celebrated in pre-Christian times. Like many other discussions in the study, this excerpt draws on ideas from all group members, who frequently overlap their conversation, building on each others’ ideas.

Recognizing that the students in all eight groups were largely on task during the talk sessions, there was still a difference in the amount of energy that came out of the discussions in the various groups. The simple fact was that the groups whose discussion emerged from the multi-speaker pattern had a synergy in their talk that was not apparent in the one-speaker-at-a-time groups. These multi-speaker groups frequently had overlapping talk that would consistently build in energy. The ideas in these groups typically grew in a generative manner, leading to very rich response. In these energetic moments, the students were most engaged and the peer response was most detailed. This discovery can be very useful to teachers as they implement peer groups in their classrooms and will be addressed in greater length later in the paper.

Summary of the Findings
The study revealed several ideas that language arts teachers might find helpful. I will provide an overview of all findings and then examine one significant finding in depth.
Students are on task. One of the first findings in the discourse of the students in the peer response groups is that, despite concerns that some teachers have expressed that students in peer response groups are frequently off task, students in this study were largely focused on “task talk” (Brice 71). In fact, in the analysis of 784 minutes of audio recording, there were only six instances where groups were off task, and these were brief (e.g. “I ate at Taco John’s last night. It was great.”) Four of these instances occurred in one group, and the other two occurred in a second group. The recordings from the remaining six groups contained no off-task comments. Clearly, students in this study were focused on the group work. This finding aligns with the observations of Gere and Abbott, who found in their study that students do focus their response group time on talking about their peers’ writing.

Rapport matters. Another finding of this study was that group rapport mattered to students both in terms of what students wrote and said to each other and how writers received that response. A strong majority of students noted in their process journals that, because they got along well with group members, a feeling of trust developed within the group. As both Brice and Dossin found, this trust is an essential component of any successful peer response group. Building on a trusting foundation, students knew that group members had each other’s best interests in mind (see Appendix B).

Student response is intertextual. Student talk in these peer response groups was intertextual. Students frequently drew on multiple “texts” as a means of explaining their ideas. Some of these texts were drawn from personal experience (“When my grandmother died, we were all devastated.”) Other texts were drawn from common classroom experience (“Don’t you remember when Mr. S talked about this in class?”) Still others came from individual learning experiences (“I just read an article in Newsweek where the author suggested that communities have misunderstood this issue for decades.”) As students drew from these intertextual resources, as Brice found, they gave voice to multiple perspectives on the topic that was being discussed in their groups (77-78). These multiple perspectives, in turn, helped to create new text through the group discussion, which gave writers diverse ideas that they could choose from in working to improve their papers during the revision process.
Peer response pushed writers to consider new perspectives. Whether or not writers chose to use specific suggestions that their responders made, the response itself pushed the writers to consider different perspectives. Almost all students noted in their process journals that their peers’ feedback forced them to think about their topic in new ways. A couple of students believed that these new perspectives allowed them to view their own writing more objectively. They wrote that, previous to their peer response, they were too close to their subject matter; it was hard for them to be objective. This was particularly true when the topic was of a personal nature. When these writers received the response from their peers, they were then able to look at their own writing with a new objectivity because the responders gave the writers a new lens through which they could examine their own words. These students were engaged in what Perl calls “projective structuring” (35), the ability to write for themselves but with an awareness of the reader’s needs. Whether or not the writers chose to use the suggestions during the revision process, the majority of the writers commented on how helpful it was to see their work from this new perspective (see Appendix B).

Peer response helped writers to improve their essays. All students in the study took the response from their peers, and they used it in their revision process to improve their papers. This improvement was evident in the analysis of the final drafts compared with the first drafts, scored on a 6-Traits rubric. Additionally, all of the writers themselves believed that the feedback they received helped them strengthen the final drafts of the essays. This perceived improvement on the part of the writers was the focus of much of their writing in the process journals (see Appendix B). This is not to say that every student was satisfied with every aspect of the peer response. In their process journals, two students expressed concern: one because he felt that his group was “sugar-coating” what they had to say, and he wished they would be more critical. The second student felt that her group mostly provided feedback on things that she already knew needed attention. Still, both of these students believed that they were able to improve their papers because of their peers’ feedback.

Students are able to maintain ownership and authorial control. Candace Spigelman points to textual ownership as a critical component of any writing class. She notes, however, that in peer response settings, participants are expected to relinquish some degree of ownership in order to allow their texts, at least temporarily, to become “community property” (2). This can lead to concerns of ownership of the writing.

As much as students did value their peers’ feedback, and as much as they acknowledged that they used that feedback to improve their essays, writers also appeared to feel very comfortable in not following some of the suggestions that their responders provided. In their process journal entries, students highlighted specific areas of response that they used in their revisions, as well as many suggestions that they chose to ignore (see Appendix B). In this study, students seemed wholly able to listen to their peers and then decide which ideas they liked and which they did not. This was consistent with one of the curricular goals of the course: the writer always maintains authority of what advice to take and what advice to ignore. The responder’s job is to simply provide the writer with some possibilities for revision.

Being responders helped students to improve their own writing. Eighteen of the students in the study were interviewed after they had completed all aspects of both writing sequences. They were asked the following questions:

1. What in the writing/response process affected your writing the most?
2. How did being a responder affect your own writing?

Although they worded it in different ways, all 18 of the interviewed students insisted that being a responder for others helped them improve their own writing. They did not use this language, but what they were talking about was a metacognitive awareness that emerged during the process of reading their peers’ papers. The students noted that they saw both limitations in the work of the peers as well as strengths, and they were able to use this response experience then to improve their own writing. For example, in some instances, as they read their peers’ paper, they saw shortcomings in organization or in support of ideas that, upon reflection, they realized were also shortcomings in their own essay. This caused them to go back and revisit their own ideas and organizational structure. In responding to others, the students gained an awareness of their own writing and their own writing processes. They were able to take the response experience and transfer it to their own writing.

A closer look at one important finding: Idea evolution in one writing group
One of the richest findings in this study was the way that students worked together to collaboratively generate ideas within the eight writing groups. As in every classroom, this happened to more successful degrees in some groups than in others.

Several of the groups in this study consistently engaged in multi-speaker, overlapping discourse, and these groups had numerous incidents of very engaging discussions. It was typical to see these students take one single idea and collaboratively add to that idea, frequently with energetic and overlapping discussion. In the end, these groups often used the power of the group to build that one idea into an entirely new text. Susan, Emily, and Ann provide an excellent example of this “idea evolution” (Hirokawa and Johnston 503) when they discussed Susan’s cause and effect essay on eating disorders. In particular, they focused their discussion on Susan’s paragraph that deals with how women are portrayed in fashion magazines:
Magazines, on the other hand, though not nearly as destructive to girls, have their negative effects also. Any person can walk into the nearest supermarket, Target, or doctor’s office and find a tabloid bashing celebrities body shapes. Often times we see covers that feature headlines like, “Brittney puts on pounds,” or “worst bikini bodies.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, the inside of these pages are an inescapable prison of self hate for adolescent girls. They flip through to find pictures of normal sized women being further chastised or labeled as obese. Many editors argue that these pieces are for entertainment, but is it truly entertaining to watch eating disorders rise and girls begin to hate themselves more and more? Once again, though many magazines feature pieces about teaching girls to love their bodies or portray role models who are happy with their looks, many more are on the opposite spectrum.

Emily responded to Susan in her written response sheet by writing:

“Your ideas are very well supported throughout your entire paper. The best support, I thought, was in paragraph three when you talk about the stories that magazines run. I could relate to it because every time I go into Target or a gas station, I see articles like that. One way that you could make even more powerful by saying that some magazines try to break this hurtful cycle, but end up going back to the other stories because it is more entertaining. This means that magazines are just contradicting themselves when they print these headlines.”

Ann’s written response was very similar to Emily’s:

“The third body paragraph was also a high-note in your paper because it’s something I’ve never truly considered. Perhaps one item you could add is in paragraph three you could maybe say how girls’ magazines contradict themselves by placing articles of self-loving and how you should accept your body sandwiched in between ads of unhealthy, airbrushed models, or something like that. ”

These written response sheet ideas led to the following discussion in their talk session about Susan’s supporting paragraphs:

1 Ann – And I also, um, thought maybe one thing you could possibly even,
2 it’s just like a little thing you could add in, is how you could add in how
3 magazines they contradict themselves because they place the articles, you
4 know.
5 Emily – I said that in mine too!
6 Ann – Really? Yeah because how they like
7 contradict because they have the articles about self loving and like how
8 you should be happy and satisfied with your body, but then they put that
9 liked sandwiched in between ads
10 Susan – Yeah.
11 Ann – of, um, of like the flawless like good skin, like skinny girls, like
12 you can see how it kind of contradicted itself because they do that
13 Emily – I put the exact same thing, but I also, um, said that I really liked
14 how you talked about magazines ‘cuz every person who goes into a gas
15 station sees like, “Oh Brittany got fat,” and like stuff like that
16 Ann – Yeah, and how they are not even, like she maybe put on, like, two
17 pounds,
18 Emily – Yeah.
19 Ann – and it’s like she doesn’t even look fat at all.
20 Emily – Yeah, and it’s, it’s not that she even looks fat, it’s just what a
21 healthy person looks like
22 Susan – Yeah.
23 Ann – Yeah.
24 Emily – One thing that I thought you could add, it’s just a little story that I
25 remember seeing in the news a while ago, about magazine ads is, I think it
26 was, yeah, Ralph Lauren,
27 Susan – Oh yeah
28 Emily – with an ad that was so over edited
29 that her head was wider than her hips, and they’re like, oh it was a
30 mistake, but it still got out in the media,
31 Susan – Mmhmm
32 Emily – so I think, I don’t know,
33 you don’t have to add it, I just, that’s what I thought of when I read that.
34 Susan – No, I was gonna put that into the part about the fashion industry,
35 but then I did not know if I should because I already had the thing about
36 Karl Lagerfeld
37 Ann – You could almost even add it into that kind of paragraph if you
38 wanted; I think that would be a good spot for it.
39 Emily – I think it, like—not that I am saying, [Ann], that your idea is bad,
40 but I think it would work better in with like with the photo shopping ad
41 because
42 Susan – Oh definitely, like the ads one about, yeah that would definitely
43 work
44 Emily – like it was taken so far that, like, her body, it didn’t look like a
45 human body at all.
46 Susan – Yeah, okay. Yeah.

This speech event is an excellent example of Edelsky’s multi-speaker conversational floor, where students build on one another’s ideas to develop, in essence, a new text. Ann brought the idea of how girls are represented in the media onto the floor when she said, “you could add in how magazines they contradict themselves because they place the articles, you know” (lines 2-4). Emily immediately tagged onto Ann’s idea by saying, “I said that in mine too” (line 5). As the idea continued to emerge, each group member responded with either a “yeah” or another idea that built on the concept of women’s portrayal in the media. Ann said, “like the flawless like good skin, like skinny girls, like you can see how it kind of contradicted itself because they do that” (lines 11-12). Emily immediately interjected, “I put the exact same thing” (line13) and then she builds on the idea: “but I also, um, said that I really liked how you talked about magazines ‘cuz every person who goes into a gas station sees like, ‘Oh Brittany got fat,’ and stuff like that” (lines 13-15). The overlapping talk and half thoughts evolve to the point where the group is able to articulate the idea in more complete sentences. The idea of women’s portrayal in the media seems to have evolved fully when Emily describes the Ralph Lauren ad, featuring a woman whose image has been so altered that her head is wider than her hips. The dialogue in this speech event is a powerful example of the recursive talk that Gavelek and Raphael suggest both links and extends ideas within a conversation.

It should also be noted here that the students brought multiple “texts” to the floor as they generated new ideas about the portrayal of girls in magazines. They started, of course, with Susan’s paper. They also included the texts of the rhetorical mode of cause and effect writing and the classroom expectations of this essay, and, in addition, the responders brought to the floor the texts of their own understandings of and personal experiences with fashion magazine layout.

usan used this feedback to make some substantive revisions to her supporting paragraphs. Her new version of paragraph three incorporated some of these ideas:

Magazines, though not nearly as destructive to girls, also have their negative effects. Any person can walk into the nearest supermarket, Target, or doctor’s office and find a tabloid bashing celebrities’ body shapes. Often times we see covers that feature headlines like, “Brittney Puts on Pounds,” or “Worst Bikini Bodies.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, the inside of these pages are an inescapable prison of self hate for adolescent girls. They flip through to find pictures of normal, healthy sized women being further chastised or labeled as obese while scrawny, undernourished women are placed on pedestals of beauty. Many editors argue that these pieces are for entertainment, but is it truly entertaining to watch eating disorders rise and girls begin to hate themselves more and more? Some magazines, such as Seventeen, have begun featuring articles about learning to love one’s self and even show fashion pieces with girls from many different body types. But Seventeen is just one magazine. Many more, like People, The US Weekly, and OK!, still feature the opposite spectrum of articles and continue to incubate repugnance.

In the next paragraph, Susan took the group’s idea and added the Ralph Lauren example that they spoke of in their discussion:

A few months ago, Ralph Lauren was caught manufacturing an ad that had been so exceedingly modified that the circumference of the model’s head had become larger than the diameter of her hips. The picture was horrifying to see, and, although Ralph Lauren’s executives stated that the ad was never actually going to be run, it still got out into the media and into girl’s minds.

In writing in her process journal about what she chose to use and to not use of her peer response, Susan noted, “I used the [Ralph Lauren] piece of advice because it made sense to use and that I had been trying to think of an example like that to use anyways.” In this regard, it is clear that the group process led these three students to collectively generate an idea that became an essential component in Susan’s support of her thesis statement. This discussion provides one of the clearest examples of how the multi-speaker, synergistic conversational floor frequently led students in this study to responses that made a significant difference as writers turned to the revision process to strengthen the content of their essays. It is examples like this that convince me about the powerful role peer response can have in the classroom as students help each other improve their writing.

Peer Response “Talk” and the Common Core
I completed this research at about the same time that hundreds of teachers across Minnesota began to implement the new Minnesota Language Arts standards. As this implementation was happening, it became clear to me that peer response groups, in addition to being a powerful way for students to improve their writing, can also provide students with the opportunity to show attainment of our state’s “Speaking and Listening” standards: Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11–12 topics, texts, and issues, including those by and about Minnesota American Indians, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

a. Come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.

b. Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed.

c. Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.

d. Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible; and determine what additional information or research is required to deepen the investigation or complete the task.

It was all there. As I analyzed the 13 hours of audio tapes of students talking about each other’s writing, as I studied the 96 written response sheets that students completed before their speaking sessions, as I read the 48 process journals, and as I reviewed my notes from 18 interviews, I certainly had the tangible evidence to show that my students had attained these standards. With the help of their written response sheets, students came to their talk session prepared to engage in “a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.” All peer response groups developed their own talk session procedures so that all members’ voices would be heard. Responders posed questions, heard and considered a range of perspectives, and respectfully challenged each other’s ideas. Finally, the writers were then able to respond thoughtfully to the diverse ideas, synthesize those ideas, and resolve conflicts in their writing between what they had written and what their peers had perceived in that writing. In a time when teachers are expected to cover more and more “ground” in regards to standards attainment, it was wonderful to see the seamless fit of these standards in a classroom process that is really focused on strengthening student writing.

So What Does this Research Mean for Teachers?
As I think about the implications of this study for teachers, I remember the voices of concern that I heard from teachers about peer response groups at the MCTE conference. Some of these teachers expressed concerns about keeping students on task. Others were frustrated with the superficial qualities of the response. In remembering these voices, I am reminded that implementing peer response groups can be tricky business. Based on this study, it is clear that gains can be made by students in their writing at the same time that they are meeting expectations of state standards. Additionally, the study revealed a number of implications for teachers who are interested in using peer response groups at the high school level that might help alleviate some of the concerns that teachers have about peer response groups.

Give students a voice in group membership
Because group maintenance and rapport were important considerations in the students’ minds, it seems important to provide students with some authority over how groups are formed. As a teacher, I would never argue that peer response groups should be selected exclusively by the students—in fact, I would argue against this. I have seen too many cases as a classroom teacher where complete student choice in terms of group membership excludes some students who never seem to be chosen. This can and should be avoided. In addition, I have seen plenty of situations where best friends are not necessarily best group members, especially as it affects staying on task and of giving honest feedback. These ideas being written, nevertheless, I do also maintain that student input into group membership is very important. In their process journals, students discussed the importance of their group “getting along well” and how that led to an accepting environment for giving and receiving feedback. A number of students, when given the opportunity before groups were formed, did submit the names of select students with whom they do not work well. In order for a group to function effectively, students need to develop a high trust level within their groups. That trust level is very difficult to develop and maintain in settings where group members feel threatened or uncomfortable for whatever reasons. Consequently, it seems important to give the students a voice in the group formation process.

With these same ideas in mind, teachers might want to avoid any system that mixes up group members from week-to-week or project-to-project. In their process journals, a number of students talked about how the rapport and group function were getting better and better as the trimester went along (17 students pointed to its importance in the cause and effect essay while 24 students noted its importance in the later argumentative essay; see Appendix B). In other words, they described a process that was developed and nurtured over time throughout the thirteen-week term. Their group performance was enhanced by the increasing longevity of their work together. It takes time to know how the group should function and to develop the trust with individual members of the group. It would not make sense to set groups back in this regard by forcing them to navigate a new group process with new members.

An important connection should be made here with how the conversational floor was established within the various groups in this study: a couple of the groups, highlighted earlier in the paper, whose conversation emerged from a multi-speaker floor, had especially rich and generative peer discussions. This is the ideal that teachers should work for because the discussions in these groups led to the richest student feedback. In this study, strong group rapport set the stage for these multi-speaker discussions. Rapport matters and teachers should do what they can to nurture it within groups.

Teach the skills students will need
Students were very pleased with the feedback that their peers provided for them in this study. The students’ written and verbal feedback from the peer response sheets and the verbal sessions moved well beyond superficial comments that some teachers have complained about. Using the 6-Traits framework as a guide, students were able to develop a “critical eye” as they examined the work of their peers. Their response, in most cases, drew attention to very important rhetorical elements in their peers’ writing. The peer groups’ transcripts revealed a great deal of discussion about the importance and clarity of the writer’s ideas, about perceived structural problems in the essay, and about the quality of the details writers used to support their ideas. Responders spent a great deal of time discussing the flow of the writers’ ideas and the importance of transitional writing strategies that could improve that flow. This is the kind of feedback that English teachers themselves will typically provide when responding to students’ writing.

Part of the reason for this rich response might have been the fact that, as a part of the course curriculum, the students were taught very specifically how to give rich feedback. Many teachers and researchers agree about the importance of teaching response skills in order to maximize the effects of the student feedback (Calkins; Dossin; Franklin; Klockow; Newkirk; Paulson, Alexander, and Armstrong). In this study, these response skills not only showed students how to respond, but these strategies seemed to have helped strengthen the students’ confidence in believing that they have something important to say to their peers. The transcripts revealed very little hesitation in what the students said to each other. Rather most students shared ideas with confidence that, in some instances in the study, could be described as assertiveness.

This teaching of effective response can take a number of forms. First, it is important to teach students that effective response, whether highlighting strengths or limitations in the writer’s work, points back to specific pieces of the writer’s writing. Effective response is very detailed. Effective response also holds the writers’ work up to a high standard and usually offers specific recommendations for how the writing can be strengthened. In teaching this, teachers can provide models for students, either response that the teachers create themselves or response from former students. After articulating what helpful response looks like, the teacher can have a group of students do a fish bowl where responders provide feedback for a writer within their group, followed up with a class discussion about the value of the response they heard. It is also advisable to give students practice in responding before they begin the actual work in their peer response groups. For example, the teacher could project sample pieces of writing and have the class collaboratively provide response to those pieces. Again, there are a number of strategies that teachers can employ to teach students how to be effective responders. What is important is that teachers do, in fact, teach these skills directly. Only then, will students be able to create their own effective response.

A Fresh Look
The use of peer response groups has been around for decades. While some teachers continue to use the method enthusiastically, others have placed it on the shelf as an idea that is more work than it is worth. In light of current pressure that secondary teachers are feeling to help students improve their writing, at the same time that they are required to address multiple communication arts standards in their classrooms, it is time to give this classroom method a fresh look. Classroom teachers cannot do it all; students can help. No one expresses the potential power of peer response more effectively than my student Emma when she writes, “After experiencing the value of my writing group, I wouldn’t feel comfortable handing in a paper without having people I trust evaluate it first.”

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Appendix A
Peer Response Questions for Cause/Effect Essay

1. Analyze the effectiveness of the writer’s lead. To what degree does it “draw the reader in”? How can it be even stronger?

2. Discuss the clarity of the writer’s purpose as presented in the thesis. How can the writer make the thesis idea clearer?

3. Using your 6-Traits rubric, analyze the “ideas” in this essay. Include detailed suggestions as to how these ideas can be improved.

4. Using your 6-Traits rubric, analyze the “organization” of this essay. Include detailed suggestions as to how the organization can be improved.

5. Characterize the use of cause/effect in the essay. To what degree is it essential to the paper? How effective is its use as a writing mode?

6. Analyze the effectiveness of the support in the essay? Are the ideas well supported with detail? Make suggestions as to how the writer can support the ideas of the essay more effectively.

7. Provide any other suggestions that you can that will help the writer as she/he approaches revision./’

Appendix B
Student feedback provided in their written process journals

Unprompted                                                            Number of Writers in                                                           Number of Writers in
Response Journal                                                   Cause/Effect Essay                                                                Argumentative Essay
Topic                                                                             (n = 24)                                                                                     (n = 24)

Importance of
Group Rapport                                                            17                                                                                               23
Peer Response
Helped Writer
Consider New
Perspectives                                                                 24                                                                                               22
Peer Response
Helped Writer
Improve Essay                                                              24                                                                                              24
Writer Chose Not
to Use Some Feedback
in Revision                                                                    22                                                                                               18

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