Dawn Reed (Twitter, LinkedIn) is an English teacher at Okemos High School in Okemos, Michigan. She is Co-Director of the Red Cedar Writing Project at Michigan State University, where she supports professional development work and coordinates research and training as part of the National Writing Project. She’s also co-authored two recent books on writing and technology: Research Writing Rewired: Lessons That Ground Students’ Digital Learning (2015) and Real Writing: Modernizing the Old School Essay (2016).
Dawn was also one of the first instructors to use Eli Review. She provided feedback on its earliest designs and tested it in its earliest stages and her insights, particularly into the needs of high school writers, had a profound impact on the development of the app. She sat down with us to discuss her pedagogies for feedback and revision and how Eli Review assists her in that work.
How do you explain the importance of feedback and revision to your students?
My background with writing instruction began at the Michigan State University Writing Center. A big piece of being a writing consultant is helping people look at their writing and moving the thought process forward. Getting feedback is really about providing opportunities to reflect and articulate and have smart conversations about writing. The goal is to get students to ask themselves, “How am I going to revise?” And another step is to help student writers understand that it’s not just about one piece of writing, but it’s about helping improve the writer as a writer, not just one piece of writing.
Part of that is facilitating the exchange of feedback between students.They are getting feedback and figuring out what to do with a piece of writing. But, they’re also starting to see common problems and solutions that come up again and again. They are practicing how to articulate them and have conversations about writing.
What are some of the challenges you’ve found as you teach feedback and revision?
High school students struggle at first because they come in believing that I’m going to have a red pen and focus on only correcting them about capitalization and grammar. Helping them move from lower-order concerns to big-picture concerns like argument and arrangement is really important. I deal with that by having conversations about how writing works, discussing models and examples. When we think about feedback, it’s hard to get them to think about helping the writer and not just finishing a task.
I have to help them see that it’s not just about a big smiley face sticker, or saying “yay, good job.” We talk about how, if you say “good job,” that’s not helpful to me as a writer; it’s not going to challenge what I’m thinking about, challenge anything I’ve written, or find any gems in my writing.
How do you help them get past that fear and those preconceptions?
I consider myself not just a teacher but also a coach and a facilitator. So, while I perhaps come into the classroom with the most writing experience, I learn along with students. I try to pull out student questions and have those become a part of our curriculum. That doesn’t mean I get rid of all the other things we’re doing, but I focus and frame some of those conversations.
I also try to empathize by showing my own vulnerabilities and my own experiences so they can see an example of what it means to be a writer. And I share with them when I’m having writing days and I’m like, “It’s awful; I’m getting rid of everything!” That’s a struggle for every writer.
There’s also a lot of value in helping students identify traits in models of other writing. We talk about what makes a good piece of writing in context. They analyze models and each other’s examples. We often talk about the rhetorical situation of a particular piece of writing and talk about the models with that in mind.
What are your strategies for coaching revision?
My biggest concern is to have revision become a natural process for students, so that they know it’s okay and normal for it to not to be perfect the first time. It’s important for students to know that it’s okay to fail.
That’s a hard part of learning, but that’s where a lot of real learning happens. Creating the spaces to do some of these things, creating opportunities to look at models, analyze models, mark things up, to isolate features and to look at different ways to question or think about their own writing.
Some of the best moves that writers make when they revise require being okay with adjusting. Changing along the way because you’ve learned something new is difficult for writers, especially if you have an answer before you’ve begun. I try to normalize the idea that writing has to change in order to improve. For example, seniors applying to college hate admissions essays, but we’ll write some of them together. As a class, we’ll look at their writing and think about arrangement or voice or word choice. We’ll practice being able to hone in on effective changes.
How does Eli Review fit into or facilitate your teaching?
It is the only tool that I’ve ever found that you can use in that way that also feels authentic, natural, and follows good practices of writing instruction. It’s allowed me to hone some of my skills as a teacher and helped me put the revision process in student hands sooner.
It’s helped me help them develop skills they would use when conferencing with other students. I was already doing that work. Eli makes it a lot smoother and efficient for me in terms of showing students the value of feedback, why we do it and how it helps.
Students really like seeing the data coming out of Eli, but it’s very helpful for me, too. Eli provides analytic data that I can use to track progress with writing for each student. I can follow and track students as a reviewer and writer, and it’s all in the same place. I can make decisions based on that. It’s authentic, and it’s being used in a pedagogically sound way.
We often say that Eli is a pedagogy backed by technology. What do you think teachers need to understand about Eli's pedagogy to get the most from its technology?
Eli was built by writing teachers for writing teachers. It places writing into context of conversation for writers through the use of feedback and review. It provides a space to follow traits and reactions to writing for the specific piece of writing and for skill development for other pieces of writing. It supports writers through receiving and giving feedback. Students can monitor their feedback to their own writing, as well as the work they do when they respond to other writers including the quality of their feedback as understood by the writer of the work. In this way, Eli is unlike other technologies because the design is set up for constructive conversation about writing using promising practices related to writing instruction. It also helps monitor learning progress for the students and teachers.
Eli cannot run itself in a classroom. Writing learning communities will get more out of Eli in the classroom with a writing instructor who uses it with their theoretical and pedagogical practices. It is most effective when the writing teacher can use it for instructional moments in the middle of the writing and review process. The teacher guides how the technology is used based on the pedagogical needs of the writing community. In that sense, Eli is a pedagogy that is enhanced through the carefully designed technology that is used to facilitate this learning experience.