Writing Workshop, Part 3: A Reflection

ReflectingFour students in each of my English classes have had what Ron Berger describes as an “in-depth” critique. I have graded some of those essays, and I can see a great deal of improvement. In some cases, I believe the student’s essay earned a full letter grade higher because of the editing and revision. Obviously, I’m very pleased with these results. Grades are not the most important thing to me. I see improvement in their writing, so naturally a higher grade is the result.

On Monday, we had what Berger calls a “gallery critique” of the remaining essays in each class. Students asked that we simply share Google Docs with view/comment privileges only with everyone in the class. Hapara makes this very easy, as it creates groups for each of your classes. Sharing a document requires that either the student or the teacher click on Share, and then type in the name of the group. We changed the settings to “Comment,” as the default is “Edit.” That’s it.

One of the things I noticed during our gallery critique: Students were reading and reflecting on the comments of their peers in addition to the essays themselves. In fact, some were even replying to the comments of others, which is a great Google Docs feature I think few people know about, much less use. One student called across the room to another, asking her to read his paper because he noticed she had really helpful comments.

A roomful of editors brings out some interesting talents I might otherwise not have known about. For instance, one of my students is really great at making a suggestion that leads the writer to generate ideas. His suggestion might be a subtle nudge. I wrote about one of his suggestions in my second post about Writing Workshop. In that post, I described how one student suggested perhaps Queenie in “A&P” didn’t really “boss” the other two girls around, and it was this other student who suggested perhaps describing the girls would be a good opportunity to bring in the metaphor Updike uses of describing the customers as sheep. Then, the student himself thought he could describe Queenie as herding the girls around the store. Leading a peer toward coming up with the perfect revision on his/her own is truly an outstanding gift.

We have another student who comes up with excellent ways to bring in vocabulary. I assign vocabulary from the literature we read, so the words are in context, but they are also common SAT words. One thing I’ve found frustrating over the years is watching my students study long list of vocabulary words given to them by their SAT tutors. The words are completely out of context, and I would be surprised if students really learn most of them. The other day, one of my students mentioned to me that he had the word “sacrilege,” one of our recent words, on another vocabulary list in World Civilizations (our 9th and 10th grade history course).

Another student uses the commenting feature to talk to himself about his writing. He makes notes about where to bring in textual evidence or where to flesh out details. On a short story assignment he’s working on, I noticed he is making notes about a symbol he wants to incorporate into the ending. If not for Google Docs, I would not be able to see this metacognitive process in action, and it’s fascinating to watch him think.

The culture shift in the classroom was subtle, but palpable. After critiquing a few papers, they all suddenly became a community of writers. There is an openness and camaraderie among them. Writing Workshop days are so much fun for all of us. There is an energy in the room that’s hard to describe.

If you do Writing Workshop in your class, my suggestion is that you start with an in-depth critique rather than a gallery critique. I think students learn how to help their peers when they see it in action. Like anything else, peer editing should be modeled. Another strong suggestion I have is to use Google Docs. Google Docs have made the whole process much easier. I am also seeing students use Google Docs for their other assignments and for taking notes, too.

I came up with the following potential criticisms:

  1. This takes a lot of time. Yes, it does. We have an open gradebook, so I did fear students and parents would not like the amount of time that elapsed between an assignment and feedback on that assignment. I think the answer is in the results. So far, I am seeing much better and more thoughtful writing from my students. I used our open gradebook to communicate on the assignment about what we were doing, and why there might be a delay in feedback and evaluation as a result.
  2. Yes, but what can the students do on their own? I would argue that they will learn much more about writing in this way than they would if they did a one-and-done draft, barely glanced at my comments or rubric, and only hunted for the final grade. I have seen much more active revision, even after workshop is over. Students are thinking longer and harder about their writing. When in our adult lives do we have to write anything that we are forbidden to obtain feedback on?
  3. Won’t this lead to higher grades? What will happen when it comes time to recommend students for Honors/AP? We can’t let all of them in! Cards on the table: I have issues with AP. I think students, parents, and colleges are overly concerned with AP courses. I am not convinced by teachers who describe AP courses as loaded with material that they must absolutely cover that AP necessarily does our students much good. That said, students, parents, and schools seem to be invested in AP courses. My school, like some other schools, requires students have an A- average and teacher recommendation to take AP. If students have a lower/close average, they can appeal to take AP, and the English department reads their three common prompt papers (all students in a given grade write on the same topic; for example, our common prompt this trimester was about Updike’s short story “A&P”). So, the concern is that students might actually have a really good portfolio of common prompts, and perhaps their grades will actually be higher because they are turning in better final drafts. Well, essays are not the only form of evaluation I will do, but I admit I am looking at higher grades. I don’t know how many of my students have the desire to take AP Language and Composition next year. I don’t know if I am looking at recommending large numbers of students to AP. I have been upfront about what I’m doing with colleagues, and my administration is supportive (ecstatic, actually). So, I suppose I will just worry about this problem if it arises later this year.
  4. What about a timed writing situation? Fair enough, English teachers like to assign timed writing. Deadlines are a very real part of every person’s life, but outside of school and standardized tests, I have never had to produce a coherent, organized, well-developed piece of writing in under a half hour. Or a class period. Have you? I do not get the fetish for timed writing, I admit. I’m not sure what we learn about students’ ability to write thoughtfully on a topic in a timed situation. I think it confuses students when we think we emphasize the writing process and then ask them to produce a timed writing, no chance for editing and correction. No wonder they turn in first drafts and don’t edit them. And then we complain about that! Students can’t figure out what we want!

I am sure there are other issues I haven’t considered. Feel free to ask in the comments.

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Writing Workshop, Part 2

WritingIn my previous post about Writing Workshop, I explained what an In-Depth Critique looks like in my class. Logistics and tools may be a concern, especially for teachers with a large number of students.

My school has Google Apps for Education, but as we do not use the Gmail feature, Google Docs/Drive is probably the most frequently used Google App at our school. I am piloting a tool called Hapara that works with Google Drive (and also Blogger, Gmail, and Google Sites, if you like) to make it easier to track student work and push documents out to students.

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What I like about it is that I don’t have to remind students to share their docs with me; their docs are automatically shared. Google Docs has an excellent commenting feature that I much prefer to track changes in Word. If you haven’t used this feature, this video gives a succinct demonstration of what it looks like:

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As you can see in the video, if a student clicks on the comment, the highlighted text changes color so that the students can easily see what the comment is referring to. They can use the feature themselves to make notes to themselves about what to change. I have a student, for instance, who uses it to talk to himself about areas where he knows he needs to do some more editing or thinking. Once the student addresses the comment, he or she can mark it resolved, but the history is still visible if the student clicks on the large Comments button at the top.

Google Docs makes it much easier for me to conduct Writing Workshop because the student whose paper we are workshopping can have it open in Google Docs and make suggested edits on the fly as we discuss the paper and can take notes on others that he/she needs to consider.

At this stage, we are not sharing our documents with each other. Rather, one student’s essay is projected on the screen, and both the student and I have the doc open so that we can both add the peers’ comments and suggestions. Later, we may decide to share docs as we build our community of writers and gain that trust.

Today, we workshopped a student’s paper. He did a fabulous job integrating quotes, which allowed us all the opportunity to learn. I mean, it really was masterful. His title was clever, but we wondered if it really fit the ideas expressed in the essay, which was an analysis of John Updike’s short story “A&P.” The image of the customers as “sheep” mindlessly pushing their carts through the aisles really appealed to this student, and he wanted to work the image of the sheep into the title. In his paper, he argued that the protagonist, Sammy, made an unwise decision in quitting his job. I should mention that each trimester, all students taking a particular course, in this case World Literature II, write on the same given prompt, which we call a common prompt. The common prompt for this trimester asked students to determine whether or not they felt Sammy made the right decision in quitting his job, and yes, either yes or no can be argued successfully based on the text.

We began, as before, by asking the student to identify his goal for the writing and what, in particular, he especially wanted feedback on. Then we read the essay as a whole, commenting on what we liked and noticed and on what questions we had. Then we read almost sentence by sentence.

The student had an amazing breakthrough when were looking at a sentence in which he described the girl Sammy dubs “Queenie.” My student described her as “bossing” the other two girls around, which is how Sammy realized she was in charge. Another student suggested we didn’t really see any “bossing,” and I agreed. But we all agreed it was obvious she was the group’s leader. How did we know that? Well, the students said, the way they walked around. She was in the middle. She was directing them around the store. Wait! One student had an idea. Why didn’t the writer tie the way the girls walked around the store back to the image of the sheep? And the student writer said, maybe he could revise the sentence to describe Queenie as herding the other girls around the store. It was brilliant! I actually jumped up and down and then gave a student a high five.

I am telling you that this is the kind of thinking we WANT students to be doing about their writing. And it worked because one student suggested a word change, another had an idea about a way to think about the word choice, and the STUDENT HIMSELF came up with the best word to use.

In addition to word choice, we were able to talk about commas and why they can be problematic, but also how we can figure out when to use them. Students were able to see an excellent model for integrating quotes and clever word choices. Students had an opportunity to help a peer think critically about his word choices and correct a few grammatical issues. I can’t even tell you how much easier Writing Workshop makes writing instruction. The kicker is that the writing instruction is much more meaningful because it comes from the students’ own writing. We are establishing ourselves as a community of writers with the goal of improving everyone’s writing.

After class, one student hung back to ask a question about using a semicolon, as it came up when we examined the essay today. Another student asked about integration of quotes in literary analysis as opposed to the kind of writing she does in history, which was a great opportunity to discuss audience and writing for different purposes.

I only offer a couple of examples here. In truth, I do not think I could cover nearly as much writing instruction in a traditional writing assignment graded with comments, which the student might examine for the grade. Perhaps the student might read the comments, but certainly I would see the same problem areas in the next paper, ad infinitum, mainly because the comments alone really don’t help the student understand how to improve. And frankly, I am as guilty of this as anyone, but such feedback never seems to celebrate what went right with the writing. Putting the essay up on the screen and taking a period to discuss it hits all of these common problems in writing instruction. What I like to see in Writing Workshop is the way in which it encourages the students to think about what makes good writing.

Do you have questions regarding logistics? Please ask in the comments.

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