Teaching with Student Writing

The Writing Program believes that a writing course should be a course in and about writing--that is, that course content, while important, shouldn't take over the course.  A key part of the course is teaching students to be critical readers of their own work, to be able to read it with soberly, with discretion, with an eye toward revision.  This is the most important skill we can teach students.

To that end, it's useful to teach using student writing.  Having students read the work of their peers gives them practice in reading toward revision.  It teaches them to describe what is happening in the paper, assess how well it works, and think through what the next step is for this writer.

But using student writing in the classroom is difficult.  It can be easy for students to simply say 'it's good' and go no further, or, on the flip side, to be overly critical.  And there is the challenge, too, of making the discussion relevant to all the other writers in the classroom.

Here are some suggestions for teaching with student writing (and here is a waiver for using student writing in the classroom):

Clarify the purpose of the discussion: tell the students that this discussion is aimed at revision, at answering the question, "What's the next step for this writer?"  So while it may be easiest to point out errors, those comments aren't as useful as are comments pertaining to the project itself, what the writer is attempting to accomplish, and how the writer might do it better.

Neither the best nor the worst: select a piece of writing that is typical of what the class is writing.  Selecting an A paper can provide a model, but so too can B and C papers when they are doing something interesting the class can learn from.  It's often not useful to pick the worst paper of the lot for classroom discussion; the writer will be demoralized, and the conversation too easily becomes negative.

Full or partial papers?: Sometimes it is useful to use an entire student paper for a class discussion.  Other times, it might be useful to select a single paragraph that exhibits a writerly problem you'd like the class to think through.  Or you might select the opening paragraphs from four different papers so that students can see a variety of ways to begin a paper.  You might to the same with concluding paragraphs.  The challenge with teaching a full paper is that the discussion can be too broad; smaller sections of student papers can help guide the discussion and keep it manageable.

Focus the discussion on a shared problem: Teaching with student writing is most productive when students in the class see an immediate connection between the problems the writer at hand is dealing with and their own writing.  So, if you get a batch of papers that aren't engaging sources in a complex way, choose a paper representative of that issue.  Or if a number of students are struggling to represent the complexity of an issue in their writing, choose a paper that will help address that.  One of the biggest benefits of teaching with student writing is the efficiency of it; through a single class discussion, a teacher can address a problem shared by multiple students rather than writing the same comment on multiple papers.

Writers remain anonymous: present the paper with no distinguishing marks; remove the writer's name.  Tell the students that the writer may choose to remain anonymous.  Some writers choose to self identify: "I'm the writer, and here's what I was thinking ..."  Other writers speak anonymously: "Here's what I think the writer was attempting ..."  Leave the choice up to the writer.

Description > Evaluation > Revision: discussion is most fruitful, and focused, if it moves from a description of what the writer's project is, to an assessment of how well the writer carries it out, to a consideration of what the next steps for the writer is.  These three stages help individual writers learn how they can read their own work in progress.

End with writing: To help students make a connection between the discussion at hand and their own writing, end class with five minutes of writing: "What can you apply from today's discussion to your own writing?"

See also Joseph Harris, John D. Miles, and Charles Paine's Teaching with Student Texts: Essays toward an Informed Practice (Logan: Utah State UP, 2010).  This edited collection offers twenty-some chapters with practical suggestions for what teaching with student writing might look like in the day-to-day work of the classroom.