For the most part, I found myself responding well to John C. Bean’s “Writing Comments on Students’ Papers” which begins: “Perhaps nothing involves us so directly in the messiness of teaching writing as our attempts to comment on our students’ essays”. Bean’s article is certainly readable and his ideas were easy to follow. He articulates how easy it is, as a teacher, to forget that there is a person behind each essay that is being read (sometimes ripped apart for errors) and graded. It’s also easy to forget, that as a writer, a strong feeling of vulnerability usually accompanies allowing someone to read your work—especially if that person is in a position to judge you. Bean advises teachers to be more mindful of the comments that they write on students papers because the worst comments can insult and even dehumanize a student.
I laughed out loud at some of the interviewed students’ responses to marginal comments. When a teacher wrote “Be more specific”, one response was “You be more specific”. Another student responded to the comment, “You haven’t really thought this through” with “How do you know what I thought?” It’s funny because when you really think about it, how illogical are these comments! How do you know what the student was thinking? (You don’t!)
The conclusions of the study, which Bean quoted, showed that negative comments “stifle further attempts at writing”. So how can we help students? Bean writes that it helps to point out what the writer is doing well. However, you can’t fabricate anything. The comments are only helpful if they are “truthful, and they must be very specific”. Bean goes on to note that current brain research stresses the correlation between emotions and learning. Fear, anxiety, and anger are learning blockers. Teachers should strive to build their students’ hope and confidence.
One way to improve the quality of comments is to use “mitigating” comments which frame criticism in a positive way. Bean gives two examples of end comments; I immediately responded positively to the mitigated comment. Therefore, it did not surprise me to learn that Smith’s study showed that students preferred mitigated comments as well. Bean writes, “To improve our techniques for commenting on our students’ papers, then, we need to remember our purpose, which is not to point out everything wrong with the paper but to facilitate improvement”. He proposes that teachers play two roles: at the drafting stage, teachers should be coaches. It is not until a student turns in a final draft that a teacher’s role shifts to that of a judge. Therefore, comments should guide revision, and comments should not appear until a late stage rough draft is produced. Commenting too early can interfere with creation of a good draft. Another alternative to commenting on late stage drafts is to allow for rewrites of final drafts.
Bean asserts that commenting in this way (to prompt revision) helps to change a teacher’s view as reader. He says, “You begin seeing yourself as responding to rather than correcting a set of papers”. I can see that reflected in the examples of marginal comments that Bean provides. Many of his comments are questions rather than statements. It conveys this idea of being a coach because it gives the sense that a conversation is taking place between the reader and the writer.
I also agree with Bean’s idea that in a rough draft, you don’t need to comment on everything and can limit your comments to a few things that the writer needs to work on. Teachers should read “for ideas rather than for errors”. Bean advises that you should coach through higher level concerns and then, after a good, successful draft is produced, for lower level concerns like sentence level errors such as spelling and grammar. I think that this is a great idea that benefits both students and teachers. If there are global issues, why bother correcting spelling errors?
Bean only lost me when he got to the section that explained his policy on “minimal marking” of sentence level errors. He says that it is most beneficial when students are told there are errors but must find and correct them themselves. Bean writes, “How high I raise the grade depends on how successful the student is in reducing the number of sentence errors”. Here, a teacher either puts a certain number of checkmarks to indicate how many errors are in a certain sentence, or the teacher simply states that there are errors somewhere in the paper. This is much too vague! And, it’s not helpful! I don’t agree with this policy at all. It seems like a waste of time for a student who will most likely end up scouring their paper for errors and second guessing every detail of their writing. I think that pointing out the error creates a learning experience. Furthermore, this policy assumes that all of the students are at the same level of understanding when it comes to style and mechanics. It’s just not likely that this is true…
Otherwise, I really enjoyed this article and I think that I took away some great ideas. I think this will really influence how I respond to students’ papers in the future.
Regarding the digital tools, I think that some of these are really great, and I look forward to using them in the future. However, I don’t know that any that I looked at would benefit this project. I like the idea of using Wix as a home for our collaborative project. I have an idea for my personal contribution, but I’m still working out the details.