We are heading into the fourth week of spring term, rounding out the first quarter of our FYC and corequisite courses. We’ve just finished early draft conferences on the first significant project – a literacy narrative. One of my research interests for this year concerns the nature of metatalk in my classroom and how to foster richer metatalk via conferencing, group work, and feedback. To that end, I’ve structured the FYC course so that each of the three major writing projects receives multiple rounds of feedback in different forms: an initial conference with oral feedback, a peer review that might include both written and oral feedback, and then written feedback from me via Google Docs. My written feedback is meant to spark further discussion as well, given that the commenting apparatus in Google Docs allows for replies (I’m alerted via email when a student responds to a comment). I’m looking to spark richer discussion that will in turn lead to thoughtful and strategic revisions, building up to the final portfolio. (And students in the corequisite will have additional conferences with our upper-division writing fellows, who are partnering with the corequisite students for the entire semester).
I’ve recently been reading research related to the Sydney School, an approach to teaching multilingual writers (generally at elementary and secondary levels) within a systemic functional linguistics (SFL) theoretical framework. SFL-based language and writing pedagogies have yielded some fascinating research in Australia, England, and (to a lesser extent) the United States. These SFL-based pedagogies draw extensively from the work of Lev Vygotsky in terms of the psychology of learning.
Oversimplifying a bit, one of the claims Vygotsky put forward is that social/interactive uses of language between parents and children (“intermental experience”) prompt a child’s cognitive language development (“intramental experience”). Within the Sydney school and related models, language acquisition/writing pedagogy attempts to mirror this intermental to intramental sequence, such that co-construction of texts precedes individual production.
Thinking about SFL, Vygotsky, and applications of both to pedagogy provided me with a different lens for thinking about my early draft conferences this past week. Typically, when I conference with student writers, our conversations are screen/text focused. In other words, we are both looking at a screen with the student’s draft – either both of us are looking at my oversized desk-top monitor, or we have the paper pulled up on separate laptops. Either way, our gaze moves between screen and each other. The developing text is usually central, quite literally mediating our talk. In Vygotsky’s terms, I have asked the students to do intramental work and get that thinking on paper before the conference. Then I respond to that work, inviting them to think critically about the text with me (a variation of intermental thinking). Note that progression: intramental to intermental, the opposite of the proposed pedagogy I’ve been reading about for children and multilingual learners.
Several of my students came to this initial conference last week with underdeveloped drafts – some had just a page or a paragraph. Most were apologetic and self-condemning about the texts they had shared. In response, I tried a slightly different approach: I targeted one idea, word, sentence, or phrase from the texts they shared, and I began to ask questions. But rather than looking at the screen, I turned to face the student, and I began to ask questions about that word, idea, character, or whatever, leaving the screen to the side. Critically, I did not turn back to look at the screen again for most of our session: I kept eye contact with the student as we talked. Without exception, within a couple of minutes, detailed stories began to arise. When they paused, I continued to ask questions, or I tried to clarify: “So you’re saying he just shut down every single idea? Are you saying you might have loved reading if it hadn’t been for those comments?” Sometimes, the students nodded and elaborated – I had understood. Sometimes, however, I jumped to conclusions too quickly, and they gave more information, setting me straight. I also attempted to identify the sorts of thinking we were doing along the way: “You just gave me some very important context; make sure you provide that for your reader, too, when you work on revising this… Hmm…. Do you see how the description you just gave might lead a reader to think that the teacher was the villain in your story?”
What we were doing, in short, was the work we typically call prewriting or invention—but we were doing it “intermentally,” or collaboratively. Granted, there is nothing earth-shaking about this recognition: I suspect writing teachers have been doing this sort of collaborative brainstorming for quite some time. In a sense, we were modelling together the sort of thinking that experienced writers may be able to do on their own (intramentally) – thinking through descriptions and details that will spark a reader’s interest, providing context the reader needs to make sense of the story, and making sure that our narratives recognize potential assumptions and conclusions that may lead readers astray—so that we can address such questions and potential misunderstandings in advance.
All too often I think of feedback and talk about writing (the metatalk) as happening after initial drafts are done, when a visible text controls and mediates that feedback process. But now I wonder if some students could use more opportunities for “intermental” talk prior to drafting; I wonder if the draft itself becomes a barrier to productive thinking (whether intermental or intramental) about the developing text. (Imagine a student in a text-focused conference who marks the original draft with 5 places to “add detail.” Five such additions might make that text better, but would they capture the same richness and energy that unfolds when we think together about the story – without limiting ourselves to the text on the screen?)
I am looking forward to seeing how students (both those who had well-developed drafts and those who did not) build on our conferences for the next iterations of their papers, which they will bring for peer review next week. I am looking now at how I prepare students for peer review—many have already told me about negative experiences with peer review in the past. I’ll let you know what happens in my next post.
In the meantime, I would love to hear about your approach to conferences and peer review in FYC and corequisite classes.