I Need a Rewrite: Week in Reflection, 1/26-1/30

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.

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6 thoughts on “I Need a Rewrite: Week in Reflection, 1/26-1/30

  1. I noticed a connection between "we don’t always realize we haven’t communicated what we meant to say" in the first 'graph and "a disconnect on the part of the students" in the fourth.

    As English teachers we bust our brains making sure we teach kids to write: it is, as you say, a vital part of our responsibility. And we don't always teach what we meant to teach when we forget how much of it we've internalized: we need peer editors too.

    Sooo… Not budgetary constraints? Ideal situation? Give me a hundred kids for 45-minutes or and hour where I can just spend my time sharing with them some of the wonderful stuff I've read and discuss (has to be a two-way street here, or it won't work) the wonderful things we've all read. Then split me into however many people it is that I have students, and we'll work in teams the rest of the day to come up with stuff that's even better.

    Oh. Wait. There was no suspension of reality in your proposal.

    Nevermind.

    • Agreed, and I'm not sure if I didn't communicate well or if they didn't connect, communication being a two-way street and all that, but on the plus side, I didn't just drop it. I asked for revision and modeled what I was looking for, and students understood better.

      I was thinking of the ideal writing classroom. Discussion sounds like fun, but I can't say I'd like that many students in the room.

  2. Dana,

    thinking about peer editing … then thinking about web 2.0 … have you ever tried having kids from another country edit your students' work? I haven't, but am intrigued by the idea. I've done some writing which was edited by someone in another city, someone who I got to know only through the comments he made on my writing … and it was quite an experience. What do you think?

    • We began a writing project with a school in Israel that was derailed by a teachers' strike over there. While I feel comfortable collaborating with other classes, the editing part I'm a little reticent to try.

  3. If I could only recommend one teaching strategy for effective wriing instruction it would be writing with our students. You do a great job of that, as evidenced by this post. Part of it is so the students have models, like you say. Part is also showing the students that you value the writing as much as you want them too. Writing along with our students takes so much time to do, and I find myself at times resisting it because I have grading or planning or something else to do. But when I sit down and do it, the impact on my students is always better than anything else I could have done.

  4. When I was in 12th grade (three years ago now) at a public high school, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take a "College in the High School" English class (taught by one of the school's regular teachers) that fulfilled the English Composition credit at our state universities (at a fraction of the cost!). The class was picked from the previous year's AP English students, and the best thing about that class was the fact that all of the students were there to learn. After each paper we wrote, we were put into groups of five or six and we peer-edited everyone else's papers, both marking up the paper itself and following a very good peer-editing checklist. Because there was generally genuine interest in making our papers better, the peer feedback was remarkably good. And often while editing someone else's paper, I would realize that I had made the same mistakes in mine.

    I'm an English major now and on the fence about teaching later – especially in this current climate of new-teacher layoffs. I know from my own experience as a student that it can be incredibly hard to learn with many different levels in the same classroom. As I was pondering what my ideal writing classroom would look like, my first thought was to have classrooms segregated by writing skill level. But then I re-thought. I think more important is willingness to learn. I think I would rather have a classroom with varying skill levels, but with all of the students excited and willing to become better writers; because even good writers can learn from poorer ones, and I think when the students can band together to teach each other, it's beneficial to everyone.

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