Here is a great way to get kids reading and commenting on each other's writing. This technique helps me to get a sense of what my students value in writing and what kinds of conversations we should have. Best of all, it takes no advance preparation.
1. Have the kids write about a shared experience
On Friday, we had a 4-H presentation in which we planted grass seeds to make "hairy" pets. After the activity, students wrote at least 5 sentences about their experience. (A quick tip within a tip--generate a list of words that students will use in the writing activity to put on the board. This will encourage them to use words from the experience in their writing, strengthening their vocabulary!)
I've tried this activity with other forms of writing, but I've learned that it works best when students are writing about a shared experience. This helps the readers to focus less on trying to figure out what happened, and more on thinking about the way the content is presented.
2. Explain the principles of seat switch sharing
Students will read another student's writing and add questions or comments. Encourage students to avoid just commenting on spelling, punctuation, or handwriting and look at the content of the writing. Remind students to write their names next to their comments.
I keep the explanation brief. Because I generally do this later in the year, I don't go into a long explanation about what kinds of comments to offer; I want to see what they do on their own.
3. Move students
Direct students to take their pencils and move to different sides of the room. (My classroom right now is set up as the regions of Pennsylvania, and I have the cardinal directions marked, so we joke that the areas around the desks are Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York. Kids just went to the areas of their choice.)
4. Quickly send students to other seats
5. Silence will fall
The good silence, not the bad kind. Kids will be instantly immersed in reading what their peers have written, and will write comments back. I like to join in and and add my own comments.
As students finish reading one piece, they should get up and mill around until another seat is available. It sounds messy, but in practice it works beautifully. Do walk around and keep an eye on what students are writing. If I notice a student making the same comment over and over again, I'll sit down with her and we'll whisper about the writing so that she can come up with something new.
7. Return to own seats
The activity usually works well for about 10 minutes before fatigue sets in. Then have students return to their own seats to read their comments.
That's all there is to it. But the conversations at the end are rich and interesting. Students love to read comments about their own writing. Some of the comments puzzle them, and they want to ask the other students for clarification. This kind of student-to-student writing exchange is just what I want to foster in the classroom--conversations about writing that are focused on writer to reader. Students get to experience both roles in rapid succession with this activity, which is empowering and motivating for them.
A few less than complimentary comments do slip by. It's never anything horrible--more of comments like "I didn't understand your second sentence," or "This was hard to read." These comments are almost always absolutely true. As writers, we need to develop thick skins and recognize that not everyone will love everything we write. (Do check in on the papers of your most struggling writers to make sure that they have some positive comments. Interestingly, students read each other's comments as well and I have noticed that a less than glowing comment is always followed by a positive one. If you are worried about your students, have them write comments on sticky notes instead of the actual piece of writing--then you can take any questionable sticky notes off the writing.)
A close look at the comments helps me as the teacher to see what students value in writing--and, by transfer, what they think I value in writing. When students comment only on spelling and handwriting, I know that I need to think about the conversations that we are having in class and help them to think about other aspects of writing. On Friday, multiple students commented on the use of transitions in writing. This was encouraging to me as I have been trying to get students to recognize and use transitions all year long.
I've been working on readers theater scripts for parts of speech. They are ready for trying out in classrooms. Write to me if you'd like some (email@example.com) and let me know what your kids think. Funny? Not funny? I'd like to know.