Tag Archives: teaching writing

The Best Draft

rough draft photo
Photo by KimNowacki
Kelly Gallagher shared a tweet that caught my eye:

It took me many years of teaching, but I ultimately developed this philosophy a few years ago. In fact, I have been known to say the first two sentences of Kelly’s tweet, word for word, especially to parents on Back to School Night, mostly when I explain my revision policy. However, I admit that thinking of papers as “best drafts” was new language for me. I have started using it with my students this year. In fact, yesterday, I told my AP Lit students I have been wrestling with a piece of writing for months now, and I am really frustrated with it. Honestly, I knew some of the changes we had implemented in writing instruction in our department were bearing fruit when their response was to offer to workshop it for me. I nearly cried.

Maybe I will take them up on it. Meeting their writing needs is more important to me, though.

Let’s just say it’s a very important piece of writing. I worked on it today a little bit, and I am much happier with it, but I shared with my students that I was particularly bothered by too many instances of passive voice—ironically, something I just taught to my freshman students in the last couple of weeks. I found about seven examples of passive voice in my two-page essay.

Writing is hard. I really care about this piece of writing. Striking the right chord with its intended audience is critical. I typed a sentence. I erased it. I typed a new sentence. I erased it. I growled in exasperation. My husband, who is busily writing articles for Maxim online about six feet away from me asked me what was wrong. I said, “I can’t write.”

He did what husbands do—especially, I think, writer husbands—and he offered to help me. I was so angry at myself that I probably didn’t respond. I can’t recall what I said if I did. But I did something I am always telling students to do when they can’t start. I began in a different place. I rewrote a passage that came toward the middle of my third draft. Then I filled in a bit at the end. Then I went back to the beginning again. I scanned my third draft, looking for anything I might be leaving out. I thought a great deal about active voice. I researched a little bit online. I added more to my draft.

I am a lot happier with the fourth draft. I wonder how long that feeling will last? In any case, it’s important that English teachers regularly engage in this process they ask students to do. It’s difficult work, lest we forget how hard it is, and if we are to instruct others how to do it, it’s important that we do it, too.

My thinking about the topic, which happens to be assessment, has changed so much over time. I know many people don’t agree with me about this, but I don’t average grades when students revise. I replace the grade with what the student earns on the new draft. I am not even sure that Kelly Gallagher is advocating a total grade replacement when he talks about all writing being eligible for revision. My only stipulation is that students revise within a week of receiving my feedback so I don’t go crazy trying to keep up with work—it’s not fair to me to wait until the last day before a grading period ends, for example. My students revise like mad. A few elect not to do so, but they know the policy, and they are making that choice.

I care a great deal that students’ writing improves—much more so than maintaining a hard line about a grade. I don’t really even like grades, as regular visitors to this blog will know. Some students will demonstrate mastery of a concept the first time they attempt to show what they know. Others will take a few tries. If the end product is similar, why shouldn’t the grade be similar? I understand the argument that we should reward the student who does it right the first time with a higher grade. I suppose I disagree on the grounds that sometimes it took me a long time to understand a concept, but once I did, my understanding was as deep and profound as the person who got it on the first try. In fact, my determination in trying to learn it is worth something.

At some point, this piece of writing I am laboring over will be due. It will have to be a final draft, too, because of the nature of the work. I’ll work like mad to make sure it’s my best draft. One thing is certain: working on it multiple times has already yielded much better work than I did on my first draft.

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Generous Writing

You can learn interesting things in some unlikely places. I had the great fortune to be able to see U2’s Joshua Tree concert in June, and shortly after I attended the concert, I came across the interview (embedded below) on their website. If you are a U2 fan like me, you might want to listen to the whole thing, especially because I think much of what Bono says in the interview applies to learning in general and to writing in particular. He cringes about a few word choices he has used in the past, and he also says it “wigs [him] out” to listen to his singing on the album, so he hasn’t really listened to it. Of course, he had to listen to it in order to prepare for the tour, particularly because some of the songs are rarely performed, and “Red Hill Mining Town” had never been performed live before.

One thing Bono said at about 10:20 into the video has had me thinking ever since I saw this interview for the first time over a month ago. He remarks that he feels he didn’t get to finish the songs on Joshua Tree even though the band made “finishing” the songs a priority for that album. The incredulous interviewer asks which songs Bono didn’t get to finish. Bono says “Where the Streets Have No Name.” If you are a U2 fan, or even if you can’t stand them, you know that song. It’s one of their most popular, most enduring songs. I still hear it all the time when I go out places, like restaurants. Bono’s bandmates laugh at Zane Lowe’s incredulous response to Bono’s answer. Bono explains that he feels that “lyrically, it was just a sketch.” He imagines the song is an invocation, he is asking “do you want to go to that other place,” a place of “imagination” and “soul.” Over time, he has added this invitation into the lyrics when he performs the song, and he feels the “hairs on the back of [his] neck go up,” which I interpret him to mean that he feels the lyric is more finished with this line than it was as he recorded it.

Zane Lowe asks, “But how can you ask a question of an audience with a complete thought?”

Bono’s reaction to that question is what I found most intriguing about this entire interview.

Bono: Okay. Interesting. That’s interesting that you should say that..

Zane Lowe: Aren’t you waiting for us to answer the question for you?

Bono: Yeah, but what it is, and I shouldn’t really say this, but just as a… you develop vanity as a songwriter.

The Edge: He’s very hard on himself. Very hard on himself.

Bono: No, but you’ve got vanity as a songwriter, [and] I’m sure it’s the same for drums, the same for [unintelligible]. And it’s just, I knew I could write that better… Anyway, I think what you just said something really important there, and incomplete thoughts are generous because they allow the listener to finish them.

I would argue that the fact that Bono, and really the group as a whole, are hard on themselves and on each other is what makes them a band that has endured and has remained popular with many people over the years. What I mean by that is they are critical friends and help each other get better because it will help the team get better. Part of that means being honest about what is working and what is not.

I am considering using part of this video as a mentor text for thinking about writing this year because what Bono has to say about incomplete thoughts being generous made me think about what poetry does for us that other forms of writing do not do. I also really enjoy hearing someone who has been so successful in so many ways express how he feels he could have done better. One statement I make a lot when discussing writing is that it is never done; it’s just due. If we are writing a newspaper article, a statement of purpose, an educational philosophy, or an essay for school, or any kind of writing we imagine, if it’s writing meant for an audience, at some point, it’s due. We need to let it go and say it’s ready, even if we might tweak it ad infinitum.

It’s an important message for writers to hear, I think, that good writers, successful writers, struggle with the craft and wish they could do better. Bono, for example, disparages his rhyme of “hide with inside.” Honestly, that’s one of my favorite parts of the lyric. One of the reasons this interview struck me, and particularly the parts I quoted above, is that we sometimes dismiss writing because we did it, not realizing that others might respond to it in an entirely different way. Sometimes, we might not be the best judges of what works and doesn’t work in our own writing. All the more reason to give writers an audience—to offer them our incomplete thoughts and allow others to finish them.

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Slice of Life #21: Plotting

writing notebook photo
Photo by Unsplash

I have been using one of the writing ideas I learned at Kenyon last summer with my juniors. Watching my students write last week prompted me to tweet this comment:

For some reason, the exercise generated a different feeling in the room, and it was a happy moment for me, sitting and looking around the room at the pens moving over writing notebooks. I don’t think my Kenyon instructors would mind if I shared the exercise, especially in the name of spreading the good writing vibes.

First, I asked students to write down a list of places they lived for a substantial period of time, and they could define that, but they should think of places they spent more than a night. Next, I asked them to circle up to three places and draw maps of each place. They should draw where the trees were, where the streets were, where the rooms and important items were, etc. I gave them plenty of time for this because there are often many stories in a single room, a tree… even a single item. I remember when I did this exercise at Kenyon last summer, the place where I found the most inspiration was my grandmother’s sewing room. Every detail in that room is etched in my memory. I can see where everything is, and if there is a single room in any house I’ve ever lived, anywhere, it would be the one room I’d want to preserve, always. When I was at NCTE in November, I did a writing exercise in one of my sessions in which I returned to the room again, and when I shared my writing with a partner nearby, she asked me, “At what point did you realize this was a room that didn’t exist in most houses?” It was a great question, and I don’t know when it was that I really understood how unique that room was, but I’ve been returning to that room over and over again in my writing ever since July.

After students drew the maps, I had them pick one map, one place, and make a list of things they could writing about that were connected to that place: people, events, things. Then I asked students to pick one thing and freewrite. I wrote along with them. Near the end of class, each of us shared one detail or sentence we had written that we really liked.

When we returned to class, we read a chapter from Haven Kimmel’s memoir She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana entitled “Brother.” It’s a beautiful and evocative description of Kimmel’s relationship with a much older brother who left and distanced himself from the family. It is partly a story of the place in which the family lived, but the relationship is at the very center of the piece, and there are some beautiful moments in the description—the time her brother swooped out of the darkness in a Dracula cape on Halloween and scared Kimmel, a description of her brother singing in his room at night. She prefaces her memories of her brother with the sentence “These are things I remember, and they are mine.” I absolutely love the ownership in that declaration. Later, Kimmel shares her mother and sister’s memories of her brother, prefacing these recollections with the sentence, “Here are memories I stole.” And again, I love the idea of hearing stories so many times that you own those memories, too, but also that somehow, because they are not your own memories, they are stolen from others.

We discussed this essay, picking out details we particularly liked and noticing what the author does. The students noticed, for instance, that Kimmel describes some images in detail, but not all, so it’s like zooming in and zooming out with a camera. In fact, Kimmel describes photographs of her brother and what the “eye of the camera” sees that all her family members missed. It truly is a great mentor text for students to use.

After we had discussed this piece of writing, I asked students to make two columns in their notebooks. Then I asked them to head the first column with the sentence “These are things I remember, and they are mine” and to head the other column with the sentence “Here are memories I stole.” After that, I asked students to use their freewrite as inspiration and make a list of things they remember about the person/event/place they wrote about and then make a list of things they don’t remember—others’ memories, things that happened before they were born or went there, or historical events.

They turned these lists into a second freewrite on the topic. Today, students began drafting an essay based on their freewriting. All of this took three class periods. Time well spent. Everyone seemed like they were really in the flow of writing. No one seemed to lack inspiration. The Kimmel text proved to be great source for ideas. Students are currently writing a solid first draft they would be ready to share with peers in writing workshop on Thursday (when class meets again).

I mentioned that I had used this lesson, and Emily Moore, my instructor at Kenyon, commented, “I started the term with that activity and adored it. There’s a part of me that feels like we could do it every day for the entire term and it would never stop being magic.” I couldn’t say it better. Think of all the stories this simple exercise might generate. I love the inductive nature of the idea generation. One of my students commented that the frustrating thing, sometimes, about writing narratives was that though he agreed we all have stories, figuring out which ones would be good to tell, to write, can be really hard. This writing exercise leads students to selecting that story and also gives them a place to return to for inspiration. Marsha McGregor, the instructor who shared this exercise with us, reminded us that plot is a piece of ground, a place, and it’s also a story.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life #13: Workshopping

Slice of LifeMy American literature students had writing workshop today. We read an excerpt from Michel-Guillaume Jean Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, which I like to read with students because it is the genesis of two tenacious ideas Americans have about themselves: 1) that our country is a great “melting pot,” and 2) that we are somehow a new people (the concept of the “new Adam”) and unique in the world (precursors to American exceptionalism). Crèvecoeur defines an American in the selection we read, and I asked students to write a compare/contrast essay in which they define what they think an American is and see how it aligns or doesn’t with Crèvecoeur’s definition. Students brought drafts to class today to be workshopped.

I have one class that is a bit smaller, and I would characterize the students as lacking in confidence. They can be reluctant to speak up in class discussion sometimes because they second-guess themselves or are afraid of being “wrong.” I have been working on building their confidence, and one of the most surprising methods I’ve tried has been writing workshop. One might think it would be dangerous to try writing workshop in such a class because students who are usually reluctant to participate in class discussions would be doubly reluctant when their own writing is on display. In fact, I have found the opposite to be the case.

We had a student’s paper on the screen today in class. The student said he wanted help with organization, sentence structure, and his introduction. We did some work on the introduction, and by the end of it, it was working well. It also offered an opportunity to clarify some language and to talk a bit about integrating quotes. We took some time to notice and discuss what was working well in the piece. We worked on the sentence structure. One of the students in this class has emerged as a really strong editor. She had some great ideas for alternate word choices and ways to revise sentences to include some more variety. She is particularly astute at holding what the writer has asked for help with in her mind as she makes suggestions. I have noticed many students tend to make comments about whatever they notice, but this girl is a particularly focused editor. I commended her in front of her peers today, and she smiled shyly and said, “I like doing this [editing and revising].” Students who are generally quiet during regular class discussion are more animated in writing workshop.

Another thing I noticed about the student writer was that he had a hunch about some of the issues in his essay. One example he shared went something like “I don’t like that sentence.” I asked him why. He said “I feel like there is something wrong with ‘this.'” Another student said, “Yeah, ‘this’ can be a lot of things.” I said they had zeroed in on a common problem in writing called an unclear pronoun reference, and we spent some time tweaking the sentence until the student decided to add the word “thought”—”this thought”—to clarify what he meant. I bet he and his peers will remember the unclear pronoun reference and look out for it in their writing. I think teachers sometimes think that students don’t believe there are issues with their writing, but it was clear to me today that the student recognized an issue but wasn’t sure how to resolve it, which is where his peers came in.

I think writing workshop is going to be crucial in helping these students develop confidence in English class. I find it interesting that in contrast, my other American literature class, which is usually much more active in class discussion, was a bit quiet and reticent in writing workshop today. While they may have some confidence in discussing ideas in literature, perhaps they are not quite there when it comes to writing.

The smaller class has already asked for a second day of writing workshop. I will offer it to my larger class, and I’ll be interested to see what they want to do. I would like to push them a bit harder with workshop, but I also recognize that they are not comfortable with it yet. I am feeling the tension between helping them build confidence and pushing them into that zone of proximal development.

My favorite quote from a student in that larger class today: “Man, you know a lot about citations. And stuff.”

My goal for the end of the year is for them to say that about themselves.

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Slice of Life #11: The Year of Lear

Slice of LifeI haven’t taught King Lear in a few years, but my AP students are reading it alongside Jane Smiley’s modern adaptation, A Thousand Acres. I so enjoyed returning to this play, which is one of my favorites. As students read, they are creating character maps with the twinned characters in each work, detailing which characters are allied with Lear (or at least have his best interests at heart), and which ones are his enemies. At the end of the play, students will create a literary reduction.

A quick Google search of the term “literary reduction” doesn’t yield fruitful results. I learned about reductions from my Dean of Faculty, Cindy Sabik, who has used them in her own English classes. Essentially, students create graphic representations of what they have learned. Using a standard 8½ x 11-inch sheet of paper, students  distill the essence of the work by organizing quotes, ideas, images, and connections from a work of literature. My students are working in groups focusing on four different themes in the play. They will create reductions based on these themes, so as they read, they are looking for quotes that connect to their themes.

Look what I received in the mail today:

The Year of Lear

I’m so excited for this book. I absolutely loved James Shapiro’s other books A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, and given that I am currently teaching Lear and have often taught Macbeth, I expect I will learn a great deal from this book. Actually, I’ve just read the first chapter, and the first thing I wanted to do was go back in time and do Monday’s class over again. Ah well, I can still share what I’ve learned with my students tomorrow. Shakespeare is a deep well, and even when I think I know just about everything, I plumb a little deeper and uncover something new. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 looks like a great addition to my learning library.

Later this week, I will be presenting on writing workshop in my classes at OESIS (Online Education Symposia for Independent Schools) in Boston. Here is my presentation (for the curious). I want to share one interesting finding. My students use Google Docs to write, and I selected an assignment from the end of last year at random from which to draw some data. I selected an assignment from the end of the year because at that stage, students were acclimated to the workshop process. Students wrote an analysis of Macbeth. I examined how many edits they made to their essays. Keeping in mind that not every single edit is a substantial change, each edit does represent a different time that students opened the document and made some changes. Google Docs saves work every few seconds, but that does not mean a new version is created every few seconds. If you do want to see these more detailed revisions, you can click the button that says “Show more detailed revisions.” Students must stop working and return to the document after some time has passed for it to count as a new version. With that caveat in mind, here are some figures:

  • Students made an average of 8.79 edits on this one assignment.
  • One student made only two edits, but I suspect he wrote his essay in Word and pasted it later.
  • One student made 19 edits.
  • All of the students who made 12 or more edits are currently taking AP-level classes. They were not in an Honors class last year.

Even if each edit was not substantial, I admit I was blown away by these numbers.  It’s entirely possible students were making the same number of edits before I introduced writing workshop / in-depth critique to my classes (but I doubt it). It’s also possible that when students use Word, they make just as many changes, but I can’t see them because there is no revision history available for me to see. This kind of data is just one more reason, in my mind, to use Google Docs.

Just as an experiment, I decided to take a closer look at the student who made 19 edits. His last edit was insertion of a citation and a few word choice tweaks. The previous edit included removing a block quote and adding the evidence to a different part of the essay (and integrating it more tightly), deleting a sentence, lots of word choice tweaks, and reworking his conclusion. The edit previous to this one included the addition of three sentences and the deletion of two others. The previous edit included quite a lot of revision of the first page of the essay—lots of additions and deletions. The previous edit was minor, including only a sentence and a few punctuation marks. Over time, it’s interesting to see the way the essay took final shape.

In our last department meeting, we were discussing writing and the ways in which our school has embraced writing workshop, and one department member shared that he feels that students seem to understand how to revise and edit better than they had in the past. In addition, bringing writing in to the peer editing club has carried a bit of a stigma in the past, but now, he added, it’s just something that you do to improve your work. I couldn’t be happier that the work we are doing is bearing such fruit. When you treat students like writers, including emphasizing the process and teaching them to edit, they become better writers.

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F is for Failure

A light bulb but no (good) ideas... (17/365)No one expects a batter to hit a home run on the first try. In fact, even experienced hitters rarely accomplish this feat. Batters strike out more often than they hit, especially at the professional level. We expect it, and we don’t consider it failure because at that level, hitting the ball is difficult.

How often do we give students one chance to learn, though? Lately, I’ve heard educators beginning to say we need to reassess failure. Some even say it should stand for “first attempt in learning.” One of the things I have come to value as a student myself, both in my master’s program and in online courses I’ve taken through Coursera, is the opportunity to retake quizzes and revise work. Whether or not you want to allow revisions largely depends on your purpose for assessment. If you just want to gauge whether or not students did a reading assignment, perhaps not, but if you want to see what students have learned, then why wouldn’t you?

One of our math teachers allows students to revise their tests. Students grade their own tests and know how they have done before he does. He explains the process in this presentation:

Instead of crumpling their tests and shoving them into the deepest recesses of their backpacks, or worse—throwing them away—students are actually learning from tests. What a concept! Using assessments to learn instead of playing gotcha!

In an English class, this sort of revision can be fairly common—the writing process is designed to teach students that one-and-done drafts don’t really exist. However, grading all these drafts takes time, so not all teachers truly teach the process. I found some success in placing the emphasis on the process through writing workshop this year, and what I found is that students revised even after work had been graded, sometimes continuing to revise for weeks or months (no, not every student). Student writing also improved.

We have created a school culture in which students must do well on their first attempt or risk bad grades, but we complain that students only care about grades and not about their learning. The only way to help students care more about their learning is to allow them to fail. If their first attempt in learning isn’t successful, they need to try again. Otherwise, they receive the message that only the first try counts, and they absolutely must not fail on the first attempt.

I struggle with this idea myself. It’s not easy to make the kind of time we need to make in order to help students truly learn. But if that is the goal, then we need to design lessons that will help students learn, and we need to allow students to struggle a bit with the learning. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that right about the time when grades start really mattering, students seem to lose their curiosity. They are not interested in exploring; they want to know the answer. The stakes are too high. There isn’t time to try and try again.

Perhaps there isn’t time on every single assignment, but teachers need to give students opportunities to revise, to try again… to learn. Otherwise, I’m not sure what we’re all doing in school.

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