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Peer Review: We have it all wrong.

"Exchange your papers!" Every student cringes at this thought. Some other kid, probably the smart one, will sift through my paper and pick out every missing or extra comma or pronoun reference issue and will generally make me feel about two inches tall.

"I'm an idiot."

"I don't measure up."

"Everyone is smarter than me."

If my students have this self-talk after peer review, I need to make sweeping changes. Too many classroom teachers throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, and do away with peer review altogether, but this "baby" is worth saving. The bathwater just needs some better bubbles.

Students must be trained to focus on the important aspects of peer review, and instead of pointing out mechanical issues ad nauseam. Too many times we ask our students to comment on another student's writing without equipping them with anything useful to say. Because of this, they resort to what they actually do know: usually grammar rules.

Most teachers know to focus their own grading on writing traits such as organization, elaboration, style, etc., and most also know to focus their teaching strategies in the same areas to develop solid writers. We need to consider, however, the old adage that the teacher is first a learner. When students become the teacher and are forced to start seeing the writing traits in other students' writing samples, they begin to see their own writing differently.

I teach online, mostly to home school students. One feature of my courses is peer review, but we call it conferencing. This less intimidating idea expresses a camaraderie, a sense of common purpose that we begin cultivating in the sixth grade and continue until early high school. From the outset, we establish its purpose as lifting up or edifying the recipient of our praises and suggestions. We train them through modeling strategies to give both praises and suggestions that are ESP (encouraging, specific, and polite). Most of our students are great at encouraging and polite, but they lack understanding in the specific department, so we model the concept in the lower levels to produce expert editors who provide meaningful feedback.

Something amazing happens in these conferences: Students develop a sense of community and cheer one another on to success. They learn to phrase their corrections as suggestions or questions that honor their fellow students' creations but also push them toward improvement.

Their self-talk changes, and they now hear...

"I can do this."

"This isn't so bad."

"I'm getting better at this."

...and we took the sting out of "Exchange your papers."

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