Enjoyed reading this article on Writing Response Groups adapted from Peter Elbow’s approach! Here are my take-aways:


Elbow Room: Tweaking Response in the Secondary Classroom – National Writing Project

    • Elbow Room: Tweaking Response in the Secondary Classroom
      • By: Anne Marie Liebel Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1 Date: 2005
        • Frustrated with the lifeless prose from my eleventh grade class and thrashing around for a way to combat my students’ ennui, I pulled out of my briefcase a messy cover letter for a summer job that I had begun to draft. I’d put off revising it and had thought of abandoning it altogether. But I reasoned that if I showed my students this draft as something I’d worked on and struggled with, they could get a sense of some real-world writing in process. It would be embarrassing, of course, to reveal my awkward prose, but at the moment, I was willing to try anything.
          • Peter Elbow’s ideas for responding to writing, featured in his book Writing Without Teachers (1998b) and other texts. He advances the notion that the main function of response should not be peer editing, but rather audience reaction.
            • This idea seemed to speak to the real-world writing strengths and needs of my students.
              • Denny Wolfe and M. Lee Manning’s articulation of this process: “Often, classroom-based research demands nothing more than a) being more attentive to what students are doing and how they’re doing it; b) recording our observations; c) trying to make sense of our recordings; and d) making adjustments” (1997)
                • Elbow’s basic response-group structure
                  • Over a semester,2 writers share a piece of writing they wish to improve with a group of six or more of their peers. The piece may be new or it may be one the writer is revising. Each author brings in enough copies of the work-in-progress for everyone in the group. He or she reads it to the group at least twice. During the readings, the audience members write their reactions to the piece. When everyone has had a chance to react in writing, the group begins to respond aloud to the author, who listens and takes notes. When one piece is finished, a process that takes about 15–20 minutes, the group moves on to the next author and the next round of responses. While Elbow’s writers focus on a single piece, in my classes, each writer produces five or more pieces, which circulate through the groups as drafts and later as revisions.
                    • Many students were comfortable composing on computers and printing multiple copies. I also gave time to photocopy handwritten drafts in the library.
                      • What makes Elbow’s response groups more effective than some other models for response is the kind of response the audience gives
                        • Students give detailed retellings of what they thought, remembered, saw, or did as they read the words.
                          • The response groups give writers a real live audience who tell the truth about what they liked and why.
                            • I knew that I wasn’t the best writer in the world, but I knew what I didn’t understand, and what wasn’t entertaining, and that it was my own opinion. So I felt qualified to say it.”
                              • When students understand these rules of response, they also avoid the trap of responding with “that’s good” or “I like that.” They don’t focus on grammar, spelling, or usage errors in place of content and voice. (I’ve even heard them playfully correct each other when one slides into those less-helpful comments!) One of the values of personal responses is that authors are free to take them as opinion, not command.
                                • “We didn’t have to take people’s advice. What everyone said were just their opinions, not set in stone. We knew taking people’s advice was an option.”
                                  • Critics: do this!
                                    • Bottom line: let this author know what got through to you! Write as the author reads, as you read, and as others respond. Hand these to the author. Make sure you’ve had a good chance to read the writing. Give specific reactions to specific parts—passages, lines, phrases, individual words. Try to use statements beginning with “I.”
                                      • What to say: quotes from students I got the picture this part made me think . . . these lines are effective because . . . that sentence makes me believe what you’re saying I saw this . . . I was right there with you I think you got the point across that you . . . that part was key to showing your effect I was confused by . . . I’m having trouble with . . . it tripped me up a little . . . I was lost at . . . this broke the flow for me . . . I’m still not sure what you’re trying to say . . . I don’t quite understand why . . . I think you were stronger in your first paragraph
                                        • My student David realized this: “This isn’t anything that can be taught. You can get the gist, but you have to experience it.”
                                          • Elbow suggests fifteen to twenty minutes per piece for reading and responses
                                            • That is, a piece is read twice—this takes about five minutes—and another fifteen minutes are given over to responses of about three minutes each. This gives enough time for meaningful response, but not so much time that students wander off.
                                              • Gradually, I have found twenty minutes per student to be a good guideline.
                                                • For organization’s sake, I earmark the same day every week for these groups (see Elbow 1998b, 84). When Wednesday comes, for instance, we all know what we’re doing.
                                                  • The premise behind the response groups is to create the experience of voices in an audience, a polyphony, a varied sample.
                                                    • It is the multiplicity of reactions that helps authors realize the effect their prose will have on any given audience.
                                                      • It’s a vulnerable situation, to be sure, sharing one’s work with peers.
                                                        • Each group member has a number. Each meeting, one or two numbers rotate. For instance, I’ll say “Today, all number threes move one group to the left,” or “this week, number sixes and twos move to the right,” or whatever mix I feel will benefit the class that day. This arrangement offers both consistency and freshness. It also allows me a surreptitious way of separating students who are not able to work well together
                                                          • I monitor the groups, especially the first few sessions, to make sure that things go smoothly and that students aren’t slipping into less useful response habits
                                                            • Elbow suggests teachers join the groups as members, bringing their own writing for discussion.
                                                              • teacherless writing class
                                                                • The response groups give me the precious commodity of time when all eyes aren’t on me. After the second session, or when I’m sure they don’t need me any more, I set up conferences. This I love, as do my students.
                                                                  • Students sign up to meet with me for ten minutes during the period.
                                                                    • Elbow’s response groups, as he envisioned them, are voluntary meetings of writers coming together outside the school setting to improve their craft.
                                                                      • in my groups
                                                                        • Participation is required.
                                                                          • “When we comment on other peoples’ pieces, it made us more confident to comment on more famous author’s writings,”
                                                                            • Elbow (1998b, 96) suggests avoiding negative feedback entirely for the first three or four meetings
                                                                              • before the first group in which negative reactions are allowed, I give explicit permission to be honest and straightforward. I address the class about growing pains. Real growth is uncomfortable, I remind them, and writing is no different.
                                                                                • Paraphrasing Elbow, I ask them to imagine how crummy it would feel if no one had anything helpful to say about something they’d worked on for hours. I also advise they use some of Elbow’s other techniques: summarize the piece, look for its center of gravity, or tell what they feel it is about (Elbow and Belanoff 2000, 511–513).
                                                                                  • I believe
                                                                                    • that these groups work in part because they call on skills that every person already has or can develop, most particularly the ability to articulate as an audience member a reaction to the parts or the entirety of a piece of work.
                                                                                      • About the Author Anne Marie Liebel teaches at Pennsbury High School in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, and is a part-time instructor at Bucks County Community College in Newtown, Pennsylvania. She is a teacher-consultant with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

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