Monday, December 15, 2008

Topic: Writing Response Groups

10-second review: The ideal method for response groups.

Title: Review of Rescuing the Subject: A Critical Introduction to Rhetoric and the Writer. Susan Miller (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), 200 pages). Reviewed by Joseph Harris. College Composition and Communication (May 1990), 227-229.

Summary/Quote: An approach to reading response groups: “Students have simply been asked to write about something that interests them. In class they break into small groups and begin to read their texts aloud to one another. After a students has finished reading his piece, the members of his group begin to question and advise him about what he has written. The writer takes notes on what his readers have to say and perhaps asks them some questions back. In this way the group works through the writings of all its members, in each case first comparing what the writer intended to say with what he actually ended up writing, and then trying to find ways of bringing the two closer together.”

Comment: I have observed a number of classrooms with student response groups. In many cases I suspected that the ignorant share with the ignorant. I know this is a harsh judgment, but at the root of it is the fact that students did not know what they were doing or why. In some cases, students had not been trained in how to respond constructively—in a constructive tone. The result was hurt feelings and resentment. In many cases students did not know what they were looking for. In other cases, students did not take the activity seriously and began to talk about other, unrelated topics when the teacher moved on to another group. I am not saying that student response groups can’t work successfully, but the teacher needs to pay attention to the details of how the groups work—purpose, constructive response, problems to be addressed.

What worked for me were the following activities with partners.

Unity: Writer folds a sheet of paper in half, lengthwise. On one side, the writer records the main idea of the paper. Partner, without looking at the writer’s version of the main idea, reads the paper and records the main idea on the other side of the paper. The two open the paper and compare main ideas. If they are close in meaning, the paper is probably unified.

Clarity: Partner re-reads the writer’s paper and puts question marks in the margin wherever the partner is confused about the expression of an idea. The writer reviews the sentences or paragraphs with the question marks in the margin and decides either to rewrite or add details to complete the ideas. Or do nothing.

Awkward expression: Writer reads the paper aloud to the partner. Whenever the writer stumbles in reading, the writer underlines the place in the paper on which the stumble occurred. Partner also reads the writer’s paper aloud and underlines the stumbles. The writer decides to rewrite if the stumbles were the result of awkward expression.

Will the students take these steps without the teacher there to oversee them? Probably not. However, the one step I use in my own writing is the step dealing with clarity in which I ask my partner, usually my wife, to put question marks in the margins whenever she does not understand something I have written. She does not express opinions about whether the paper is good, bad, boring, etc., point out spelling errors or mistakes in grammar. Her question marks help a lot. Her not expressing opinions keeps our marriage together. She and I let the editor decide if the article is publishable or not. RayS.

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