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Peer Editing

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

Peer editing is, in many teachers’ minds, yet another scam. Sure, teach the kids how to edit each other’s papers, let them comment and suggest, and it won’t matter that you have 30+ students in your class. At least you won’t have to grade all of their papers. Believe me, when I was first introduced to the idea, I thought it was the answer to my prayers, but most peer editing sessions—at least in my classes—quickly devolved into pointless love fests at best, and cruel snickering at worst. Once in a while, I’d have my students switch papers with a classmate just before they submitted them for a quick proofread, an exercise that revealed the value of a last read-through, but not much more. But when I began teaching AP® English, in desperation to assign more writing, with no time or energy to grade and comment on yet another class set of essays, and at the suggestion of someone in a summer institute, I tried a round-robin version of peer editing, and the results have been impressive. One of my students said last year, “Mrs. Aufses, you have to keep doing this every year.” When I asked her why, she said that all year I had been writing on her papers “Reread your work to make sure it makes sense.” Until she began editing her classmates’ work she didn’t know what that meant. She found she could see what they were doing wrong and even correct it, and then, suddenly, she found she could look at her own work, see what was wrong, and correct it as well.

So here’s how it works. In the marking period before the AP® exam (third quarter in most schools), I create a schedule in which between 3 and 5 student per week are responsible for writing individual responses to one of the argument prompts from an old AP® exam The students are directed to AP® Central, where they can download the prompt they have been assigned. They are required to email their response to their classmates by 7 p.m. on Wednesday night. On Thursday I distribute or project the prompt and the scoring guidelines. We spend between five and ten minutes discussing what the prompt asks for and what the scoring guidelines expect from the highest scoring essays. That night everyone in the class edits and comments on the essays of the week. Editing is optional, but my students are motivated by the extra point I add to their quiz grades every time they submit a thoughtful response to a classmate.

Friday is the workshop day. My first question for each essay is, “What was strong about this essay?” My second is “What was the argument?” My third is related to the scoring guidelines, not so much what score the essay deserves, but more along the lines of whether the essay is exemplary or adequate in responding to the prompt. In this fashion we proceed and by the end of the period the writer has a stack of edited essays from his or her classmates—in addition to notes he or she took during the discussion. On the following Tuesday, the week’s writers submit a polished essay on Tuesday with their classmates’ copies attached. The essay is then graded.

Here’s why I think this particular form of peer editing works. First, it’s clear to the students that there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat. The AP® argument prompts are rich and open-ended; one student this year responded to Milan Kundera’s assertion that the curtain between private and public behavior should not be lifted with the example of the conventions of behavior in a men’s bathroom; another wrote about public displays of affection in the corridors of a high school. Second, the mystery of how one’s classmates write is solved. The playing field is more level than they expected. Third, the short discussion of the prompt and the expectations as outlined in the scoring guidelines is a weekly reminder of what the students will have to do under time pressure in May, but is also a quick lesson on test taking in a useful context—not the usual “How many questions can I leave blank?” Finally, students who never thought they had it in them become skilled editors—and their writing improves. This was the biggest surprise for me, and it took me a while to connect the improved writing I was seeing with this exercise. I thought it was the spring leap that one so often sees in high school juniors—and, no doubt, that was part of the change—but I was seeing bad habits clear up before my eyes and I came to realize that what my students couldn’t at first identify in their own writing as awkward phrasing and specious argument, they could see in their classmates’ and, because they’re bright and ambitious, they finally could correct in their own work.

®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.