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I knew I needed to teach them the skill of revision and I was dreading it.
My students had just turned in rough drafts of a research paper and I worried that most of them had very little experience doing the sort of revision I hoped they would do. But I had struggled all semester to get this particular group of students to speak up in class, or even to properly engage in small-group activities. I had no interest in standing at the front of the room and lecturing them about the correct way to revise. How could I let them practice revision in a way that had them explore a few crucial ways of thinking about the skill?
I don't remember how I got the idea, only that it came to me just before the start of class. I randomly picked the opening paragraph from a rough draft written by a student in another class. After removing a few possibly identifying details, I brought the sample paragraph to class and put it up on the projector. "This is an opening paragraph written by a student responding to the same assignment you all are," I told the students. "Today, we're going to revise it to make it better." Then I read the paragraph aloud and asked them what they thought.
It was almost incredible: They came to life. Suddenly — instead of their usual sleepy-eyed silence — these students were making creative suggestions left and right about how this writer should rework the paragraph. They relished the opportunity to "fix" the work of their unnamed peer.
Together we found the main point of the paragraph, took out a number of sentences that led away from that point, tightened some of the prose, and made the whole thing clearer and more direct. I prompted students to come up with some general principles to guide them in revising their writing. Then I gave them another sample paragraph and had them revise it in small groups.
Since that day in class last spring, I've made frequent use of student drafts in my classroom — in part, because it allows me to discuss specific examples as opposed to generalities, and also because student writing, to underline the obvious, is the kind of writing my students do. I can directly highlight the particular challenges they are facing in their work. And they can work with material that looks familiar to them. I don't need to make the case for its relevance.
I've written before about using past student papers to help your current class understand an assignment. To my mind, specific examples work better than rubrics in communicating my expectations. But now I often use excerpts of students’ work throughout the semester to teach a particular skill: how to write an introduction, for example, or how to do a particular kind of analysis.
A 2012 collection of essays, Teaching with Student Texts: Essays Toward an Informed Practice, has been helpful in my thinking on this topic. Because most of the contributors teach composition — a subject with a long tradition of using a writers' workshop model — many of the essays discuss ways to make pedagogical use of the papers written by current students. Joseph Harris, for example, creates handouts with multiple excerpts from student essays, demonstrating different ways to solve the same writing problem. “If I've chosen them well,” Harris writes, “the excerpts on the handout will show, not a single correct solution to the problem, but a range of responses to it." Such a process turns the traditional writers' workshop on its head: Instead of a whole class offering feedback to a writer, a writer's text is used to offer lessons to the whole class.
By using examples of students’ work — especially from that very class — you make sure your teaching responds to their actual needs, instead of whatever ideal version of them you have in your head. Margaret Marshall, in her essay in Teaching with Student Texts, wrote about using student papers in a graduate pedagogy seminar: “It is the ability to see patterns that lets a teacher treat student writing as primary pedagogical texts rather than inferior products in need of improvement. . . . We teach, we assess what they learned via the writing produced, and we modify our subsequent teaching accordingly.”
In that sense, student texts can provide a pathway to tailoring our teaching to our students. They are a source of valuable information that we can use to help them improve. The same strategy can be used in almost any discipline, not just in writing-intensive courses.
I remove all names from the writing samples and take out any identifying details, but it's still a good idea to email the student authors in question and get their permission before using their work in class. Some teachers request permission from students in advance, to potentially use their writing with future classes. Do that, and you'll be on your way to discovering a library of material full of pedagogical inspiration.