Shaking Up Writing Instruction

On several occasions this semester, I’ve blogged about my experimentation with parts of the writing process in my 9th grade classroom, as I’ve led my students through self-editing, peer editing, and research.

While these individual methods have worked quite well, I’ve been trying to take a step back to the big picture of what the writing process looks like in my classroom. This is really the first semester that I feel like I’m finally getting somewhere with finding a consistent process that works for both me and my students.

I love to write, and I think it’s important for my students to write frequently in class. As much as many of them drag their feet about it, writing is a necessary skill — for college, for jobs, and for life in general.

The trouble is that students need to practice writing far more frequently than most teachers can grade. And sometimes the sheer volume of grading writing can be overwhelming.

Take my classes, for example. I have three classes of students on our block schedule, which range in size from 27 to 36 students each. So, every writing assignment I give must be graded times 100. In order to offer ample constructive feedback on each assignment I have to spend enough time reading and reflecting upon each one in order to be able to offer proper comments.

So, multiply that by 100, and throw in other grading and life outside of school.  It can take me quite awhile to grade written assignments. By the time I get to the end of the stack, it’s often a couple of weeks after I gave the assignment. So, my feedback isn’t as useful as it might have been.

This has troubled me for several years as a teacher. I want to give constructive feedback in a more timely manner, but that part of the process has always seemed impossible. So, my students don’t write as much as they should because of it.

Now, though, I’ve finally been able to blend multiple successful methods together into a fluid process combining low-stakes and high-stakes writing, peer editing, self-editing, and teacher feedback.  

I think I’ve finally got it. Here’s what I’m doing:

Modeling: Creation as a Class
Often in advance of launching my students on a writing assignment, I spend  a class day or two walking them through the process at least once as we create a class example. Not only does this give them a chance to practice the individual requirements of creating a piece of writing, but it helps to build a mentor text that they can use as they move forward with constructing their own.

Prewriting: Creating an Outline
To launch my students into their own writing, we start by outlining. This is a step that many of my students would likely skip if I didn’t insist that they do it. But, it’s important, because it helps prevent the “blank page stare,” where they just sit there trying to figure out what to write. Outlining gives them something to start with.

I have them do this part in class, so that they can ask questions of me or other students as they work through their outline. And, it’s simple — just bullet points. The purpose is to get their thoughts into a logical order that they can then expand upon through their writing.

I’m a big fan of graphic organizers for this step since they make the process more visual. Here’s an example of one that we used for the Informational Narrative podcast assignment I gave in Unit 2. You’ll see that the organizer is in two parts, one for our class example, and one for the student’s own writing. So, they even have a model outline from which to work.

They Write – In Class
I like timed writing for several reasons. One is that they have to come prepared to write. Outlining helps with this, since they come with ideas already organized. Another is that they just have to do it. Putting pencil to paper helps them just get it down. Finally, the vast majority of the standardized tests that they will take throughout their schooling involved writing within a finite window. I don’t like to cater to those tests. But, this does help them practice the skill.

On writing days, I insist that they write something, even if they just recopy their outline onto a piece of notebook paper. Sometimes just going through the motions is beneficial.

This step also really helps me to formatively assess my kids. Those who can produce a complete and technically correct piece of writing (or close to it) demonstrate that, even though their writing might not be polished, at least they grasp the concept of the nuances of that type of writing (i.e. Argument versus Narrative). Those who struggle to even complete a paragraph (and this happens to several of them) need more of my guidance throughout the rest of the process.

Peer Feedback
After our 90-minute class period, I collect their writing. They don’t get to take it home with them. Sometimes you just need to walk away from a piece of writing to let the ideas gel in your mind. Or, to just not think about it for awhile.

The next day, they get the writing back, and we use the guided peer feedback process to improve what’s there.  For information on this process, see my previous post about peer feedback.

Submission and “Grading”
This is where I “grade” the writing, by using  a detailed rubric on which I circle areas for improvement. Then I use it to assign a number grade, which I enter into my gradebook with one condition: it doesn’t count.

That part is important, I think. It lets them know where they stand in terms of mastering the standards, but it also gives them room to grow. Knowing that the grade isn’t final lowers the pressure and the stakes just a bit, which usually leads to better writing. They are more willing to take chances, and they are less hung up on perfection because there’s a chance that they can fix it.

I also include my feedback. This part does take some time on my part, but not as much as it has in the past since I’m really just giving them guidance for improvement. My feedback  usually takes the form of questions. (i.e. How can you elaborate? Where might this sentence/paragraph work better? What other words would be stronger here?) I just want to get them thinking about how to improve.

I usually try to give them a week or two before the final submission is due, since our school requires students to attend twice-weekly lunchtime tutorial sessions with teachers. This gives them at least a couple of opportunities to come in and see me for additional help if they get stuck or need help deciphering my comments.  

I’ve also had students come in at lunch, sit down and pop in their earbuds, and spend the entire 50 minutes editing without my help. This makes me happy, of course, to see them taking it so seriously, and really considering the feedback.

Students are able to submit a polished, final version of their writing through, to which our school has a subscription. I open the dropbox for submissions and give them a one-week time frame to upload their final product. Anyone who doesn’t upload by that time frame automatically defaults to their original in-class writing grade.

Grades for the final submissions do count. And they do take a little time to grade, but not nearly as much as they have in the past. One reason, I think, is because I’m already familiar with their topic and writing, and know the specific areas on which to focus. Also, most of these final versions are dramatically improved from the in-class versions, because students have had time to think through the process and refine their writing until it is polished. WIth both the in-class grade and the final grade in the gradebook, many students are able to see measurable growth from one version to the next. And, seeing how you’ve grown and improved is always motivating.

Opportunity for Mastery
As a last additional step, my students get an AOM – Additional Opportunity for Mastery. Our school does not offer Extra Credit, but instead uses AOMs as additional assignments that focus on the specific standards targeted by an original assignment. Any student who did not master the standards the first time around is able to complete one of these assignments as another opportunity to master the content. So, if I have a student who struggled through the process, I point them towards an AOM assignment to give them one more chance to think their way through the process. This is optional, and of course not every student who should take the opportunity does. But those who do have a genuine, vested interest in making their writing better, and are generally quite successful at mastering the standards in this second round.

This process has worked quite well this semester, and I look forward to implementing it again next semester to allow my students to always be revising one piece while writing another. In this way, I feel like I finally have a better handle on grading, and a better grasp on how my students are understanding the nuances of writing and growing as writers. 



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