02 December 2013

Rowdy Writers' Workshop (Now with Badges!)

Writers' Workshop has gone through several incarnations this semester of Creative Writing alone.

We started off in a circle with hard copies and pens in hand. As the stories got longer, though, the screams of the murdered trees haunted my dreams. I also didn't relish the idea of having to paw through folders full of comments to see what students used to improve their writing come final revision time.

So we broke out the laptops. However, it appears in a class of all girls (yes, ALL girls) computer screens become privacy screens, so workshop became a ring of private gossip sessions. Sure, the comments were gathered in one place for easy, tree-free access (no pre-class copy scramble--woohoo!), but the interactions broke down, and the authors' pieces were not getting the attention they deserved.

So I took the tech a step further. We moved down to the computer lab where every desktop was facing the walls. My girls had to hold their workshop strictly in the chat function of Google Drive. I started the conversation with a simple call for compliments, then moved into critiques and suggestions. Still the girls found ways to get off track, even in writing.

I was at a loss. I threatened to move workshops to strictly homework-type assignment, but I knew that would not serve the purpose that a workshop should. I knew my girls needed that feedback. And I knew it was cheating them not to find a way to get that feedback to them. Mind you, they were not in danger of going without comments: they get more than they'd ever want from me for as many times as they'll resubmit a piece. But my feedback can be overwhelming and, well, untrustworthy, coming from an adult who doesn't "get it." If I say it makes sense, it could be because I'm not one of them. If one of them says it doesn't make sense, maybe, just maybe it doesn't make sense. And lets face it, they catch things I don't. I get a little wrapped up in the run-ons and past participle abuse, and 15 heads are better than one.

So how else does one cut down on conversations? How could I get the authors focused attention on what they'd written and honest suggestions on how to improve it.

Divide and conquer, they say. 

So I took the 3 pieces that were to be workshopped that day, and I had the authors choose their peer feedback group team-captain style. The thinking was that they'd pick people they knew would help them--or at least not distract each other (it happened to be a day three of my more studious authors had chosen for their workshops). And, you know, maybe they'd pick a friend or two, someone who got them, who made them feel good. After the group got 15 minutes to read, comment, then discuss, the authors rotated, so they got feedback from each group.

Of course splitting the class has its disadvantages. For one, I cannot be a part of every conversation: it's entirely up to them this way, to stay on track and keep the conversation productive and constructive, float though I may. For two, the authors are removed from all conversations but their own. There are a few girls who everyone wants to comment on their piece, because they know they'll tell them what's what.

We spent some time reflecting on what they wanted out of workshop and what they found valuable in a comment or commenter. And then we came up with some badges that we could award for the qualities they found the most helpful. I threw out the one who kept things on track, the one who gave the most helpful comments, and the one who was the most thorough; they added the one who makes you feel good, a good choice, I thought.

We've done a test drive with the smaller groups, and the worst criticism I've heard, aside from not getting the Super-Commenters' opinions on their workshop days, is that some of the groups were still not very helpful. We'll test drive the badge system this week, authors nominating their picks for each badge on a discussion board on Schoology while I'm out (the workshop routine did NOT work well while I was at ACTFL). I picked their groups this time and insinuated that badge achievement could be tied to extra credit down the road.

So here's hoping my rowdy girls finally have the technology, the focus, and the motivation they need to give each other good feedback.

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