Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Peer-Driven or Paternalism? It's all about the Process

My Basic Writers have turned in their narrative essays. And I am so thrilled with the results. While not perfect (and, really, what writing ever is?), the improvement was significant enough that they even noticed it when they compared their first draft(s) with their last draft. And, there were eight of them. 

Yes, that's right, we did eight drafts of this essay. Eight steps, to be precise. I won't go into all the gory details because inevitably I'll make someone mad because I either skipped an essential step or had a step that is contrary to an essential pedagogical approach. Regardless (see how I just skated over that?), the students who took the process seriously wrote stellar essays. 

This is the sort of "disruption" I enjoy, showing students that they can, indeed, write an excellent essay if they just give themselves the chance and take advantage of the resources that are available to them. And this is where the idea of peer-driven learning butts up against my good, old-fashioned maternalistic (or paternalistic) teaching style. Would these students have done the drafts if I hadn't essentially forced them to? They receive "homework" credit for doing the various drafts and taking the process seriously (not sure what the students who printed six copies of their essay and just labeled them the various draft names were thinking). 

But, they saw the results. They saw that they were able to write better essays, better than perhaps they thought they could. So, do I regret "forcing" them into the process? No. Do I wish there was a way where I didn't have to coerce them into it? Yup. And I'm sure there is a way, but it's hard, particularly with basic writers who often resent having to take a non-credit course to begin with. A non-credit course becomes the lowest priority on many of my students' list, making it an upward battle for me as an instructor. 

So, I use force, because, damn it, I do know better. I know what they need to do to become better writers. I'm not sure what I can do with this disconnect, between peer-driven learning facilitator and paternalistic teacher. Other than maybe admit it and keep trying to be better. Or, throw it out to you.

What do I do? 


  1. I've admired your bravery in trying this (and plan to blog about it within the next month or so). Sounds like results have been good. I wouldn't worry too much about deviating from the peer-driven plan. By recognizing that your students needed an external motivator in order to perform their best, you still taught in a student-centered way. In fact, one could argue that rigidly sticking to the peer-driven plan, come hell or low grades, makes the class more about you than about the students. So long as they're learning, and it sounds like they really are, everyone wins.
    -Jon Malesic, King's College CELT

  2. I just had a really interesting conversation about peer learning in Comp 101, with an older, returning student who is not very keen on being told how to write by 18-year-olds. They said that they wished the instructor would do more of what you're doing; they realize they need to learn how to write better but don't feel it's happening with the peer process. Having tried a few peer assignments, I think it works for some things, but won't produce the same results as cracking the whip a little on multiple drafts.

  3. Funny, I read a post this morning from someone in a very different context who was talking about power-over and power-with. One thing she pointed out (with a reference to @markheartofbiz) was that power-over isn't always bad. Mark's example is grabbing a child about to walk into traffic, even if that child fights you all the way.

    The key is whether you do it out of love. I think forcing them to write those drafts is equivalent in some way to yanking the kid back from the oncoming car. They don't know enough yet (about this particular world) to know what to do. You have to force them.

    And just like the toddler example, there is a day where you no longer have to physically yank them away. Maybe in an intermediate stage you can just shout to remind them, or gently remind them before they go out. And one day, they can cross the road safely.

  4. Okay, I am curious. What are the eight steps?


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