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Old Aug 14, 2003, 04:46 AM   #1
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Join Date: May 28, 2001
Location: Chicago Area, IL, USA
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Default A Young Writers\' Round Table, via the Web

This article is from the New York Times; see attached link. We've discussed writing on here before, so I thought other people might be interested in it.--Sandra


RAYA ALLEN is a 10-year-old reading fanatic, according to her teachers at Kimbark Elementary School in San Bernardino, Calif. But until recently, she was far less enthusiastic when it came to writing papers for class.

"I wouldn't check it over," she said of her work. "I would misspell and be like, 'whatever.' ''

It all changed this spring when a teacher, Mark Barrett, introduced her class to a site called Writing With Writers. It showcased biographies written by young people around the country, offered commentary from experts and encouraged students to submit their written profiles for review. Mr. Barrett and his students offered oral critiques of several of the posted pieces and worked on their own biographies for publication.

Raya's "whatever" went out the window.

"I always wanted my work to be read by someone else, someone out there who would grade me seriously, a regular person," she said. "With a teacher, it's their job. When someone else is reading it, they are doing it on their own free will."

Today's students are struggling with writing. Although data released last month by the federal Department of Education showed a slight improvement in the writing skills of fourth and eighth graders, the report also revealed that more than two-thirds of all students are less than proficient at the task. A recent study on the issue by the National Commission on Writing, an organization created last year by the College Board, summed up the reason: "Of the three 'R's, writing is clearly the most neglected."

The rise of the Internet is often blamed for this deficiency. Parents worry that children are cutting and pasting paragraphs from Web sites rather than writing their own. Adults wonder if instant messaging, with its compressed spelling and syntax, might be stunting writing development.

But in patches around the country, teachers say that online technology is now becoming a powerful tool for improving, rather than undermining, students' writing skills. E-mail exchanges and public Web pages give students audiences for their work. Online bulletin boards allow students to post drafts to be read by their peers. Sites like and teenwriting collect and publish writing so students can see what others in their age group are capable of. Specialized software enables teachers to distribute student drafts anonymously without spending hours at a copying machine.

For many students, this means that their words are being read seriously by their peers for the first time. Instead of turning in a paper that seems to end up in a black hole, only to resurface a few weeks later with a few comments from a teacher, pupils get rapid feedback from other students in their class or elsewhere.

"They cannot wait to compose," said Roger Dixon, who asked his students to share their work through an e-mail network when he taught at Brentwood Middle School in Charleston, S.C. "I'm just amazed."

Yet some raise concerns about this kind of online peer review. Some teachers worry about bulletin boards or e-mail lists' becoming dark dens of unconstructive criticism, beyond their control. Some parents flinch at the notion that the entire class will discover their child's skill level, as reflected in a United States Supreme Court case in which a mother sued an Oklahoma school district for enabling students to evaluate and report on their peers' work. (The court ruled unanimously in favor of the school district last year.) And parents may wonder whether the programs are simply a mechanism for enabling teachers to avoid grading papers.

In fact, many teachers say, the real sticking point for online peer review is that it usually requires them to spend more time, not less, working with their students. They need to learn the technology and present it to the class. They need to teach students how to be fair and incisive critics - a skill that is often not part of the grade school curriculum. And they need to constantly monitor e-mail exchanges and online discussion spaces to ensure that students give good advice and are creating nurturing environments. That extra time is a rare commodity.

"One cannot just throw this at students and say, now go do," said David Bloome, president of the National Council of Teachers of English, which recently called for a greater focus on writing instruction and professional development. "Even though most schools are wired for Internet technology and most classrooms have computers, the bottom line is that sophisticated uses of instruction are relatively rare."

Many an adult may remember staring at a blank sheet of paper as a child, unable to come up with a single word. (Some might say that paralysis persists to this day.) Getting students to convey their thoughts in cohesive, well-thought-out paragraphs is hard enough without the stress of knowing that the paper will be dissected by a teacher poised with a red pen. "That's a killer," said Mary Guerrero, a seventh-grade teacher at the Henry K. Oliver School in Lawrence, Mass. "It's a dead end."

Several decades ago, writing instructors started reaching for a different strategy. Theories of instruction began to coalesce around a few critical points: Get students to think about the concept of audience. Teach them to critique their own work. Encourage revision.

In practice, it hasn't been so easy. Some students cannot grasp what it means to write for an audience when they are accustomed to having their papers read by a single teacher and no one else. Fostering in-depth peer critiques is difficult in a 50-minute class period. Some teachers would rather stick to the writing approach they are familiar with - one that more often asks students to diagram sentences than to write their own. And while teachers agree that multiple rough drafts should be encouraged, they wince at the idea of grading stack after stack.

Before the advent of e-mail and the Web, some teachers were making an attempt to encourage peer critiques. They had students pass their papers to their right or left. They required rough drafts and would at least try to scan each one. They told students that their work might be posted in the hallway or made into a book for all to read.

But it is online technology, teachers say, that accelerated the trend, providing the time and space for review and revision without multiple trips to the printer or copy machine - and with an authentic audience to boot. College composition classes were among the first to adopt the online approach, but now elementary and secondary teachers are trying the techniques.

Sean Mohleji, a senior at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, said his writing had become more logical after he began exchanging essays and arguments with his classmates on an online bulletin board run by one of his teachers, Ken Montgomery. (The students use password-protected sites in a system developed by Blackboard, an educational technology company.) Mr. Mohleji writes and rewrites essays many more times than an actual assignment requires - in response to his critics.

"Your peers are going to make sure it makes sense," he said.

Ms. Guerrero of the Oliver School cited this comment in an e-mail message sent by one of her students last year:

"I have noticed I have learned something from you," Cassandra Abou-Farah, a sixth grader, wrote to her writing partner. "I am more aware of how to make a paragraph. I am more experienced because of how we write to each other."

Travis Farrell, an English teacher at Charter Tech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point, N.J., said he believed that students respond well to peer-writing programs because "they don't want to embarrass themselves." He told of an 11th grader who was assigned a teenage writing partner in Saltillo, Miss., as part of an e-mail exchange. The Charter Tech student had poor writing skills and continually mismatched singular and plural verbs with the subjects of her sentences, Mr. Farrell said.

She soon realized that her partner could not understand half of what she was trying to say. "She didn't want to let her partner down and she started to really care about her writing," Mr. Farrell said.

The attraction of having a peer audience is so strong that many students have started writing essays and stories that are posted during after-school hours to teenage e-zines, Weblog diaries (or blogs) and Wikis (blogs with multiple authors), often without their teachers' knowledge. "Young people have not waited for schools, they have not waited for adults," said Mr. Bloome of the National Council of Teachers of English. "They have gone and moved ahead."

All of which may leave some people wondering whether, given the success of the students' online discussions, writing teachers are needed at all. Watching students learn so adeptly from one another can be unnerving for teachers who have thought of themselves as the ultimate knowledge-givers. Proponents of online instructional technology like to say that teachers need to shift from the role of "sage on the stage" to the "guide on the side." But even advocates say it is not always easy to make the switch.

At Kimbark Elementary, Mr. Barrett is the technology coordinator, meaning it is his job to try out sites like Scholastic's Writing With Writers and see how they can be used in the classroom. Such a responsibility would have been too time-consuming for his fellow teachers, burdened last year with a new set of textbooks and standards to learn, whereas his job title gave him some flexibility, he said. Although he became agile with the technology, he said, it took days to review the students' papers and introduce the concept of a critique to them. That meant that while Raya finished her biography in time, many others did not complete their online assignments by the end of the school year.

Still, Mr. Barrett said, he plans to tackle the Writing With Writers project again next year and help other teachers do the same.

"I'm for anything that stimulates the kids to think," he said.

[size="1"][ Aug 14, 2003, 05:47 AM: Message Edited By: SF4-EVER ][/size]
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