Teaching composition is difficult. I think I had to teach it for several years before I felt comfortable. One strategy I frequently use is peer editing. Interestingly enough, students are often more able to help each other edit and revise than they can edit and revise on their own. I’m not precisely sure why this is, but I suspect it has to do with the idea that we know what we meant to say, and we don’t always realized we haven’t communicated what we meant to say. It can be difficult to be objective about one’s own work.
I don’t have students peer edit every time they write, and I frequently don’t tell them in advance that they will have the opportunity to peer edit because I worry, perhaps falsely, that knowing they may not have a chance to edit will entice them to work harder on their drafts.
My students recently wrote short essays comparing and contrasting two versions of Act 2, Scene 2 (the Balcony Scene) in Romeo and Juliet. Prior to viewing the scenes, we created a graphic organizer to take notes as we viewed. We shared our notes. Students noticed very interesting things about the scenes that I in fact had never noticed before. For instance, did you know that Olivia Hussey’s Juliet is spelling out Romeo’s name on the wall with her finger when Romeo first spies her? I never picked up on that small action before, but I found it to be an interesting choice on the part of the actress. I sent them home to write their compositions, and I felt very good about everything they had learned.
Students turned in their essays after the weekend, and I noticed something interesting. They had not shared all the interesting details in their writing that they had shared in class. It may have been that my directions were not explicit, or it may have been a disconnect on the part of the students, but I knew that they could make their reader “see” the two films better with a revision and some more direction. So I wrote my own paragraph, modeling for the students the types of details they had shared in class but not in writing and asked them to do a rewrite for me. They did, and what improvement! Interesting how with writing a little modeling goes farther than almost any other instructional strategy I’ve tried. The students don’t know it yet, but they will revise one more time to correct some mechanical issues. We learned all about commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, and I want to be sure students can use them correctly in composition.
Lesson learned: Model or scaffold at the start. I could have walked students through the process of moving their notes to a composition, but I incorrectly assumed the discussion would be sufficient for them to make the connections. It was for some, but not for all. I should have generated some questions and asked students how they planned to proceed.
I know time is hard to come by, and many of us have a lot of students. Teaching composition effectively in those conditions can be difficult, particularly if your students have difficulty with writing. It’s essential work, however. In fact, I have often thought that teaching writing is at the heart of teaching English — is the most important thing we do as English teachers. Students have to learn the writing process, that drafting is critical, that there is a lot of work before a piece of writing is “finished” (or that it never is?).
I may be blessed with smaller classes in my private school setting, which enables me to grade students’ drafts more quickly and provide more quality feedback than I think I could if I had classes of 30 students. The best thing we could do to help our students become better writers is limit English classes to 15 students. Still, if we are willing to sacrifice some of our sacred cows in the name of helping our students to be good communicators, it might be possible for students even in larger clases to obtain more individualized writing instruction, including modeling, drafting, revising, editing, and quality feedback. How could we do it? What should a writing classroom look like? What is your dream writing classroom? Money is no object, and you can create whatever you wish.