Recap: April 7, Humanities Alliance Professional Development workshop

"Workshop" on a chalkboardOn Friday, April 7, the Humanities Alliance’s staff, faculty mentors, and Graduate Teaching Fellows met for our monthly professional development workshop. The theme of this month’s workshop? Commenting on Student-Learners’ Writing.
Our agenda, at a glance:

9:00 – Breakfast
9:30 – Welcome and Overview of the Agenda
9:35 – Teachers as Writers; Writers as Teachers
10:20 – Bean-Based Cross-disciplinary Strategies for Commenting on Drafts in Multi-Skilled Classrooms
11:15 – Breakout Groups Sharing Our Disciplinary Examples of Student Writing
12:00 What’s Your Point? Aligning learning objectives and assignments

The morning began with a broad discussion of our personal experiences with writing, and as teachers of writing. We recognized that, as scholars and creative writers, we have varied experiences and multiple entry points into writing; we also reflected on the importance of remembering this as we approach students’ writing at every stage, from scaffolding assignments to commenting on student papers and providing opportunities for revision.
Our discussion of teaching and writing was followed by an exercise in commenting on students’ drafts.  Chloe Rae Edmonson and Allison Walls, both Theatre Ph.D. candidates at The Graduate Center, and Writing in the Disciplines Fellows at LaGuardia, provided us with a sample draft of a two page student paper. They asked us to read the paper without marking it up; instead, we would write a comment/revision statement at the end, using the following structure, (which was drawn from principles outlined in John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom):

What was the student doing (or attempting to do)?
What did the student do well?
What are some suggestions you have to improve the paper?
If you notice any patterns of error that you would like to comment on, mention one or two. These patterns of error can be grammatical, about another element of the writing, or about the students’ engagement with the content.

The above approach omits line-edits and marginal comments in favor of an end comment to guide students’ revisions. With this comment, the teacher aims to encourage students with positive feedback about “what works,” while providing concrete feedback about how to revise their papers to meet the goals of the assignment. The end comment/revision statement also aims to limit a tendency among students to focus on micro-level comments over substantive revisions. After reading the sample paper and writing a statement, we shared our statements and discussed them in pairs, before having a larger group discussion about the exercise and what we learned.
After a short break, the Humanities Alliance’s Graduate Teaching Fellows split into breakout groups to share examples of student writing in their respective disciplines. This led to thirty minutes of cross-disciplinary discussions about the uses and goals of writing in their courses, as well as the challenges that public and digital writing can pose.
In the last hour of the workshop, the Fellows and faculty mentors used the following questions to discuss how they align their course’s learning objectives and assignments:

What are the learning objectives of this assignment?
What is the purpose of the lesson or assignment?
What’s the difference between grading and giving feedback?
How can we use low-stakes writing or revising as a tool to help students understand the writing process?

Taken together, our group noted that an assignment can have many goals: From engaging with broad disciplinary concerns, to demonstrating the ability to structure an argument and evaluate sources, to learning how to recognize and discuss texts within a text. Whatever the goals of the assignment, one thing was noted again and again: The importance of having a conversation with students about the assignment and the teacher’s approach to the writing process.
In the end, the group didn’t agree about everything: While we all recognized the need to make assignment goals explicit to students, the jury was out about the value of rubrics for communicating these goals, and grading expectations.

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