Teacher Observed: Domenica Vilhotti

Class Observed: English 101

Date of Visit: November 5, 2007

Observer: Peter Link, mentor

Activity: Verbal Peer Conferencing



Description of Class Session: I attended Domenica Vilhotti’s English 101 class on Monday, November 5, 2007. This class is a 50-minute class that splits time between a computer classroom and a conventional classroom. Today’s class met in the traditional classroom.


When I arrived a few minutes early, Ms. Vilhotti and several students were already discussing the logistics of that morning’s activity – a group-oriented peer review session focused on a late (but not final) draft of an “Interpretive Paper in the Humanities.” Indeed, this activity seemed to require a good deal of logistical support, in that it involved substantial preparation (on the part of the teacher and students) and constant maneuvering from task to task during class. Students were already organized into groups prior to class, and needed no prompting to join their group members as they arrived in class.


Ms. Vilhotti handed out a detailed, two page rubric to be used for the peer review, a ritual that seemed familiar to students. As students arrived and began to work, Ms. Vilhotti circulated and quietly checked that each student was prepared and ready to work (she later explained to me that certain key assignments and activities, this one included, factor into a course participation grade).


Most of this seemed to happen before the official 9:10 start time for the class, and at the official start time, Ms. Vilhotti interrupted the class to give some basic instructions. She explained to students that her directions would be less detailed compared with previous peer review activities, because by this point in the semester, students were more capable of owning their peer review experience. Still, she took the time to give practical advice: avoid “teacher-talk” and comments that were too flattering to be analytical; encourage discussion in addition to written feedback.


Most students got right to work, however one group seemed a little lost, and Ms. Vilhotti worked with them for a few minutes to get them started. Surprisingly, students did not work quietly! Groups were composed of three students each, and this discussion-based peer review activity facilitated a brief but lively discussion of each student’s paper. “Round One” involved a roughly fifteen minute period where all three group members discussed one student’s paper. Different groups seemed to manage their sessions differently, as there didn’t seem to be a common agenda. Students read aloud, asked questions, answered questions, agreed, disagreed, and in some cases, even taught each other mini-lessons. While students worked within their groups, Ms. Vilhotti circulated, answering questions as necessary.


At the end of the fifteen minutes, Ms. Vilhotti announced that each person in the group should give thirty seconds of “final” feedback, and that they should then proceed to the next round. However before the start of “Round Two,” Ms. Vilhotti gave the class a collective “medium-satisfactory” assessment for the previous round, suggesting that if students were not fully satisfied with the results of Round One, they might try to ask different kinds of questions during the next round. Overall, this process was repeated three times.


Toward the end of the last round, Ms. Vilhotti put a list of “Portfolio Items” on the board, which included a Final Draft, Rubric, Peer-reviewed Draft, and Detailed Outline. She also allowed about five minutes for a reflective discussion about the activity they’d just completed, during which students were surprisingly candid, and offered real suggestions for improvement. (Student-generated suggestions and feedback included: three students per group is a good size; the format provided a good chance to ask “embarrassing” questions, such as “What is MLA?”; using the rubric was helpful; the activity would have worked better with laptops; the time was too short to go into detail; the activity might work better over two class periods; etc.)


Finally, with time expiring, Ms. Vilhotti offered some final reminders for students’ final drafts (which were due the following day): She asked students to remember their “error-analysis logs,” and offered extra credit for a good job; she told them to remember to use MLA citations; and she referred them to resources including the Longman text and the course website.


Assessment and Suggestions:


The pace of this activity was frenetic. The upside, however, is that students were actively engaged for the entire class period, often asking questions and responding to papers in ways they wouldn’t under other circumstances. While this activity had the appearance of managed chaos, the fact is that students seemed well-prepared (they’d each read their two peers’ papers for homework) and students in all six groups really stayed on task during all three rounds. I do have concerns about how much any one paper can be dissected in only fifteen minutes, however as an activity that builds on earlier (more focused) peer-review activities, this seems like a creative and useful collaborative activity.


This is a very ambitious activity for a fifty-minute class, and its success seemed to depend on students arriving early, arriving prepared (pre-established groups whose members have previously switched drafts and read papers), and arriving with energy and determination. Ms. Vilhotti clearly has a good rapport with this group of students, and to her credit has created a classroom environment where students seem to have a genuine interest in activities like this one succeeding.


Ms. Vilhotti’s personal interactions with her students are further evidence of her overall positive rapport with her students. They asked questions without hesitation, and she provided answers easily and intelligently. (When one question involved more than an easy answer, she referred the student to her office hours: “Come to me. I’ll show you how to do that…”) And during the reflective discussion at the end of class, students’ answers showed that they had a real investment in the success of the class. Overall, this was a fun, dynamic, and interesting class, where students are learning process-oriented and collaborative methods of writing.







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