Over the course of the semester, I facilitate small group writing workshops that allow my students to discuss their writing with two to three of their classmates. I have done everything I can possibly think of to create a positive workshop environment: I lead them in a sample workshop to demonstrate how they can talk about another writing in a respectful and constructive manner, I give them lists of very specific questions they can ask themselves about their peers’ writing, and I listen to their conversations, guiding them they fall off track.
They seem productive.
When my students hand in their final drafts, I ask them to include a paragraph describing the workshop experience. Most of my students tell me that workshop does nothing to help them revise, and that they usually just wait for my comments because mine are the most helpful. Again and again, workshop fails them.
I need the workshop model to work. With 25 students in each one of my classes, it’s impossible for me to give each student the attention he or she really deserves. I could spend an hour or more on piece of writing, but that would mean 50+ hours/week just reading and commenting on papers! I need my students to help each other and, in turn, help me too.
Are they afraid of offending each other? At this point in the semester, they seem pretty comfortable, and they do want honest feedback – so why would they be afraid to speak their minds?
And why are my comments so much more helpful? I’ve come to the conclusion that what divides me from my students is not necessarily that I’m a better writer (heck, sometimes they write better rough drafts than I do) but that I’ve read enough to recognize good writing.
When my students write a rough draft, they’re not always able to see their own potential. They can’t immediately identify how much work they need to do to improve the piece, which means they definitely don’t know where to start.
When I read a rough draft, I can gauge how much work will need to be done, and I can usually also decide whether the rough draft is even worth salvaging. But my expertise lies in short fiction. When it comes to poetry and other genres, I’m not much more advanced than they are, since my education in these genres ended at the undergraduate level. I just try to be the best reader I can be, which is all I can do. And my comments seem to help.
I have a sneaking suspicion that my students would be better able to discuss their writing with one another if they would just read more. I can only assign them so much work.
When they complain about all the reading I assign in an Intro. to WRITING class, I just shake my head and say that reading IS the introduction – writing is a privilege, not a right, that you earn when you acknowledge that you’re part of a tradition. And how can you possibly see the potential in your own writing if can’t understand that everything – yes, everything – has been done before you?
(Photo by moriza)