traci's lists of ten

Traci's 4th List of Ten:
Ten Ways to Respond to Student Drafts

Posted to ACW-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TEACH on 8/1/98.

Kathleen Rippberger of MiraCosta College asked me to come up with some positive ways to respond to student drafts. Here goes....

First, yes, I'll confess that I have used "cut and paste" to repeat the same sentence over and over when replying to papers online. This Ten includes things that I've tried to make responses more meaningful and supportive for writers than those cut and paste responses.

If you use one of these techniques, it's useful to talk with students about the responses you'll share so they'll be prepared for the feedback and to discuss ways to use your responses as they continue work on their papers. Since a number of the ways of responding differ from the standard end comments that students are used to, group discussion of how to use the feedback is especially important.

  1. Have students write a reflective piece on the drafts that they are submitting and respond to their reflections in your comments, rather than to the draft itself. This is one of the old stand-bys. I ask students to tell me what their concerns and focal points are; I respond to their perceptions of the text. Since it's as important for writers to be able to read and think about their text as it is for them to do the actual writing, this technique works well -- and it keeps me from telling them what I think about their text. Instead, we enter a conversation about THEIR perceptions of the text. If you've not tried this before, you might begin by asking students to include responses to three issues:
    1. What part of this draft is the strongest?
    2. What part of this draft will you work on next?
    3. Turn in 3 what-if's. Imagine at least 3 things that you might do to change this text: tell me what they are and why you're thinking of doing them. Begin your response with "What if" -- for example, What if I cut the second paragraph completely?

  2. Use a template that focuses on student-generated guidelines for the assignment. I have my students read examples of drafts written by students who have worked on a similar assignment in the past and/or professional examples in their books. They create criteria for the assignment, and we shape the criteria into a response template or checklist. The criteria might have broad categories such as "Readability, Clarity, Interest Level, and Organization" or "Ideas, Purpose, and Meaning." I focus my response on the areas that they have identified, referring to the guidelines and examples that they identified in class. Since the students own the guidelines used for the evaluation, I'm simply applying their criteria -- not the insane eccentricities of an English teacher.

  3. Use journalist's questions to structure a response -- not all of my examples are questions, strictly speaking, but they provide a nice paradigm for moving through feedback to a draft. I modify the questions as appropriate for the draft and assignment. For instance, the "when" question below would work best for a draft that is close to completion. If I were working with an earlier draft, I change the question to something such as "When I read the details in your draft, I...." I like to use these as thinking questions, asking students to respond to me, entering a conversation about their text either online in Daedalus Mail, in conferences, or in writer's journals (see #10 below). Generally, I use some version of the following questions. Sometimes all 6 are more than I have time or energy to do, so I choose 2 or 3 and use those for all the drafts I'm reading.
    • Who is this draft written for? Who is the audience?
    • What is this draft about? What is its purpose?
    • Where do details and specifics stand out? Where does the text SHOW well?
    • When I get to the end of the draft, I...? [complete the sentence & explain -- for example, "I wondered whether the hidden money would ever be found."]
    • Why did you...? It's an interesting choice/technique/etc. Why did you choose it?
    • How would your draft change if you ...?

  4. Respond to the draft from three different points of view. I like to use this technique when we've been talking about the different audiences for a piece and the ways that different readers respond to a text. Depending upon the subject of the draft, I might respond as another student, as an older student, as someone else who has read the same work (or seen the same work of art/movie) -- or as someone who hasn't, and so on. I try to fit these points of view to the particular assignment. For instance, if the assignment is a letter to the editor of the local paper, I might respond as the editor of the paper, as a concerned citizen who is interested in the same issue, and as a citizen who didn't realize that there was a problem. Once I get two or three concrete responses written, I add one silly one. For instance, I might respond as Bart Simpson or a character in a story we've read recently. I try to use several different characters in each class for variety -- especially since students enjoy sharing the silly responses with one another.

  5. Write two paragraphs in response to a draft. In one, use you-language, and in the other, use I-language. In the "you" paragraph, echo things that you have read in the paper, giving writers the chance to compare what a reader sees in the paper with their intentions. For example, I might write, "you seem to be sad that the playground has been torn down." I focus on what I see as the writer's intentions, goals, and strengths (not the weaknesses). In the "I" paragraph, I indicate my feelings about the text. For instance, I might write, "I was confused about the garden. It is mentioned several times, but I couldn't understand why it was important" or "I felt sad reading the details about the playground equipment piled in the trash heap."

  6. Respond to a partial draft by outlining what you think will happen next and why. This kind of response works well early in the drafting process, especially with narrative papers or arguments. I generally write two short paragraphs. The first summarizes what happens in the text up to the end of the draft. The second guesses at least three things that I think might happen next. As is the case when I use three different points of view (see #4), I include one silly response -- something absurd or unlikely or humorous.

  7. "Talk Less, Ask More." I attended a keynote by Alfie Kohn last week here in Austin. Kohn urged us to "talk less and ask more" -- rather than telling students what they have or haven't done correctly. Ask them how they feel about their text, why they have included the details that they have, what they want to try next. Ask them what concerns they have, and what they think can be done to address these concerns. These techniques work best when you respond online in Daedalus Mail, in conference, or in a writer's journal (see #10), since you're asking students to share details about their writing.

  8. Write a review of the draft. This technique works well after we've done an assignment where students have written a book review or a movie review or after we've considered reviews of a text, artwork, or film in class. In response to their papers, I write a short review of my own. This works especially well with narrative or creative assignments.

  9. Work on the connection between reading comprehension and writing: respond with summary, implied main idea, logical conclusions. Demonstrate how reading comprehension techniques apply to reading rough drafts. Write a one-sentence summary of the draft, write a sentence identifying the draft's main idea, and write a sentence or two drawing conclusions about the text. Be sure that each is labeled clearly, and then talk about how to use the information (e.g., writers should think about whether the implied main idea you've identified fits the purpose they had for writing? You might ask them whether there is anything they might change to make the main idea clearer to readers.)

  10. Use a Writer's Response Journal over the course of the term. It might be unfair to include this as technique. It's a way to create on-going conversations with writers. When I am working in a computer-based classroom, I can use Daedalus Mail to enter into extended conversations about writing. When that is not possible, I use a writer's response journal -- students turn in a journal with their drafts. In the journal, they should give me details about their text, questions they want to ask, and so forth. I include my response to their draft in their journal rather than as an end comment on the paper. My response is likely to include questions for them -- based on techniques like those above. As work progresses during the term, I encourage students to reread their journals and note changes they see. Periodically, I read back over older entries as well. The interaction in the journal is much like that of Daedalus Mail messages or conferences, but it can be a stronger tool in the long-run because it collects all the comments in writing and in one linear space. When time constraints or the workload make journals impossible to use for the entire term, I use them for a major project or research paper.