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Meaningful, Effective Peer Revision

28 Sep

working togetherPeer revision is a gamble. At its best, students offer rich feedback and revision becomes an incredibly rich learning experience for all involved. At its worse, peer responses can be a bit like turning over the cockpit controls to a thirteen year old who is still years away from having even a driver’s permit.

I am always, then, looking for ways to make peer revision more meaningful. Here are a few ideas that have worked for me:

Three Chip Revision: Break out some poker chips. To begin, give every student three chips (or any number of chips you decide). Then, hand them a piece of writing from one of their peers and ask them to spot the mistakes. Each error they find, however, has to be checked by the teacher. If they have found a legitimate error, they get two more chips. If they are mistaken and no error exists, take a chip. The goal is to end the revision period with the most chips.

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Students Writing for Authentic Audiences

21 Sep

audienceUgh. Just ugh. I am human, I suppose. Lately, I have not been making the time to write. I know I should just be kind to myself about this, acknowledge the craziness that is starting a new school, and put my butt in a seat and my fingers on the keyboard. I try to carve out at least ten minutes every day for my own writing, but I have fallen out of this habit. Well…back to it, then. My apologies, dear readers.

In the core of this teacher’s heart, I know this to be true. Students’ writing is better when it matters to them, and the most important step to getting students to care about their writing is helping them…guiding them…forcing them…begging them…bribing them…to write for someone other than their balding English teacher. I begin every school year dedicated to making each essay assignment one that matters, one that is written for an authentic audience. In reality, I am happy when my students produce one such piece every three months or so.

I suppose, like most things I attempt in the classroom, the “hybrid” approach works best. I use more traditional essay prompts (students responding to literature or a question I create . . . writing something that stays within the walls of our classroom) to gain a sense of how I might help individual students improve. These “practice essays,” then, lay the groundwork for the more meaningful moments where I ask the students to create their own writing for an audience they find.

For instance, in the grade 11 Rhetoric classes I taught last year, we began the term with a THIS I BELIEVE essay, followed that with a personal narrative, and ended the trimester with a student-generated descriptive essay. For this third major essay I did not create a prompt. I simply told the students they must demonstrate their skills with descriptive language by writing a piece to someone other than me.

We brainstormed possible topics and audiences over a few days (while completing other lessons) and, as homework, students read previous students’ work. We discussed what worked in the model essays, and students quickly conferred with me about their own ideas.

This set-up is fairly predictable and simple. The results, however, are anything but. Reading these self-guided pieces is never a chore. Instead, I am energized by the students’ work and excited to see them taking ownership of language and audience.

Here’s a list of the authentic audiences my students find. I begin with the audiences I find most successful, but any of these are better than something written just to me. Please share your ideas in the comments section. I am ALWAYS looking for more ideas about how we can help our students find authentic audiences:

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Writing Rubric Reboot: 6plus1

30 Apr

red penIn my second year of teaching, I made a grievous, but memorable, error. I was always the type of student who was motivated by tough love. My favorite teachers were the ones with the highest expectations, and a scribbled, gruff marginal note like, “You’re a better writer than this. Try again” was often enough to send me under the hood of the text. Of course, I am not every student. Wanting to motivate a student I knew could do much better, I returned her essay with this brief message scrawled across the top, “This is the worst essay I have ever read. Try again.”

Looking back, I don’t recognize the young teacher who would be so callous with a not-much-younger student. Of course, my comment only did harm. It gave my student no hope, no information about what to do next. The only saving grace about this regrettable action? I was allowing her to revise. That, and I learned to never do something like this again.

Thankfully, this student and I worked past this incident. I apologized; she forgave. A year later, she moved to another school, but during a return visit, she visited me and shared the 6plus1 Writing Traits rubric her new English teacher was using. Not surprisingly, it was helping her, and I instantly adopted the practice in my own classes.

Over the years, for whatever reason, I have drifted away from the 6plus1 terminology, but this trimester I decided to bring it back. The shift only required slight alterations to the scoring guides I already used:

Timed Essay Scoring Guide w/ 6+1

The Six Plus One traits have existed since the mid-80s, and these descriptors of good writing are an attempt to quantify what makes writing work. Using them—especially when they are used across grade levels and disciplines—can demystify writing feedback for students and help them recognize what they do well and target what they need to improve.

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Mini-essays: Go Small to Get Big Results

25 Jan

450450 words are usually enough to communicate effectively, even in a blog post.

Of course, bigger is not always better…or easier. Thinking back on my schooling, however, I always encountered a direct relationship between size and rigor. In order to make writing more challenging, my teachers made papers longer. The fifteen-page term paper is a mainstay of undergraduate and graduate years. While longer writing pieces have clear merit, they are not necessarily the most effective tools when helping apprentice writers.

Students can develop the critical writing skills they need by writing “smaller.” I have been using mini-essays to great success. The concept is simple.

Students respond to a prompt with a literary analysis essay that does not exceed 450 words. I still want original, critical analysis of the text, so students must get straight to the point.

My students still write longer essays, but I have found I can teach many of the same skills by limiting the word count. The students, too, often find the mini-essays more challenging than those without word limits.

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Teaching Theme: The Red Tree

15 Dec
click the image to read more about this book

click the image to read more about this book

My very first department chair regularly read favorite books to his classes. He wasn’t a snob, either. He reveled in good writing, regardless of genre or target audience.

He was the first person to tell me about Harry Potter. He said something like, “The kids in England are reading this. It’s wonderful, and I think it’s going to be big over here.” Yes, he was a prescient guy. He was also brave. He often read picture books to seniors in high school…and they loved it. One of his favorite children’s books is now one of mine: The Red Tree by Shaun Tan. I use it to teach theme.

I begin my introductory lesson on theme by asking students to formulate a working definition (SEE THIS HANDOUT). As a class, they always come up with a decent one. I might have to do a bit of prodding, but this stuff is usually “in there.”

After collecting definitions, we refine our conception of theme. Depending on what was compiled in class (I usually use a common Google Doc to have students shape collective definitions), I emphasize certain aspects. My key points are always:

  • Multiple themes exist in any piece of art. Art is nuanced, so any painting, story, photograph, play, sculpture, or song will have multiple lessons within.
  • The author really means it. I tell my students, “I don’t think authors intend every message English teachers squeeze out of the work, but I’ve been around enough writers and written enough on my own to understand that writers are very intentional, even neurotic…so critical readers honor the craftsmanship of artists.” Or, I might just say, “They mean most of this stuff. Trust me.”
  • A theme is never one word. There’s a difference between topics and themes. Family, love, and betrayal are all topics. The specific comment the author wants to make about families is the theme.

No surprise. The students breeze through the definition process but STRUGGLE to write coherent, original theme statements that go beyond the obvious and avoid simple summary. In other words, they can define concepts but need help applying them. No matter… I keep my job because they need such help.

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T.V. as Text: Secret Millionaire Essay

8 Dec

Livro ou TV?I will not shock fellow English teachers when I write that most of my students watch television more often than they read. I’m not complaining. I actually think the current generation of teenagers reads more often than the previous one…thank you, Ms. Rowling.

I have, however, been thinking about how I can use my students’ love of T.V. to make them more critical, artistic writers. If I can help them become more empathetic human beings in the process, then maybe I will finally get into Gryffindor.

In recent years I have asked my students to write about ABC’s show Secret Millionaire. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, a millionaire goes undercover for the week, posing as a regular person who happens to be making a documentary about volunteerism. The millionaire visits an impoverished neighborhood and volunteers at charitable organizations within the community. At the end of the week, the millionaire returns to the organizations, reveals his or her identity, and leaves a fat check.

As a way to help students develop skills of persuasion, organization, and communication, I assign this essay. They write to their fellow students, and I ask the most successful writers to submit their pieces to our school newspaper and other online sources like teenink.com.

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Occam’s Razor, Summer Reading Essays, and Google Docs

1 Oct

I am ashamed. Why do simple solutions often elude me? I have been using Google Docs for five or six years now, and one of the main beefs I have with the system is the highlighting tool. It seems like such a small thing, but there is not a way to leave the highlighting tool “on.” I want—desperately—to sweep my cursor across the page, highlighting text as if I had a physical highlighter in hand. Word allows this. Google Docs, however, requires several clicks and menu choices to highlight something, and the process slows things down considerably, especially for an English teacher who reads hundreds of essays in a year and is always on the hunt for ways to shave seconds off the feedback process.

Just last week I realized I have been ignoring a simple solution. I can simply use the comments keyboard shortcut [Option+COMMAND+M] to save considerable time. Now, I highlight my selection, hit a few keys, and then type a quick note: “error #.” It’s so much simpler…and I am a bit sickened by the time I have wasted.

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Grading Essays How-To: Use Macros to Save Time

3 Sep

Here is the skeleton in every writing teacher’s closet: grading essays is soul sucking, mind-breaking work. After fifteen years of dedicating obscene chunks of personal time to the task, I wish I could reveal some cure-all that makes grading fast and euphoric. I can’t. Of course, I find many moments of joy, but the bone-weary reality of the life of an English teacher is that it takes considerable time and significant effort to create meaningful feedback. No matter how I try, I can’t seem to write comments on an essay in less than fifteen minutes. Realistically, it often takes more time. I have experimented with many methods of feedback, but when I need to leave a healthy dose of ink, I use a hybrid approach of handwritten feedback and computer editing tools known as macros. This method doesn’t help me grade more quickly, but it does ensure that I maximize my time. Here’s my basic structure for working through a stack of essays: 

  • Students turn in two copies of an essay, one printed and one electronic copy via Google Docs.
  • I write more quickly on a piece of paper than I can highlight on a computer screen (I have timed each activity), so I go “old school” and leave marks on the page. The two to five minutes I save on each essay quickly add up. I also use a set of symbols to speed this marking process along.
  • I type longer comments that I later print and attach to the essay. I use macros (more on this step below) for common comments, but I also individualize feedback. I always limit myself to one page of typed comments per essay.
  • When finished, I photocopy the completed scoring rubric (which I will use during the revision process), print the one page of typed comments, and then staple the typed comments, the marked essay, and the scoring guide into one packet.
  • I give students at least one week to revise based on my feedback. I require a revision of every major essay, and I use the electronic copy in Google Docs to track the changes. The revision history in Google Docs feature shows me when and where changes were made. Because I made a photocopy of the scoring guide before handing back the essays, I simply look through the revision history on the computer and make changes to the photocopied scoring guide (another time-saver). I do NOT write any additional comments, as the students will not revise this draft, and I am not a glutton for punishment (even though this post may make you think that!)

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