I decided to create process portfolios rather than content portfolios so I would emphasize the writing process rather than the products. Although process portfolios certainly address student improvement in writing skills, their essential focus is on the students’ application of the writing process. I adapted this idea largely from the expressivist and cognitive views of process pedagogy, in particular, Donald Murray (1982), Peter Elbow (1998), Janet Emig (1971), and Linda Flower and John R. Hayes (1981). All four emphasize the distinct processes involved in writing while rejecting a common, linear path through those processes. In my work, I hoped to encourage my students to discover their own writing process through experimentation, goal setting, and reflection. I wanted their experience with the writing process to feel organic - coming from within - rather than artificial and imposed.
As I conducted research on student writing process, one of the most significant elements I encountered was that of teacher comments (either verbal or written) on student work. I always knew teacher comments were critical in helping students improve their writing, but I had not fully considered the ways in which these comments might participate in the construction of students’ identities as writers. The following researchers and pedagogues influenced my decision to significantly alter my feedback on student writing.
Nancy Sommers’s (1982) "Responding to Student Writing" helped me view my role as the teacher quite differently. Sommers describes how “teachers’ comments can take students’ attention away from their own purpose in writing a particular text and focus that attention on the teacher’s purpose in commenting” (p. 123). If I want my students to become self-sufficient in their writing process, then I must stop appropriating their writing for my own purpose and desire. Certainly, due to my training and experience, I am more of an expert on writing, but that does not mean that my way is the only way. My students will be more confident writers if they are writing their papers, and not my papers, and if they feel that they have something worthwhile to say.
Sommers’s piece helped clarify some of the habits I had gotten into by writing so many comments. Previously, I believed that more comments would lead to more student engagement and greater improvement. But in writing so many comments on papers and in not prioritizing the issues in the writing, I was making it “difficult for students to know what is the most important problem in the text and what problems are of lesser importance” (p. 125). For instance, if I give a comment on inaccurate comma placement followed by a comment regarding overall organization of the text, I communicate to my students that the two are of equal importance, which would be an inaccurate assessment.
Sommers’s article also reflects the expressivist view that “[most teacher] comments encourage students to believe that their first drafts are finished drafts, not invention drafts, and that all they need to do is patch and polish their writing” (p. 125). In short, by commenting as I did on student writing, “The processes of revising, editing, and proofreading [were] collapsed and reduced to a single trivial activity, and the students’ misunderstanding of the revision process as a rewording activity [was] reinforced by their teachers’ comments” (p. 125). Over time, I have noticed that my students tend to focus on the surface-level errors rather than on the deeper, content- or organization-based issues with their papers. I wanted to be sure to parse out these different processes so students could understand the difference between revising, editing, and proofreading, and so that they could see the significance of emphasizing revising before concerning themselves with the other two processes.
I shifted my view of comments on student writing to better reflect Sommers’s contention that “Written comments need to be viewed not as an end in themselves—a way for teachers to satisfy themselves that they have done their jobs—but rather as a means for helping students to become more effective writers” (p. 129). In the past, I was commenting in order to justify my scores to my students rather than to help them take agency in improving their writing. Since the writing teacher's scoring is subjective by nature, I feared that my students and/or their parents would challenge my feedback if it did not indicate exactly what was successful and problematic about the papers. However, as a consequence, my students developed uniform drafts, and I ended up reading what was essentially the same paper over and over again.
Richard Straub’s (1996) piece, "The Concept of Control in Teacher Response: Defining the Varieties of 'Directive' and 'Facilitative' Commentary" offered me some insight into how much “help” we should give in our feedback to students. He, too, addresses the issue of appropriation of student writing: “Generally speaking, the more comments a teacher makes on a piece of writing, the more controlling he or she will likely be” (233). Straub concludes that “The least controlling types of commentary are reflective comments, which provide lessons, offer explanations of other comments, present reader responses, or simply make interpretations of the writing” (p. 234).
I had previously believed that the more comments I wrote, the more helpful I could be to my students, but I had neglected to realize that I was usurping their papers and turning them into my papers. Although this was helpful in pushing my students toward writing a successful paper for my class, it was harmful to my students’ identity as writers, since they were left unprepared to make their own decisions about syntax, organization, and even ideas in their paper. No wonder they hated to write and felt unsuccessful. In order to embody Straub’s suggestions, I needed to let go of my concept of a “good” paper and entertain different possibilities. Certainly, I could still provide rubrics and instruction about what makes a good argument or what kind of a tone might be appropriate for a given audience and purpose, but I had to recognize that my concept of an appropriate tone may not be the only one, or that my method of organizing a paper may not be the only successful option for a student. I had to respect my students as writers and, as a consequence, I had to trust them to make the decisions writers make.
In short, Straub suggests we approach our feedback by asking: “What kind of comments will be best for this student, with this paper, at this time?” (p. 247). This is an effective mantra for responding to student writing, either in conferences or in written comments.
I have also used Straub’s suggestion of involving students in the feedback loop: “We would do well to ask our students to respond to our responses and see how they understand, react to, and make use of different kinds of comments—and then find ways to make our comments more productive. We would also do well to develop a repertoire of responses—and learn to use different strategies for different students and different classroom situations” (p. 248). Not only is this an important piece of data for my research, but it has provided me with helpful information about individual student preferences and needs. This has been the basis of my approach to the project.