Prospective English Teachers Learn to Respond to Diversity in Students’ Writing through the Student Writing Archive Project (SWAP)

By Sherry, Michael B. | English Education, July 2017 | Go to article overview

Prospective English Teachers Learn to Respond to Diversity in Students’ Writing through the Student Writing Archive Project (SWAP)


Sherry, Michael B., English Education


Responding to student writing is an integral part of the work of a high school English teacher. Indeed, a recent national study by Applebee et al. (2013) found that 80 percent of all secondary teachers, across disciplines, not only graded student writing but also responded to compositions with instructional feedback (p. 17).While responding to student writing is a crucial pedagogical practice, it is also challenging. Students come with various cultural/linguistic1 backgrounds, yet they must meet state and national standards while writing in English. However, in my experience as an English teacher educator, I have noticed that mentor teachers tend to reserve this work for themselves rather than share it with their preservice mentees. As a result, during their student-teaching internships, preservice secondary English teachers (PSETs) often have few opportunities to practice strategies for responding to students' writing.

At my institution, as at others, it is not until the end of their undergraduate programs, after taking courses on literature and on education theory, that PSETs typically encounter pedagogical strategies particular to English language arts in their methods courses. While such English-focused courses usually include accompanying field experiences, during which PSETs visit local classrooms and interact with actual teachers and students, whether and how these field experiences are integrated with course assignments remains unclear (Smagorinsky & Whiting, 1995; Caughlan et al.,2017).2 While most programs (like mine) have a writing pedagogies course, this class, too, may be separated from fieldwork; accordingly, discussion of teacher-response strategies often remains necessarily abstract (e.g., Tulley, 2013). Moreover, fieldwork during secondary teacher preparation may be limited: PSETs may visit only one or two classrooms near the university. Thus, they may have little exposure to students with various cultural/linguistic backgrounds, and even fewer opportunities to see more than one teacher's approaches to responding to writing.

Given these constraints, how might English teacher education programs support PSETs as they learn to respond to students' writing? To aid my research into this question, I created an online database (http://23.21.225.52/) called "The Student Writing Archive Project" (SWAP) for use in English methods courses.3 SWAP includes samples of students' writing provided, with permission, by English teachers working at various grade levels in different geographic/linguistic regions of the United States. Moreover, SWAP allows PSETs to view these samples both with and without English teachers' actual feedback on those compositions. PSETs can also peruse instructional materials related to students' work and read the English teachers' commentaries on how they approached responding to students' writing. Like an online library, SWAP thus allows PSETs to learn about responding to students' writing, without leaving their computers, by encountering multiple examples of teacher-response practices to actual students with various backgrounds and ability levels. In using SWAP with PSETs as a teacher educator, I have also designed several possible "paths" through the archive. Each begins with a common question about teacher response and leads users through a set of related links to examples of students' writing, teachers' feedback, and teachers' interview commentaries. For example, one such path asks, "How can a teacher respond sensitively to students with various cultural/linguistic backgrounds?"

In this article, I analyze the data generated in response to this question/ path by two cohorts of PSETs as they used SWAP in a teacher-preparation course that included a field experience. These data include posts made by the PSETs to the online discussion forums attached to each webpage in the SWAP archive; responses by the PSETs to students' writing that they collected, with permission, as student-teachers in local classrooms; and reflective essays that they then wrote about what they learned from using SWAP. …

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