Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Error Correction Frontier: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This is a session report, which starts with what I consider most memorable, because it is that little folded piece of paper that is disintegrating in my pocket and has to be written as soon as possible. I have more detailed notes which will follow as soon as I get to them.

This was a discussion that met at 7:00 on a Saturday morning; since discussions were intended for 20-30 people, we made only 30 handouts but they were taken right away. Probably about 50 came but only about 30 at any given time as there were people coming and going throughout. I started by laying out what we promised and what we wanted. We were aware that it was a hot-button issue and we had promised to keep the conversation civil and focus on what worked in terms of editing, especially grammatical editing. The room was full of writing teachers who essentially cared very much for their students and wanted to know what was best for them; this impressed me.

Two people stood out in my memory perhaps for the emotion in their voices as they spoke. One was a woman who wanted her students to be able to communicate at all costs. I took this as an anti-correction statement, but, it seemed to me that everyone wanted that. She didn't directly prove that pointing out errors repressed their communicative abilities though that point has been made.

Another woman said that she couldn't bear forcing students to write three drafts of anything that at its base wouldn't pass the exit exam; after they had done three drafts, she couldn't flunk them in good conscience, yet she realized that really their papers probably wouldn't pass. So, she had become a "front-loader," grading the first draft progressively more heavily. It was at this point that I spoke up, agreeing with her as a "front-loader," since it's what they can create on the spot, with their own skills and process, that they take with them to the next level. Everything else has my input in it, and is, therefore, a representation more of what I want, what I say, and what they think they need to do, than of what they do on their own.

Another woman deserves mention: the one who says that since she systematically removes a point from every essay for a missing -s, she virtually wipes out the problem by the end of the term. She simply uses behavioristic punishments to teach them to edit their own papers, and it's regular enough to work within a given framework of one course.

Transcripts of the session itself show general unanimous support for the idea that students should learn to self-edit, and that teachers generally edit with that goal in mind. We sometimes edit to justify a grade, or to show them what will be most costly at the next step up, i.e. an entrance exam. People had different experiences with where students were going after their writing experience; the question was basically how to make them better prepared; how they could be better armed for what followed. One teacher asked if anyone else gave them stock phrases that they could use. Another mentioned that the SAT had gone to using a holistic approach, and asked if anyone had experience with that. Another mentioned "Myths in second language writing" and recommended it. One confident gentleman said that all feedback should be consistent, manageable, timely and meaningful.

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