Formative feedback, reflection, and practice are all essential to improve our skills. In this episode, JoNelle Toriseva joins us to discuss her approach of combining faculty and peer feedback with reflective practice to improve student writing skills. JoNelle is a writer and an Assistant Professor and Director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College. JoNelle has won the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank. Her work has appeared in The North American Review, Salt Hill, The Literary Review, The Saranac Review, The Cincinnati Review, Descant, and JACKET, among others, and included in Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sound published by San Francisco’s City Lights, and Best Canadian Poetry in English.
- JoNelle Toriseva
- Assistant Professor and Director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College.
- winner of the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank (The Literary Journal of the University of Montana). The judge for that prize was Oliver de la Paz.
- Selected by Shane McCrae, J.R. Toriseva’s Barbed Water, was the winner of Saudade’s annual poetry contest, and is now available from Argus.
- Toriseva’s work has appeared in The North American Review, Salt Hill, The Literary Review, The Saranac Review, The Cincinnati Review, Descant, and JACKET, among others, and included in Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sound published by San Francisco’s City Lights, and Best Canadian Poetry in English.
- Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) at GCC
- 2. The Metacognitive Cafe Online Discussion Forum – The 11/8/2017 Tea for Teaching podcast with Judith Littlejohn that was referenced in this podcast.
- National Novel Writing Month
John: Formative feedback, reflection, and practice are all essential to improve our skills. In this episode, we examine one professor’s approach of combining faculty and peer feedback with reflective practice to improve student writing skills.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guest today is JoNelle Toriseva, an assistant professor and director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College. JoNelle has won the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank. Welcome JoNelle.
Jonelle: Thank you. Very happy to be here.
John: Our teas today are…
Jonelle: Bombay breakfast.
Rebecca: That sounds tasty.
Jonelle: Which I get from Jasmine Pearl, my favorite tea company.
Rebecca: Yum. I think this morning I have black currant.
Jonelle: Mmm, nice.
John: And I have ginger tea.
Rebecca: Yum. So we invited you here today to talk a little bit about reflective writing. Can you talk a little bit about some of the kinds of classes that you teach and how you use reflective writing as part of that practice?
Jonelle: Yes, well, I came to academia through being a community artist. So I went to a lot of schools, and a lot of community programs… prisons, different places and taught writing in very different situations and in coming from that background, building community was really important, and also goals. So when people want to write, they want to write for a variety of reasons. And so to help people get what they wanted out of these community writing courses, I would have people tell me their goals. And I had done some reading in how to help people achieve their goals and a big part of that can be having people write down their goals. So my whole reflective writing practice has come out of goal-setting, and having people write their goals and then share their goals with each other and learn how to achieve their goals. Some people like to break it down step-by-step, other people haven’t told another person what they wanted and haven’t experienced that kind of support that comes when you share what you really want to have happen. And a lot of magical results can occur when people talk about their goals, write down their goals, learn that other people will help them achieve their goals. So this reflective writing came out of that I learned that that was working, and that was helping people. And I thought, “Oh, why don’t we do this three times a semester. So people can kind of check in with themselves, and people can adapt what they’re doing if necessary.” Sometimes people come into a class with one set of goals, and they’ll realize, “Oh, no, what I really wanted to do was this, or that.” So I have different points in the semester when they can go in and adapt, and rewrite, and edit their goals.
Rebecca: How important is that piece of community and sharing of the goals as part of this reflective process?
Jonelle: It’s highly important. And I didn’t realize how important it was at first, but a lot of people haven’t had the experience of supportive community before. And so just stating a goal out loud… First of all, the person has to figure out how they’re going to put that into words and they can help them plan a little bit more what that goal might look like if they are actually thinking about it. A lot of people come to writing and they want to write a bestseller. And they may not have thought it through. But once they have to state their goals, they break it down, “Oh, I want to write in this genre.” Or some people will want to write a memoir about their family history and so they’re not really looking to write a bestseller, they’re looking to write something that honors their ancestors. So it helps people understand exactly what they’re trying to get out of their writing practice.
Rebecca: How do you make sure that students feel safe to share those goals and actually are taking that goal sending really seriously?
Jonelle: I do it by setting standards and also doing it right away in the course. So people see what is expected. So they’re still, at the beginning of the course, they’re still meeting each other and getting to know each other and so it’s just part and parcel of what happens in the course, it’s one of the expected criteria: that they respect each other, that they listen to each other, and that they respond in a positive and supportive manner. So I set the tone right away with it. And people respond really well to that because I find that people, they’re coming to school, they’re coming to class for a reason, they do want to get a certain thing out of it, and they’re able to say what it is that they do want to get out of it. And I also set it up ahead of time that they can’t say, “Oh, I want an A in the course.” We talk about breaking down what the writing process is, and so they’re working on specific goals. Like one person may have to work a lot on transitions, or one person may be working on creating an edited draft that can go to a certain publication. But no matter what that goal is, it’ll be broken down into chunks that are manageable and also skill related.
John: Are these online or face-to-face class?
Jonelle: I do it in both. So if we’re in a face-to-face class, I’ll have them do a writing assignment and then they will share with a neighbor close to them. If it’s an online class, they will do a post about what their goals are and then they’ll respond to two other students posts. So they’re doing one-on-one sharing with each other in either mode.
Rebecca: What are some tips that you have for other faculty in helping students prepare to write those goals?
Jonelle: What I usually advise people to do is to have a time set aside for individual reflection. So they’ve been thinking about what they want out of the course, we’ve been talking about what constitutes the course, what kind of skills they’re learning. And then we’ll do five-minute writes on them in their own process on them and their goals, and so they’re used to already doing short writing sprints about these goals. So we do practice and then also I have examples of what other students have written for their goals so they can kind of see the level of detail that goes in, and it’s something that’s very practical and it can be used as a “to do” list. And I also share with them my own writing goals so that they know everybody might have a problem getting started, or ending, or writing a good conclusion. So I’m very honest with my own writing process and I think that helps them also be honest about their writing process.
John: Some of your work is in the accelerated learning program or the ALP program at Genesee Community College. Could you tell us a little bit about that program and those classes?
Jonelle: Yes, Accelerated Learning Program is really exciting. It’s a process of where you just sit side-by-side with learners and help them achieve what they want to achieve. It’s something that I first learned how to do in graduate school at Mills College in Oakland. As part of my graduate school training, I was tasked with teaching a small seminar group of students who were selected from the freshman first-year writing course. So I had a group of six students from this writing course who I would go to class with, I would go to their composition course with, and then I would meet with them as a group and teach in seminar style weekly, thesis statements, organization, researching skills. Whatever the teacher was teaching in the one-on-one course, I would supplement and also do some more extensive teaching as the students needed it. And then I also met with each of the students individually weekly and talk to them about how their work was going, how their classes were going, supporting them if they needed any kind of academic help. And this kind of one-on-one, close involvement really helped these students because they knew there’s somebody that they could talk to, and that there was somebody that could get them help. And a lot of the problems that these students were having were not cognitive problems. They were just not as well read as some of the other students and they didn’t have some of the same training. One of these students also didn’t pick appropriate material to write about. For some reason this person only would talk about and write about Bruce Lee. So no matter what we’re talking about, she would only write about Bruce Lee. So I worked with her a lot and helped her widen our writing scope. So things like this, people that just didn’t have some of the same experiences as the other students in the class.
John: So the classes are for students who are in need of getting them up to the level of the courses, but it’s accelerated because they’re working with the regular classes, but getting additional assistance within that environment so that they don’t get behind in their progress?
Jonelle: Exactly, yes. So what was being done at Mills College then started being done across the nation in different ways, different people started different programs. And the program that we accepted and did for GCC is Accelerated Learning Program. And in that program, it’s a little bit different than the one-on-one tutoring, but it has a very similar philosophy. And in that course, a student will be enrolled in English 101, and then they will have another course called English 100 that gives them supportive training and workshopping directly from that 101 course. So it’s roughly half of the amount of students, there’s 12 students in it and they get individualized workshops on whatever topic they need to have more reinforcement on. And it addresses non-cognitive issues and addresses skill-based issues as well. So a student takes a credit bearing course along with a non-credit bearing course at the very same time. And we found that this improves retention, it improves class performance, it gives students a lot of confidence when they’re in that English 101 class and gives them the start that they need to catch up work that they didn’t have, for some reason, in their high school experience.
Rebecca: Do you find that the role of reflective writing is different with these students? Or do you do more reflective writing with this group of students?
Jonelle: Depending on the group, depending on what they need, but a lot of times writing about their thinking can be incredibly good for them because they’re able to learn how to follow their thought—and that writing is thinking—it gives them bigger writing muscles so that they’re able to write for longer periods of time and write for bigger projects. They learn how to write themselves into a project so that they know how they’re going to address it, how they’re going to shape and form the narrative, what kind of sources they’re going to be talking to. A lot of writing is the writer in conversation with texts that have gone on before or texts that are currently being created. So it’s kind of part and parcel of the writing process in many ways.
John: So you also teach classes on writing for science and business, do you use similar types of reflection in those classes as well?
Jonelle: Yes, I found that a lot of writing is very similar in that you follow many of the same kinds of steps and ask yourself many of the same types of questions. So if you’re writing an academic paper about theater, or an academic paper about a biological situation, or you’re writing something in the field of chemistry, your approach is very similar although your results are going to be very different. But a writer always has to decide how they’re going to frame their writing, how it fits into the landscape of the current writing in the field, how they can work to improve their writing. So the reflection works for any sort of writing that someone will do.
John: What’s the feedback and revision process that you use in your classes?
Jonelle: Many different layers… the first feedback is, of course, given by the writer themselves, the writer talking to themselves, talking to their piece, and this can be done in whatever way is best for the writer, either verbally or on paper. Then the writer will do peer feedback. So they’ll be reading their work to a peer and a peer will be reading a work to them, and they’ll give their views and also ask questions. So it will be helpful in the developmental stage to get more questions about what is actually on the page, what could be on the page, what needs to be on the page, and then going into revision where the student will work with me, or work with tutors, or work with each other on sentence crafting. Are the sentences crafted the way they need to be? Or do we need to have more sentence variety? How is the point-of-view working? Does that need to be shifted? Are there places where the focus is dropped? Has everything been included that needs to be included? Those kinds of questions get answered. So we go from the larger, macro view to the micro view, looking at, you know, is everything in place? Is everything nailed down? And that will be through working with themselves, through working with me, through working with each other, through working with tutors, and then going back to model texts and looking at their work in comparison with other papers. Are they meeting the standards? Are they meeting the scope? Taking a look at how they measure up to other writers out there. So there’s lots of different layers of reflection and feedback that go in. And hopefully that process is continual, and they will keep doing it after the class as well so they can continue to improve as a writer.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the relationship between an iterative revision process, and reflection and reflective writing?
Jonelle: The reflection is what will help a writer have an increased amount of success throughout their career. So when a student is writing a paper for 101, that’s one paper, but if they realize the steps and realize how this writing will connect to their future writing, then they’re able to set themselves goals, meet these goals, so they can become a better and better writer with each paper and with each writing experience. Because we’re not just training somebody to write a good research paper for a first-year class, we want them to be able to also work well at the transfer institutions, go on and work well at the masters level, at the doctoral level. Writing is a process that we continually redefine for ourselves and we continually have to get better at. So it’s this lifelong skill and the reflective writing helps people take baby steps in that larger arc of the lifelong writing, hopefully.
Rebecca: You talked a little bit about model writing. Do you use your own writing or your own process and the ways that you struggle through your own process as a model for students as well?
Jonelle: Yes, I definitely do. I tell them what’s worked for me, what hasn’t worked for me. A lot of times my talk about how I’ll do short chunk writing like write for five minutes, write for 10 minutes, write for 15 minutes using the kitchen timer when writing gets hard to do. Also taking breaks, how I motivate myself to write if I’m in a really bad funk, and this makes them laugh and also makes them realize, it’s a very human process. So a lot of being a writer and improving your writing is just learning how to work with yourself and talk with yourself so that you keep on getting better, you keep on going back to the writing process and treating yourself with kindness is important.
Rebecca: Something that seems to be coming up in the way that you’re talking about is also the need to see yourself as a writer. So it seems like the reflection is a way to help students start to identify in that way.
Jonelle: Yes, that’s a great, great insight. A lot of people have to be given permission to write or they have to give themselves permission to write in some way. If I’m teaching a creative writing class, often I’ll have people introduce themselves to each other and say, “I’m a writer,” and then they’ll hear it back. And just that ability to say that they’re a writer and be seen as a writer can be incredibly motivating and supportive for people. So yes, it’s important for people to be able to just be able to state that they are a writer. And so many of us are writers in so many different areas that it’s important for people to inhabit that role for themselves.
John: Sounds like a lot of this is building a growth mindset in students, especially students who perhaps may have struggled earlier with writing to let them know that they can, in fact, become more proficient through working on this.
Jonelle: Yes, yes. And that is something that is going to come from inside of them. We want to build up that writing muscle, that writing ability so that they do well in this class, but that they also do well in their next classes, and that they have resources of people that they can reach out to when needed if they come to a standstill. But yes, it’s creating lifetime learners and lifetime writers who will be there for each other.
Rebecca: I’m particularly interested in the student response, especially from students who are in an English 101 class, who don’t identify themselves as a writer to start off and are not in some sort of major where writing seems obvious.
Jonelle: Yes, writing has become such a big part of our lives. We text all the time, we are writing emails to each other. It’s so important that we can present ourselves well in writing and that we can understand what audience we’re writing for. So we talk about all the different writing situations so that they’re aware of how much they are writing, and I tried to use topics that are interesting to them: food, music, things that we all have in common. And so they’re talking with each other, they’re seeing each other as writers, they’re reading each other’s writing. And they start to realize, “Yes, I’m part of this community too. And I can define my role as a writer in my own unique way.” It’s fun to see them blossom, and also redefine the role of writers… a serious role… someone in an attic with crazy hair, or is it somebody writing a text… They can see themselves as a writer in their soccer playing… concert going. If they’re a math major, if they’re a science major…. Everybody writes, so they can see the role of writing in their fields and in their lives.
Rebecca: I think that sometimes faculty even don’t have that identity, despite the fact that they might do a lot of writing and maybe even a lot of publishing. They don’t always recognize themselves as writers.
Rebecca: And that makes it difficult to filter down to students if you don’t also see yourself as a writer.
Jonelle: Right, and it’s important for people to give themselves credit for the writing and the thinking they do. And also all that goes into writing an article, they may do things just automatically and not realize all of the steps that have actually gone into what they create and how complex it is. So they can sit back and give themselves a few kudos. And I find many departments will have weekly meetings where they will have people read papers, and that can also highlight what’s happening in their academic field and give a spotlight on the writing and the writing process. And that also helps build community.
Rebecca: How have your colleagues responded? Do other colleagues use similar approaches? Especially maybe some of this goal setting strategy that you laid out at the beginning.
Jonelle: Yes, I find that a lot of people do reflective writing in their own way. One of my colleagues, Marie Iglesias-Cardinale, has students write letters to themselves and to her and that is another way of framing the reflective writing. So you can do it in many different ways and have it work in a way that is more natural to whatever subject you’re doing, or also to your personality too. Some people like the journal writing, some people like the epistle letter writing, some people could frame it as a podcast, some people could frame it as a selfie, a writing selfie. So people can do it in a variety of ways. And a lot of my colleagues here, Judie Littlejohn, does a lot of metacognitive work and having students look at their learning, which is what this is also having students look at their writing. And I think that more and more people are coming to realize that people have to train their brain to learn a subject or to write a certain format that they’re going to be writing and that our brains are so plastic and able to respond to these tasks that we set before them in a way that is only helped by self reflection.
John: Judie was a guest on our second episode actually. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes. But it does sound like much of what you’re doing is helping students become more metacognitively aware of what they’re doing and processing their own learning much more actively.
Jonelle: Yes. And it helps them get tasks done in other places. So if they can remember “Oh, I did these steps for this paper. What if I start doing them for this article I’m writing?” This is a way to get into that so they can fall back on past successes to have future successes. But a lot of times we have to train ourselves to write in a new way for a new writing task, and that can be daunting. But if you’ve had success before, you can talk yourself through the new tasks.
Rebecca: Good advice to remind ourselves during a summer writing sprint perhaps, right? [LAUGHTER]
Jonelle: Yes. Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve recognized over time doing reflective work with my students is, needing to give and dedicate class time to that activity. Because we know that it’s important to student learning, but students can see it as a throwaway kind of an assignment if you don’t actually dedicate time and effort as part of the actual in-class time. Because if it’s just a homework assignment, sometimes it’s not taking quite as seriously.
JONELL: Very true. And also having them be in conversation with each other helps them with the process as well, I think. So it’s not just that they’re spending time on the project, it’s that they’re doing social interaction, and that social aspect of learning can be so crucial. And they may not have the confidence yet to talk about their work at home or with their friends. But if they’re in a class, they all have to be doing it, there’s this is kind of group impetus that can help them reach that point.
John: That type of peer support can be really helpful in helping them work through difficulties.
Jonelle: Yes, and they may not have that kind of support anywhere else. So that’s why I think it’s important to have it be a part of class because they may not have outside support in their family or among their friend group. So for us to build that academic dialogue is so important for them to see themselves as writers, and to give credence to what they do, and to make space for what they do.
Rebecca: One of the things that I find challenging not only with writing but also, I teach design so we do the same kind of process with visual work, is to help students move from the “pat on the back” motivational feedback, to actually critical, useful feedback so that they develop those skill sets so that they do start to have that community of practice around them outside of a classroom setting. Do you have any tips on how to help move students in that direction?
Jonelle: Well, I think that continued conversation is really important. I will model what kinds of feedback that they should be giving. If it’s an online class, they have to have 350-words in their response to make sure that they have a level of detail and also to give them a rubric so they have to address the elements. I don’t know what they would be for design, but say for a piece of fiction: that you’re looking at dialogue, you’re looking at plot, you’re looking at characterization, theme. So if they’re incorporating some of that vocabulary into their conversation, that can also be a starting point for a future conversation. They’ll be looking for the line in something else, but they’ll be looking for a round character versus a flat character in something that they’re looking at outside of class. It’s kind of creating that atmosphere for the magic to happen and then hopefully, it translates outside of class too.
Rebecca: To round out some of our discussion on reflection, can you also compare the early kinds of reflection that you do in your class versus ones that happen at that midterm or later on? You mentioned those briefly at the beginning, but we didn’t really explore those opportunities.
Jonelle: Yes, the first reflective writing is mostly just goal setting, what they want to get out of the course. And I originally started them on that because students will come into a creative writing course and they may have ideas of writing an entire novel in a course when they haven’t written anything at all before, and then they may leave the class upset with themselves… they haven’t finished a novel. So I try to find out why they’re really in the course at first, so that I can help them achieve the goal that they want to achieve, knowing that I may have to give them resources outside of the class later on. Say they’re writing a novel, that can be like a five-year journey. So it’s something that we can’t address just in 16 weeks, they’re going to need to have something outside to keep them going. So I take a look at what their goals are. And this writing is pretty short and it may not be as nuanced. And then as we go throughout the semester, I devote midterm and end-of-term writing reflection, and those ask more detailed questions, and I have them give more detailed responses. And by then they’re more comfortable with each other as well, so they’re more willing to call each other out if they’re not meeting their goals, if they’re not putting in the writing time, if they’re not putting in the work with their workshop group, or if they need to be doing more editing or revising. They’re more willing to see that in themselves and sometimes they’re more willing to see that in each other but I find that if they can look at one of their peers and say, “Oh, your peer wants this and yet they’re doing this.” They can say like, “Oh, well, I can see easily how you should change this.” Whereas what they don’t see that as readily in themselves. Why I have them work with each other is so that they can see how each other have a different approach to a writing problem, because they’re often able to solve each other’s problems easier than they can solve their own. But then they’ll see, “Oh, I just need to do this. Like maybe I need to wake up and go to a coffee shop instead of writing in the kitchen. Or maybe I need to go write in my car at lunch instead of going to the cafeteria because I’m just going to talk with my friends and not get what I need to get done.” The reflection process becomes longer… more questions… more involved as the semester progresses.
Rebecca: Do you have your peer feedback groups change over time?
Jonelle: Yes, I always mix those up. Otherwise they get complacent with each other and the social interaction kind of overplays that artistic interaction. So always mixing it up.
John: We always end with a question. What are you doing next?
Jonelle: Well, I’m always creating different writing communities. One of the largest writing communities that I really love, and I love to tell people about is National Novel Writing Month where everybody writes a novel in November and it creates a huge community. It’s fun, it’s free. So if people are interested in writing, I suggest that they look at nanowrimo.org. And it’s something that I always love to do every November is to start a novel and to write with other people in community. So you’ll be seeing me in November in the nanowrimo world doing that.
Rebecca: That sounds fun.
Jonelle: Yes, it’s very fun. You can do other projects also. It’s fun to have that group impetus of working together.
Rebecca: Cool, well we’ll look forward to seeing what that novel looks like then.
Jonelle: Thank you.
John: Thank you for joining us.
Jonelle: Thank you, have a wonderful day.
Rebecca: You too.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.