I acquiesced, vocalizing my disappointment and apologies, but inside I admitted to myself, "But that was exactly what I had expected."
One of the most salient difficulties of a standard classroom is the spectrum of student abilities, especially when it comes to writing ability. While writing itself is generally an independent enterprise, one must consider the variety of skills brought to the table with more collaborative exercises like peer editing.
While it would be ideal if every student could critique papers with equal skill, the reality is that the better writer are almost always the better critiquers (we will make that a word, I think). They know the lingo. They know what works and what doesn't. Their writing instincts are more honed. On the other hand, the low-performing writers generally don't leave much quality feedback: a comma here or a note on spelling there. Critiques of higher level issues like organization or argument seem difficult, either because they lack the language framework or the confidence to apply it. Or, as is often the case, they are just unmotivated.
In this paradigm, high-performing writers can generally get quality feedback from other high-performing writers, but the low-performing writers - those who need more help - don't benefit as much of other low-performing writers critique their work.
So in an attempt to solve this dilemma and maximize the yield of learning in my writing workshop today, I decided who edited whom's paper. Rather than just having the students swap, like we normally do, I asked the students to hand in their drafts, then I dispersed them more intentionally. I made sure that the papers of high performing students went to the lower performing students and vice versa.
This format certainly favored the lower performing writers. On one hand, the low-performing writers received high-quality comments from higher-performing writers, hopefully providing them a great opportunity for improvement, and on the other hand, those low performing writers are getting to read high-quality models of what their papers should look like. The benefits are two-fold for them.
Sadly, the only real benefit in this dynamic for the high-quality writers is the fact that they may be able to gain more intimate knowledge of what constitutes quality writing by identifying problem areas and recommending techniques for improvement.
Admittedly, the technique worked. I saw a lot of good feedback on the papers of those students less apt in the art of composition. However, as illustrated by the high-performance student asking for more feedback on her paper, it left the students on the opposite end of the writing spectrum feeling a little cheated.
I think there's some validity to this exercise, but in the future, I will experiment with different techniques to even the yield. For one, I could give the students peer-editing guides they have to fill out as they critique, thus guaranteeing that all students at least receive some feedback. But even then, the same problem of quality arises. Given the same resources, the high achieving students will always provide better, more helpful content.
An answer to this could be differentiation. By providing a different guide to the higher achieving students, one aimed at reflection as much as criticism, I could at least help them improve their own writing abilities and knowledge of the craft while critiquing a peer's paper.
Ultimately, however, I think a solution here is practice. The more we practice peer-editing and reflecting on what makes quality writing and quality feedback, and if we create a culture of writers in which such a practice is prized, I think the feedback quality gap will minimize itself.