Showcase Day – and its fascinating after-effects

September 21, 2012

Frequently, I just try things. I have been teaching for a lot of years and I have a lot of cred. I can experiment without worrying if I’m going to bomb. For one thing, I have tenure. For another, I trust myself to think on my feet – if I see that one of my ideas is going down, I know I’ll figure something out. What’s the worst that could happen? My students see me mess up? If I’m honest with them and say, hey, I was trying something new and it didn’t go so well, let’s talk about how we could do it better next time, then I’m just modeling adulthood for them anyway.  And really, how is that wrong?

I don’t know where this particular idea came from, but if you want credit for it, feel free to leave a comment. So, one day, a couple of weeks ago, I heard myself saying to my students, “Next week, we’re going to have a showcase. We’re going to print out all your drafts and post them around the room and read them and make comments.” Huh? Really?? My students, bless their hearts, did not react much. It was early in the semester. They were still getting used to me. They were not sure what college was supposed to be like anyway – so they played along.

When Showcase Day arrived, I had no idea what to expect. To my shock – and awe – every student who was present in the room that day (18 out of 19!) had prepared their two Showcase Drafts. Within about ten minutes, we had tabletops, whiteboards, and even a stretch of empty wall taped up with their drafts, printed out in 14-point type, double spaced, for easier reading. I passed out five post-it notes to each student, along with a handout with some mocked-up comments for them to imitate. I asked them to read as many drafts as they could, and write at least five comments, following the models in the handout.

It won’t surprise you, probably, that they ran out of steam before I did. In half an hour, they had had enough, but I was still walking around, reading and marveling. There were bright-colored post-it notes all over the place. (If you want to cheer up your icky drab college classroom, get some post-it notes and/or whiteboard markers in goofy colors and give your students a reason to use them.)

When we debriefed afterwards, they admitted that the whole idea had made them nervous, but they thought it was fun when we actually did it. (Whew.) I asked them if they got ideas for revision from the comments they got on the post-it notes, and/or from reading other students’ drafts, and they swore they did. This was the part that worried me – I wondered, if they just got a feel-good vibe, would they still revise and improve their essays, or would they think, oh, everybody liked my draft, I’ll just hand it in like it is now? (I know, if you’re a writing teacher like me, you’re cringing and thinking the exact same thing.)

So I’m grading the final versions of these essays now, and I have to say, I am happy with the results. Each student was supposed to bring two different personal essay drafts to the Showcase (which they all did, I love this class), but they only had to revise one of them, and they got to pick for themselves. It seems like they got a lot of ideas from the Showcase – it’s a somewhat mysterious alchemy from my point of view – I was quite startled to see how much revision they did between the Wednesday Showcase and the Monday deadline for submitting a revised/edited essay.

You know how hard it is to convince students to revise in any sort of meaningful way, right? How often do you assign revision and lecture on how to do it, and you give them your own comments if you are really conscientious, and even have them write goals in class for how they will improve their essay – and they hand in the same damn thing again – maybe with double spacing. Ugh.

I’m happy to say that I am seeing considerably more revision than that, and them some. Alchemy? Strategy? Why did this work? Comment here.


2 Responses to “Showcase Day – and its fascinating after-effects”

  1. I do something like this in 1101—they put their thesis for a certain assignment on a big piece of paper, and then use colored markes to dissect it in small groups (underlining claims, adding them if they’re absent, adding more reasons, discerning warrants and trying to say them out loud). Every time I do it, I think, “oh, they’ll resist. oh, will it work?” and it does, big time. I think there’s something about the visual component–putting your words up on the wall, writ large, that impacts how they SEE what they’ve done. It’s not on the screen, it’s eye-level, it interacts with their imagination and comprehension so differently than when it’s on the screen or just on pages in front of them. There’s some sort of cognitive magic that happens with that. Maybe they are so used to seeing other people’s words writ large (the teacher’s words on the board) that when you put their words in that space, they SEE them. And physically moving around the room stimulates their thinking—pairing movement with reading is somehow important, too. But yeah, I can’t quite diagnose the alchemy (as you rightly desccribe it). It’s something that really works for a lot of students. Maybe I should do it for the whole essay–not just the thesis (because of course, in my case, they revise THAT…but not always anything else…!

  2. MaryBeth Drake Says:

    I’ve had my students working in small groups since the beginning of the semester, writing Haiku for summaries and trying to nail a main idea in 10-12 words. They’ve been good sports. This past Thursday we did peer review of drafts in groups of four-new combinations. It went really well after the initial quiet of reading through the rubric and reading a classmates paper. I started seeing annotations in the margins, underlines, they were making comments to each other and soon the whole room was buzzing. I do this every semester and sometimes it falls flat. I guess alchemy is a good word because sometimes the combination of people is jut not right and other times it is amazing. I think I will see some really decent papers from this batch and some fabulous stories. I think one of the clues is the wide range of ages in this group from 17 to over 45. A group full of all 18-19 years olds doesn’t click quite as energetically.
    I think the other clue is that I started groups the first week and they took my word for it that this is how college is going to be. I work really hard to get them out of their shells, especially those four guys hiding over there in the back left corner trying to look small and uninterested, like bystanders.

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