One of the things that is most interesting in the brain development of 8th graders is that they are more and more capable of abstract thought, but not developed enough to do so consistently. Hence, one has to have just the right question to get everyone to want to actually think. It has to be something that is relevant (not generic, like say cafeteria food) and be something about which everyone has, or can develop an in-depth opinion. The topic I happened to stumble upon was having the students take photos of the neighborhood surrounding their schools and then write a paragraph or two about their opinion of the neighborhood, and the impact they think it has. Then, I took one piece of exemplary writing (which happened to somewhat criticize the neighborhood) and had the other students practice their commenting skills, after we discussed what a good comment looked like.
The criteria we listed for a valid comment were:
- It can't be one word or even one sentence (at least not an 8th grade sentence: "That's cool.") This helps the author know you actually care about what they said, and what they specifically think.
- Explain what you agree with or think they did well. No matter how frustrated you are with someone, you will have a much more productive conversation if you can start on common ground.
- Ask a question of the author instead of insulting or calling names. This encourages the author to think about what they said, instead of being defensive and not listening to you.
- Add information to the topic, by giving a related experience you've had, or the reason for your own opinion on the topic.
- Re-read your comment before posting. Ask yourself: Would I say this to the author's face? If so, would I be yelling when I said it? If you answered no to the first question or yes to the second, you need to take another crack at the comment.
In education, you win some, you lose some, so I was thrilled when this lesson went over surprisingly well. Like I said, since many of the students were a bit upset with the author (who they didn't know), the criteria were a bit of a challenge, and I did end up deleting some inappropriate (read: jerky) comments, but by and large, the kids did a really quality job. We also had to have a discussion about the difference between being racist and stereotyping people, because everyone wanted to jump straight to calling the author racist, but that's another story. Check out some of the comments on this blog post, and see what you think.
And for proof that this is a valid skill that students want to know, I had an 8th grader come back to my class later in the day with a 7th grade class (his teacher had gone home sick), and he looks around at all the 7th graders working individually on their iMovies, and says, "Wow, this is boring. We were actually having fun in here this morning."