From the Red Pen to the Pencast: Teaching Preservice English Teachers to Respond to Student Writing With Technology
by Amy Piotrowski
A vital part of preservice English teachers’ education is learning to respond to student writing with comments and suggestions for improvement. Connors and Lunsford (1993) argue that one barrier teachers face in responding effectively to student writing is “incomplete training” (p. 219). Their findings suggest that preservice teachers would benefit from improved instruction on how to respond to their students’ writing. Today’s preservice teachers need to be prepared to assess and respond to many kinds of student writing, whether traditional essays or multimedia compositions.
While teachers have often given students written comments on their papers, the digital age has given teachers a variety of new tools and media for responding to student writing. Neal (2011) says that, “the choice of media and technology platforms in which we teach, compose, and respond are part of the meaningful, rhetorical decisions we and our students make regularly” (p. 45). Different technologies, whether digital or not, enable different kinds of responses. When deciding how and with what tool to respond to student writing, teachers need to “consider ways the medium allows for and disallows, emphasizes and deemphaisizes certain communication in different rhetorical contexts” (Neal, 2011, p. 45). The important consideration for the teacher is the kind of response allowed by a technology tool. Which tool will allow the teacher to respond to the piece of writing in the most helpful way for the student writer in their particular situation? Preservice teachers need to learn to respond to student writing in modes other than written comments on a student’s paper so that they can decide what tools and medium are best suited to respond to the writing task their students are undertaking.
Responding to Student Writing
For many years, writing teachers have responded to student writing through written comments. Teachers’ comments are meant to instruct the student on how to improve their writing. Connors and Lunsford (1993) go back to the 1950s to find the origin of the “essential assumption that the teacher must and should engage the student in rhetorical dialogue” about their writing (p. 204). It is only in the past few decades that teachers’ responses have been seen as a discussion with the student about their writing, an opportunity to give students feedback for revision and their future work. A teacher’s comments can be seen as an opportunity to instruct and talk to the student about writing.
Sometimes, teachers’ response can be less of a dialogue and more of an obligation. Connors and Lunsford (1993) found that in over half of the compositions they looked at, the purpose of the teacher’s comments was “to justify grades” (p. 207). They also concluded that busy teachers tend to write more short comments than longer, in-depth comments (p. 211). These two findings suggest that comments tend to be written on the final draft turned in, not on in-progress drafts that will be revised. Their findings also suggest that some teachers need to be encouraged to see responding to student writing as being more than grading.
Research has been done looking at students’ perceptions of teacher’s comments in different media. Kim (2004) asked students to give their response to both written and audio-recorded comments from teachers. She didn’t find a difference between students’ preferences for written and audio comments, but she did find that the participants could not recognize the same teacher’s written and audio comments. In other words, the participants believed when presented with written and audio comments from the same teacher that the comments were from different teachers. Kim (2004) argues that, “Vocal inflection, tone, and emphases seemed to help students form perceptions of the teachers making the comments, which, in turn, informed their interpretations of the comment” (p. 323). Ultimately, teachers must be aware of how their comments, written or voice, affect the way they are perceived. When giving students audio feedback, the way teachers speak affects the way their feedback will be received.
How Preservice Teachers Learn to Respond to Student Writing
If preservice teachers are going to do an effective job responding to student writing, they need good teacher education courses. Good writing instruction starts with the knowledge that writing teachers have. Parr and Timerley (2010) argue that writing teachers should know “how texts work to achieve their communicative, rhetorical purposes, including knowledge of the features of text most commonly employed to support writing for a particular purpose” (p. 71). In other words, writing teachers must know important content about rhetoric and how texts work in different situations for different purposes. Parr and Timerley (2010) also argue that writing teachers need to be able to “unpack what writers are doing as they engage in the writing process,” making explicit and clear to students “the strategies more expert writers use in the complex activity of writing” (p. 71). This is the pedagogical knowledge that writing teachers need. Parr and Timerley’s (2010) research suggests that teacher need both content knowledge about writing and pedagogical knowledge about how to teach writing to students.
Preservice teachers seem to benefit from experience responding to pieces of writing. DelleBovi had her preservice teachers holistically score and respond to essays from a partnering local school. She found that getting to read student essays informed “preservice teachers’ understanding of some of the practices related to assessing students’ written work” (p. 280). Dempsey, PytlikZikkig, and Bruning (2009) found that practice rating essays using a online website raised preservice teachers’ reported self-efficacy in assessing writing (p. 56). It appears from this research that experience matters, and that teacher education programs would do well to provide their preservice teachers with opportunities to respond to student writing.
Using Livescribe Pens to Respond to Student Writing
The Livescribe smartpen is one tool that can be used in the teacher education classroom to teach preservice teachers about responding to student writing. Livescribe smartpens “convert handwritten notes and audio into digital format for access through the devices we use daily” (Livescribe 2014). The pen digitally records what one writes or draws along with the audio of what is going on as the notes are written. The notes and audio, called a pencast, can be saved on a computer as a PDF, sent to Evernote, or sent to Livescribe mobile app on one’s tablet or smartphone, depending on which model of the pen one has.
With a smartpen, a teacher can give students more than written comments. This tool enables a teacher to provide both written notes and audio comments to student writers about their work. Livescribe pens can also be used to assess preservice teachers as they learn to respond to student writing because they allow teacher educators to listen to and evaluate their preservice teachers’ feedback to students.
Preservice secondary English teachers my undergraduate course Teaching Writing and Language in the High School practiced responding to student writing using Livescribe smartpens. I put my preservice teachers into groups of three, and each group was given a 10th grade essay from the FCAT Writing Calibration Scoring Guides from the Florida Department of Education’s (2014) website. I used essays from this collection because they are publically available student essays that preservice teachers can read and respond to as practice for responding to the student writers they will go on to teach during student teaching and in their own classrooms. Each individual read their group’s essay on their own, and then groups discussed their essay together. Using a Livescribe pen, each group had to record their thoughts about what was good in the essay, give the writer suggestions for improvement, and determine what score the group would give the essay based on the FCAT rubric. These recordings allowed me to listen to the preservice teachers’ feedback on their groups’ essay and determine what we needed to discuss in future class meetings about responding to student writing.
I asked my class what they thought about recording comments about their student essay in a pencast. My preservice teachers said that they thought recording an audio response was weird, and that it was not how they expected they would respond to student writing. They had not seen any of their own teachers or the teachers they observed in their fieldwork placements record audio comments for students. My preservice teachers had not considered recording audio feedback for their student writers before this activity, even though audio feedback may work well for some writing assignments they give their future students. It seems from my preservice teacher’s experience that they would benefit from having the opportunity to spend time learning technologies that they could use to respond to student writing.
Future Directions for Research and Teacher Education
There is a need for more research examining how preservice teachers learn to respond to student writing, especially in audio recordings or digital media. As students write in a variety of media, teachers will have to respond to student writing in a variety of media. It may be beneficial to have preservice English teachers respond to student writing using a Livescribe pen several times over the course of their teacher education program so that teacher educators can evaluate progress as preservice teachers gain more experience.
The Livescribe pen could be especially useful when teacher education programs partner with K-12 schools. Preservice teachers could read essays from the partner school and record audio responses to students’ writing using Livescribe pens. Then the student writer can get back the pencast with feedback on her writing. The preservice teacher and teacher educator can replay the preservice teacher’s pencast in order to reflect on how the preserivce teacher is learning to respond to student writing. A partnership such as this would benefit both the preservice teacher and the student. The preservice teacher gets experience responding to student writing, and the student gets feedback on her writing.
Responding to student writing is one of the most important tasks a writing teacher does. Preservice teachers need effective preparation to respond to student writing. New digital technologies have the potential, if used well, to give students useful feedback on their writing and to give preservice teachers much needed experience in responding to student writing.
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DelleBovi, B. (2012). Literacy instruction: From assignment to assessment. Assessing Writing, 17, 271-292.
Dempsey, M., PytlikZillig, L, & Bruning, R. (2009). Helping preservice teacher learn to assess writing: Practice and feedback in a web-based environment. Assessing Writing, 14, 38-61.
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Livescribe (2014). Livescribe: Never miss a word. Retreived from http://www.livescribe.com
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