User-Friendly Writing Panel Process: Time and Energy Efficient And Effective (bonus November posting)

This post is related to the previous post: This Process Contains Huge Benefits For Writing Teachers, Students and Programs.

Here is how you can make your Writing class students’ and fellow Writing-Course colleagues feel satisfied at the end of a term. And here is how you can save yourself a large amount of time, energy and reduce stress.

The final class of the term has just finished. You look at your Level 4 Writing class roster and choose which students whom you are not sure if they have the writing skills necessary to be successful at the next level. Let’s say that out of your 16 students, six are in this “borderline” category. (You are confident in your decision to pass the other eight students and fail two.) You organize a file with writing samples for each of these six students.1 You give this file to the teacher at the next level, Level 5. That teacher reads your six students’ writings, and the next day meets with you. She tells you that she is confident that three of the students look ready for Level 5. You spend  about 15-20 minutes talking about the other three students, reading parts of their essays together (sometime aloud) and analyzing their work.2  For students whom you both are still unsure about, you can look at more samples of their writing.  In the end, the two of you decide one of them could pass and two should repeat Level 4. You feel assured that your students will be in the right level the next term and that you can explain to any student who might wonder why they failed what they need to work on in order to pass the next term. 3

On the same day that you put together a file for the Level 5 teacher, the Level 3 teacher puts together a file of students’ writing for whom she’d like your advice. You read those writing samples and decide if their writing looks like how your successful students wrote at the beginning of the terms in your Level 4.  If you think a student’s writing looks too weak for your level, you might make some notes about or underline specific sentences / paragraphs that don’t meet the norms for your level. 4 The next day, you meet, typically, for about 20 minutes with the Level 3 teacher and discuss your evaluation of his students, spending most of that time on the students whom you would like more information about or whom you feel should fail.  The Level 3 teacher could show you more writing samples of students who remain questionable for your level the next term. You feel reassured that the students who enroll in your class the next term have had their writing skills closely analyzed according to the norms for that level.

Reference notes from above

1 To be able to truly evaluate students’ writing skills, it’s vital that the panel look at essays in which the students did not get help writing. During the term, you’ll want to have your students write about three “in-class essays” (ICEs), during which they are given a choice of some topics and write during the class under your supervision without any help. Before marking these ICEs, most teachers make copies of these essays to show the panel. (See Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar on Essays to Develop Self-Editing Skills for suggestions about effective ways to mark essays.) For the panel, typically you will show the teacher at the next level a sample ICE from each “borderline” student which best demonstrates their true writing skills. In other words, there is no need to show writing samples of students whom you are confident should pass or repeat your level. Also, when you meet to discuss the students with the teacher at the next level, it’s a good idea to bring more writing samples of those borderline students to facilitate your evaluation of the students’ writing skills.

2 This is an excellent time to clarify the norms for both Writing levels.  As you analyze students’ writing, you both can identify specific sentences which show a student’s grammar and writing- technique ability. The higher-level teacher can then explain how those match the expectations for that level. This information can be extremely helpful as you prepare your students in the future. It is not uncommon for teachers to have unrealistic standards for students’ writing skills. These panel discussions analyzing students’ writing sample are invaluable for helping teachers clarify specifically what other teachers’ expectations are.

3 There is ONE BIG MISTAKE that you want to avoid—surprising students who are expecting to pass your course. During the term, you’ll probably give grades along with some kind of rubric on students’ essays. It’s vital that you make sure students understand that the purpose for these grades is to give students an idea about YOUR impression of their strengths and weaknesses, but they don’t determine whether the student will pass or fail the course. You want to make sure they understand that the panel will make the final decision. However, that being said, you still don’t want to mislead students. If you truly believe a student has written essays that would qualify for passing, you can give high grades for the essays. Those students who had consistently received high grades on their essays should not fail the course. In fact, you won’t even show the panel those students’ essays, unless you are just curious to hear what the other panel member would say. Thus, you’ll want to make sure that you give realistic grades on borderline/failing students on their essays so they won’t be surprised if they fail.

4 Checklists with descriptors about grammar, style and content tend to be a waste of time in the panel situation. It’s much more effective and better use of your time to approach your evaluation of the other teacher’s students’ writing holistically. As you read their sample essay, you get an overall impression of how their skills match the skills of students who enter your class and succeed. At the same time, if you think a student should not pass to your level, it’s very helpful for the other teacher to know some specific problems that you see. For example, at intermediate and advanced levels, students should have control of verb tense. If a student is inconsistent with these, you could indicate those on the paper. Also, if a student who is being consider for a higher level isn’t able to demonstrate an understanding of topic sentences, or tends to just repeat ideas rather than develop them, or seems to just make lists of ideas in a paragraph rather than connect them through subordinators, those could be pointed out to the students’ teacher during the panel discussion. I’ve often found it helpful during this process for the teacher to read a student’s essay aloud and discuss it with the other teacher as it is read. Finally, for students who seem borderline even after analyzing their writing together, it’s helpful to discuss the student’s study habits. That can be a game-changer. If a borderline student does her homework carefully, makes corrections, conferences well with the teacher and has been making noticeable progress, there is a reasonable chance that she could be successful at the next level. Similarly, a borderline student with poor study habits will probably struggle with the more challenging assignments at the next level and not be able to improve; thus, it would be better for him to repeat.   Also, if the two teachers are still unsure about whether or not to pass a student, it’s a good idea to ask a third or even a fourth teacher to read the essays and weigh in.

I should explain who you can show your students’ essay to if you are teaching the highest-level class. It’s a great opportunity to involve English Department instructors, especially if your students will be moving on to English Comp. Another option is to show the essays to an ESL teacher who has either taught the highest level or who has a lot of experience teaching writing.

In conclusion, the panel process does not have to be onerous to be effective. All we are trying to do is have a second pair of eyes read some essays that we’d like to get another teacher’s perspective on.

My next posting will be somewhat related to this. I’ll describe a process for teachers who are teaching a writing level for the first time.

If you’d like more information about how to organize a panel process for a multi-level ESL program, feel free to contact me, and I’ll be happy to send you more information.

David Kehe

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