Peers: The Best Writing Coaches?

shutterstock_507176578In my first post, I described some writing problems that surfaced in my AP US History classroom, as well as my new plan to implement a peer-to-peer space where they could be addressed. The space is called HerodotusHive and it fits into my wider writing program. So far this year, I’ve worked with former students to set up HerodotusHive, and we’ve even had a few sessions. Below I describe the process I went through to create this new learning space.

Mentor Historians Onboard

As explained in my first post, the idea for HerodotusHive started last year when Corey, a former student, offered to help my current students. Now I needed to reach out to more Coreys.

In September I made a list of APUSH alumni (now juniors and seniors) who were strong writers and had potential to be good mentors. I had invitations delivered to 47 students. I was thrilled to see that 38 came to hear my pitch and signed on.

Not every moment of a teacher’s year is one for the storybooks—trust me, I know—but it was incredibly heartening to see the number of former students who came to listen and then said, “Yeah, sounds good. Let’s get started.” I had a deep roster of Mentor Historians in place, ready to help.

Now I needed to share these plans with my current students and get some buy-in. From Day 1 I stressed the importance of adopting a growth mindset. Since APUSH became a 10th Grade course, I noticed many students were increasingly grade focused in the wrong ways. I stepped up on my soapbox and urged them to ditch the question, “What can I do to bring up my grade?” and encouraged them to think in terms of “How can I write better thesis statements?” So when I pitched HerodotusHive to my classes, I explained that we can all get better at writing, implying this was not a program solely for struggling students. And to their great credit, they listened. For our first HerodotusHive, almost half of my 65 APUSH students attended.

What Happens at HerodotusHive?

During my pitches to former and current students, I explained that a HerodotusHive would focus on a featured skill, like the writing of introductions. I then shared the agenda so they had an idea of what they were signing onto:

1. We review the featured skill in a flipped lecture I have recorded (and posted to Google Classroom as a resource). It’s essential for a HerodotusHive to start here. As skilled as my Mentor Historians are, they still need to review what it is I’m asking my current students to do. My current students had seen this once in class and now they’re reviewing what’s needed to write at a high level.

2. Mentor Historians share little insights on how they had success performing this skill.

3. I then post a practice question on the screen and break my current students into groups where Mentor Historians will be there to help.

4. Current students work through the writing task as Mentor Historians help, and I circulate to support and answer some content questions.

Peer Instruction At the Core

At the core of HerodotusHive is a belief that mentor-writers can help developing writers. I’ve studied the work of Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor, who explains why this is important:

For more Mazur, you can watch the entire interview and read a feature article. One thing worth noting is that he undersells his value as a teacher in the learning process. Note that he created the space to learn and that he is still lecturing, but the mini-lectures are just more purposeful.

My takeaway is that there are indeed strategic moments in the development of a writer when I, the teacher, am not the best person to help them. And I’m OK with that. Students learn plenty from me about writing, but we know that as teachers we aren’t the only source of learning. Nor should we want to be.

If we set aside the subject matter, the premise of Mazur’s peer-instruction model is that strong students can help developing students. I know it’s transferable because I’ve used the method in AP US History when we work with difficult political cartoons and in my economics classes for supply/demand graphing. In both cases I witnessed little epiphanies across the room as kids now understood something they hadn’t just seconds before.

However, like in physics, these two examples involve right and wrong answers. Writing is different, so as I designed HerodotusHive over the summer, an open question in my mind was whether or not peer instruction would yield the same magic here. In my next post I’ll share early results. Spoiler alert: It’s no longer an open question.

unnamedRod Franchi (@thehistorychase) is in his 21st year teaching Social Studies at Novi High School. He did his undergraduate work at Albion College and the University of Michigan, and earned an M.A. in English at Wayne State University and an M.A. in History Education at the University of Michigan. Having served as an education leader at the school, district, county, and state levels, Rod now works as AP US History Consultant and AP US History Mentor for the College Board. He is also Co-Director of the Novi AP Summer Institute and is an Attending Teacher in the University of Michigan’s Rounds Program.

Notes from the Classroom

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