Author: Susan Ferguson Martin
As classrooms become more digitally enhanced, many educators consider how they will move traditionally face-to-face elements of their content so that interactions are not lost in translation to online environments. In the language arts classroom, two such activities are the writers' workshop and literature circles—both of which hinge upon student interaction and feedback.
Writers' workshops offer participants a chance to engage in active feedback from peers and instructors—a student submits a piece of writing for feedback, and the other participants offer suggestions that range from full praise of the piece to issues that need to be addressed prior to resubmission. While the writers' workshop may take many forms, depending on the environment, it is typically a time set aside for gathering ideas, writing, offering constructive feedback, and revising, all within a supportive, encouraging environment. When I taught grades 6 through 12, I promoted it to my students as a time for us to grow as writers, and I allowed them to write about a variety of topics, some assigned and others based on student choice, but always with the idea that on certain predetermined class days we would engage in a writers' workshop.
Literature circles offer an opportunity for students to actively participate in reading through a variety of roles. Each student within a small (five-to-seven-member) group reads a common text. Each member has a role within the group, and it is the responsibility of each member to fulfill their duties in order for the group to function well. The roles rotate within the group so that no one student is given the same task each time. Tasks such as discussion leader, illustrator, vocabulary enricher, summarizer, and other possible roles ensure that the text is explored and that each member of the group has an opportunity to take part in a variety of ways. Unlike full class readings of novels and other texts, literature circles enable participants to fully explore the texts more independently, and they allow instructors to select texts for smaller groups based on the needs and interests of the members of the class.
As a former teacher of grades 6 through 12, now an assistant professor of English education, I have seen the evolution of the modern language classroom. With implications for both the P through 12 and university settings, I set out to address this transition, comparing both online and on-campus writers' workshops and literature circles, inviting feedback from students enrolled in language arts teaching methods courses about both the process and product of engaging in these activities in both environments. The feedback includes both challenges and advice for overcoming some of the issues of moving such activities to the digital classroom as well as student feedback about why some activities seem better suited to face-to-face interaction.
Taking the writers' workshop online was probably the most challenging for me as a teacher, for I was unsure whether the feedback would be authentic and whether students would actively read work submitted by peers. Students, however, overwhelmingly agreed that it was less intimidating to submit pieces of writing for review since they didn't actually have to face the person critiquing the work. They also reported less intimidation in offering feedback since they did not have to face the person to whom they were offering their analysis. Several elaborated that online submission for feedback seemed more authentic, as it is more akin to the process for manuscript publication. Many also noted that they appreciated having increased time to consider a piece before giving feedback, whereas they felt pressure to respond quickly in a live peer review session.
On the other hand, some felt the online writers' workshop was too impersonal—that they enjoyed the face-to-face nature of negotiating an understanding of a piece of writing. A few also said that the depersonalization of online feedback gave them less incentive to submit their best work, so they did not feel as challenged.
While the students who responded seemed to prefer an online writers' workshop, they were less favorable about moving literature circles to the digital classroom. Unanimously, students responded that they missed the immediate feedback and discussion that go along with synchronous conversation. Some worried that struggling students in grades 6 through 12 might need more prompting to help them with discussion than is afforded in an online environment. Others said they missed the organic nature of live artistic expression, of feeding off the energy of others who share simultaneous experiences. While some appreciated that they had more time to contemplate responses and prepare for their literature circle roles, several felt that online responses were less genuine than those expressed in person. Conversely, some felt that the additional response time of online discussion gave them more time to craft academic responses as well as an invitation to be more candid, citing a similar feeling about candor through social media outlets.
Some students provided suggestions for enhancing the online language arts experience, including online book clubs with less prescriptive roles than those in literature circles and online writers' workshops throughout the year with an increased number of submissions for feedback, hopefully encouraging students to write not only to fulfill class assignments but also to participate in a process that might later lead to publication.
Susan Ferguson Martin is an assistant professor of language arts education at the University of South Alabama.