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 1

Writing for Film & Television - Students in "The Biz" classOf the subjects I proposed in my previous post, Writing Workshop received the most #1 votes. Google Docs rubrics received more votes if you count #2 and #3+ votes, but since I technically didn’t say to rank the choices, I’m going with Writing Workshop for this post and will write about Google Docs rubrics soon.

First, I need to mention that what I am doing with Writing Workshop is new to me. If you poll your students and ask them what they have typically done for Writing Workshop in the past, if they have done it all, they usually say that they exchanged papers with a peer or a small group of people, and they gave each other feedback. Ron Berger says in An Ethic of Excellence that “[m]any teachers also pair off students and ask them to critique each other’s writing. I suggest teachers take critique to a whole new level” (92). Berger goes on to say that

Critique in most classroom settings has a singular audience and a limited impact: whether from a teacher or peer, it is for the edification of the author; the goal is to improve that particular piece. The formal critique in my classroom has a broader goal. I use whole-class critique sessions as a primary context for sharing knowledge and skills with the group. (92)

I decided to try Berger’s idea after watching him work with elementary school students in this video:

I also showed this video to my students. Their reaction was interesting. Even after watching the drafting process, they insisted Austin traced the last butterfly. The improvement was too drastic. I pointed out that we watched the process in action, but they responded that the butterfly was better than anything they could draw, and they are in high school. But I reminded them that Austin went back to the drawing board several times. However, my point was made. Improvements do occur with multiple drafts, and specific feedback really can improve work. Of course, it was not lost on my students either that if elementary school students can give specific, targeted feedback that will help a peer improve his/her work, then so can they.

My students were ready to try it in my class. I found my volunteers to be the first students to have their work critiqued in what Berger calls an “in-depth critique” (94). I did not have trouble finding volunteers, as I feared I might. Here is Berger’s description of an in-depth critique:

When doing an In-Depth Critique, we look at the work of a single student or group and spend a good deal of time critiquing it thoroughly. Advantages to this style include opportunities for teaching the vocabulary and concepts of the discipline from which the work emerges, for teaching what comprises good work in that discipline, and opportunities for modeling the detailed process of making the work stronger. (94)

In-depth critiques are time-consuming. It took us an entire class period to do an in-depth critique on one paper. I suspect that we will get faster as the year goes on.

What we did first was have the writer share his/her vision for the paper and explain what he/she was hoping to achieve. Then the writer asked the class to focus on certain areas. One writer asked that his peers help him determine whether or not his paragraphs developed his thesis, for example.

Then, I asked the volunteer writers if they wanted to read their papers, or if they wanted me to do so. Both volunteers opted to have me read their papers, but I think it’s good to give students that option.

We read the paper through once, and I asked the students for general feedback about what they liked. For instance, one writer had done additional research and found a statistic from outside the short story we were analyzing (John Updike’s “A&P”) to develop one of his points. The class really liked that. So I asked them if they had thought of doing that, too, and none of them had. Boom. I just taught them it is OK to do additional research in order to make a point, and I also showed the students how this evidence was properly cited and that an entry for the source appeared on the Works Cited page.

Then we went through the paper nearly sentence by sentence and looked for how the entire piece of writing worked. Here is a short list of things I was able to discuss because they came up in the writing we examined:

  • How to properly integrate quotes. Both writers had great examples of tightly integrated quotes and quotes that needed to be more tightly integrated.
  • What to do when you have to change a quote slightly (use brackets).
  • Using dependent clauses at the beginning of sentences and how to punctuate (and why it’s OK to start a sentence with ‘because.’ Teachers, really, you have to stop telling students not to do that).
  • Using appositive phrases.
  • Combining sentences.
  • Stronger constructions. One student said “Quitting his job was not a good decision” or something similar, and I pointed out that phrasing the sentence this way was much more effective than “It was not a good decision for Sammy to quit his job.” We begin with a much stronger word, and we avoided that overused “it is,” “there was,” etc. that we see too often in student work.
  • We had a live model of a peer’s work that had examples of good writing and writing in need of improvement. It’s helpful for students to see that writing doesn’t spill fully formed from the pen, and that all of us have areas of strength and weakness in our writing.
  • Where it might be OK to cut redundant information, and where it might be necessary to clarify a point.
  • How to pick an engaging title and why you should.
  • Works Cited and in-text citations.
  • Identifying areas where arguments are weak and need more development.

All of this and more just from looking at one paper. Yes, it was time consuming, but I can tell the students learned more about writing effectively, even if they didn’t necessarily take in every detail, than they would have if I had simply commented on their papers and handed them back. Workshop was way more effective than any time I have tried to go over such issues in class or in feedback given back to students. Perhaps the most telling feedback I received was when I passed around this paper and asked students to check whether they’d prefer an in-depth critique or gallery critique (passing papers around, reading silently, and commenting on the papers in general once we’re done). Here is how my students responded (names redacted; click on the image to see a larger version):

Writing Critique PreferencesAs you can see, the students overwhelmingly endorsed the value of this endeavor. I just have to figure out how we are going to read all of these papers!

I can think of a couple of reasons, aside from time, that teachers might be reluctant to do this kind of Writing Workshop.

  1. But what can they do on their own?
  2. What about a timed writing situation?

I would argue that students don’t know how to do this on their own, but once they see the process modeled, they learn how. Obviously we don’t have time to do this with every essay. I’m wondering myself how we have time to do it with one essay. But you really don’t need to do it with each essay. Even picking a few volunteers to workshop can really help the others see the same patterns and issues in their own papers, and they can revise and edit after seeing it done. Another point to consider is why we ask students to do this kind of writing on their own when as adults, they can certainly get feedback on anything they write. Even published novelists have editors. Some of them even write with other people! Why do we tell students they have to go it completely alone, no help with revision or it’s not really their work?

The second argument is even more problematic because aside from standardized tests and exams, when in life do you really have to do timed writing? Deadlines, sure, but timed writing? I suppose I hold the radical notion that it doesn’t have much of a place in teaching writing because its antithetical to helping students see writing as a process and discourages students from doing the kind of revision and editing we want them to do. And then we complain when they turn in first-draft work on a final draft.

Aside from the overwhelming interest my students showed in workshopping their own papers, another interesting thing to note from this experiment is that one of my writers participated as fully in the revision as did his peers. He had his Google Doc open as we discussed the writing, and he made the edits he liked right there in class. He also suggested edits himself. If we ran into a sentence that needed work, he chimed it with, “Maybe instead I could say…” It was fantastic! It is the kind of metacognitive process we want to instill in our students.

I will try to share some further thoughts regarding logistics in a future post. Meanwhile, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

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