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 #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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The Transformative Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers

Doc Emily's Groovy Writers
Photo courtesy Andy Sidle

I spent June 27 to July 2 in Gambier, Ohio at Kenyon College as a participant in the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. Given how much writing I did while I was there, I had a difficult time figuring out how to begin talking about it here on my blog. I thought about it for a few days. I’m still not sure I’ll be able to put the experience into words, which is ironic given how I did rediscover a writing voice I thought I had lost.

I think one of the reasons I was nervous about going to Kenyon was that I didn’t necessarily consider myself a writer anymore. I don’t really want to characterize what I did as “giving up,” but I guess it was. I no longer did any of the things I told my students to do—to just dump out ideas, to write first and revise later, to write for themselves. I had this internal editor going all the time. Most of all, I just didn’t write. Not really. I mean, I wrote the occasional blog post. But I couldn’t have told you the last time I wrote a poem. I used to write poetry all the time. I always had a notebook for my poems, pretty much all through high school and college. I can’t even tell you when I stopped. I think one day I just thought maybe I wasn’t very good at writing poetry. I have written fiction off and on for a while, but it had even been a while since I had written fiction.

What this writing workshop did is crack me wide open. Now I have all these ideas and all this material to work with, and I feel like I found my voice again. I am a writer again. There was a time when writing was something I thought I would always do. I even started an application to study creative writing Emerson College in Boston (I abandoned it once I realized I would not be able to attend college out of state, and at that time, I lived in Georgia). My high school English teacher, Shelia Keener, encouraged me to write and has been telling me for years that I missed my calling. I do believe that I should be an English teacher, but Shelia is right that I should have kept up the writing.

I feel like I found my tribe at Kenyon. We had excellent instructors, for one thing. Real teachers who work with students in the classroom. My instructor, Emily Moore, is a gifted writing instructor. I am stealing simply everything she did with us. The participants were also writing teachers. I was struck not only by their dedication to the craft of writing but also to their dedication to their students. Many of them are practicing writers, and I admit to feeling a bit intimidated by them. They are really good writers. I was thrilled when one of our tribe, Joe Carriere, not only took on the task of creating a literary magazine out of our work, but also created a Facebook group for us. All of us wrote something to share at a reading, even our instructors. Each time we did a writing prompt, they wrote with us. In fact, Emily has a great technique of freewriting on the board with her students, making the messiness of freewriting public. It is freeing to see writers in process. I knew, as a writing teacher, that writing didn’t come fully formed and perfect from anyone’s pen, but for some reason, this inner critic inside me expected my writing to be different from every other writer. If I had to pick one moment when I realized what I had been doing, it might have been when we read the Robert Frost poem “Design.” Emily shared two versions: a rough draft and a final draft. It was like something clicked into place. Even Robert Frost wrote shitty drafts. Even Robert Frost!

Seeing that poem in draft form really helped me see that I am not a bad writer. I probably need to spend more time revising. Just like my students. And a writer’s workshop is extremely valuable. Given how much workshop I have done with my students the last two years, you’d think I’d have figured that out. Somehow I always separated what I did as a writer from what I did as a teacher.

The five days and change that I spent at Kenyon were transformative. I actually see myself as a writer again. I feel like I have been given a gift. The people I met were amazing. I think I have made new lifelong friends. I really do. The campus is gorgeous. The stained glass windows in the dining hall depict scenes from books! It truly is English teacher (or English major) heaven. In addition to giving me back my writing life and helping me make excellent friends, I also met two writers and had an opportunity to talk shop and now have a year’s subscription to The Kenyon Review. I actually read poetry on the plane back home. When was the last time I read so much poetry? I discovered Andrew Grace in the May/June 2015 issue and liked his poem so much I ordered a copy of his collection Shadeland. I really, really can’t remember the last time I read contemporary poetry.

At the workshop, I ran into Sam Bradford, a friend and former colleague from the Weber School, where I worked in Georgia.

Dana and SamSam has been writing fiction for years and will be the department chair at Weber next year, so we will have a lot to talk about, and I am so grateful we are back in touch. Neither of us knew the other would be there. I was so excited to see him, but even more excited to see him connect with Charley Mull, a colleague from Worcester Academy and one of my favorite people. I made them both take a picture with me on the last day.

Charley, Dana, and Sam
Charley, Dana, and Sam

I am so glad they became friends. Charley and Sam were in the same group, which was not my group with Emily. We still had plenty of opportunities to interact.

Here is a picture Sam took of me doing my reading.

Dana Reading
Photo courtesy Sam Bradford

A photo of me with my new friend Whitney (and a photobomb with my new friend, Andy).

Whitney, Dana, and AndyAnd a photo of me with my instructor, Emily. Andy somehow photobombed that one, too!

Emily and DanaWhat a phenomenal experience. I have to thank my Dean of Faculty, Cindy Sabik, for convincing me to go.

I learned some new techniques for teaching writing. I wrote some things I feel pretty good about. In fact, I am actually thinking about pursuing publication, which is something I haven’t thought about doing for many years (and that is one reason I haven’t shared anything I wrote at the workshop here). Honestly, I thought that ship had sailed a long time ago. I truly can’t remember the last time I thought about publication for myself.

You should go next summer.

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NCTE Bound

letter N letter C letter T letter E

I’m starting to get excited about the annual NCTE convention this year. I will be presenting Writing Workshop with two colleagues who are sharing their experiences with student blogging and online discussion forums. Here are our session details:

NCTE SessionI’m also looking forward to visiting all the Folger folks and seeing Julius Caesar at the Folger theater with my friend, Glenda.

Are you going to NCTE?

NCTE image made with Spell with Flickr

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Digital Storytelling Workshop

storytelling photo

Thanks to my school, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a digital storytelling workshop with the Center for Digital Storytelling in Denver at the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop.

I will admit that I went into the workshop with a fair amount of hubris. I thought to myself, I’ve been teaching English for sixteen years. I know a lot about these kinds of projects. I’m a technology integrator. I know iMovie pretty well. I’d go so far as to consider myself an expert in comparison with many teachers—though I’d not go so far as to say I know everything there is to know about it, I can do pretty much everything I might want to do for school purposes. I didn’t really expect to learn very much from this workshop, but I was glad I would have the opportunity to visit my grandparents, who live in the Denver area.

On the first day of the workshop, we engaged in probably the most powerful part of the entire experience (for me), which was a story circle. We were advised to come with a draft of a script, but I tried to sit down and write one, and I found I couldn’t figure out what to say. As it turned out, very few of the participants were prepared with a script. In story circle, we each had twelve minutes to talk about our story, answer questions, ask questions, and obtain feedback from the facilitators and other participants. I think the reason it was such a powerful experience is because it was such a bonding moment. Several of us cried as we reached the heart of what it was we wanted to say, and the facilitators were excellent at provoking us to really think about what story we wanted to tell.

I started my spiel with the idea that I wasn’t going to cry at all. I told everyone I was visiting my grandparents. My grandfather is a WWII vet, and I decided I would make a digital story about his experiences in WWII. He has some really interesting stories about being inducted into the Navy, joining the Seabees, breaking his glasses and running afoul of postal censors when he wrote home asking for his parents to send him two pairs to replace the broken ones, coming up with a secret code so he could communicate with his mother, and contracting meningitis and causing the Army’s 7th Division to fall under quarantine and have their Christmas leave canceled. A couple of years ago, he was able to travel to Washington, DC on an Honor Flight to see the nation’s capital, specifically the World War II Memorial. He enjoyed the trip a great deal. So, I said to the story circle, that’s what I want to tell a story about.

The facilitator looked at me, a pointed expression on her face, and she asked me, “Dana, how is this story about you?” I was startled by the question, but I thought for a minute, and then, naturally, I burst into tears. It was about me because of everything my grandparents had done for me. It was about me because they are elderly, and I don’t know how much time I have left. It was about me because I will be devastated when they are gone.

With this much-needed clarity, I began to write my script. I was having trouble paring it down to the 300-word suggested limit. I thought I might be able to do 500 words, but 300 was too little to say everything I thought I needed to say. I decided I would just rebel and make a longer video, and I set to work with that script. The facilitator helped me record my voiceover. I interviewed my grandfather, who spoke for an hour about his experiences, and I selected the parts I would use in the story. I scanned lots of pictures my grandparents had around the house.

When I began stitching together the different pieces, I accidentally deleted a whole segment in which my grandfather goes into some detail about having meningitis during the war. After I listened to the video, though, I realized I didn’t exactly need the clip, so I let it go, and I actually managed to get the video at the upper time limit. I never thought I’d do that. It has taken me a couple of weeks’ worth of soul-searching and wrestling to decide whether or not to share the story I created.

The experience of making the video convinced me to pull digital storytelling into my own curriculum. One natural place I could see it falling is in my American Studies in Literature course. I had already decided to incorporate This American Life into my American literature curriculum, as I see media like podcasts and videos as the new “wave” of writing/storytelling. Well, maybe not so new anymore, but you know how it is in education. Near the end of the year, I plan to explore the theme of the journey. I did not select a large number of works because I knew I wanted to do a culminating project of some kind. The journey, can, of course, be a physical journey. It can also be an inward journey, a self-discovery. Like my video was, after a fashion. Here is another example from the Denver director of the Center for Digital Storytelling:

It really impacted me when I watched it. Obviously, I would not ask students to tell stories that they are not ready to tell, but I think this could be one of the most powerful experiences for my students:

  • We all have stories, and think about how important it is for us to tell them. Think about how interesting your average episode of This American Life and The Moth is. Think about how entertaining it is to read, say, David Sedaris.
  • We often ask students to read the stories of others, but we don’t ask them to tell their own. We ask them to analyze the stories of others.
  • Digital storytelling is a new way of sharing narrative. In the past, we listened to storytellers. Then we read. I think this might be the next thing. Not that we stopped listing to people tell stories or that will will stop reading. But this adds a new dimension to storytelling.
  • The “writing” aspect of this project is some of the hardest writing I have ever done. I can see people challenging the idea that this is writing, but drafting the whole story was an extremely challenging and rewarding process.

Here is more of Daniel Weinshenker on storytelling:

One aspect of the process that I will definitely borrow is the story circle. It fits hand-in-glove with the kind of writing workshop I have been doing in my classes.

In the end, I even learned some useful technical tricks that made my video better (and here I thought I was an expert!).

Years ago, I was in Coleman Barks’s last poetry class at the University of Georgia. The final project we did in his class was to bring our own poetry to class and share it. Dr. Barks anthologized it. He told us explicitly that after we studied the great 20th century American poets, we were now among them, the next generation if you will. And I believed it. I want to give that gift to my own students.

If you have a chance to take one of the Center for Digital Storytelling workshops, don’t hesitate. They do excellent work. Next to Folger Teaching Shakespeare PD, it’s the best PD I’ve ever had in my life.

Photo by Jill Clardy

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C is for Collaboration

Working TogetherI recently had an exchange with the parent of one of my advisees. He shared a paper his older daughter wrote in college with me. I don’t have permission to reprint any of it here, but she made some interesting comments about collaboration in schools. She made the comment that academics collaborate all the time on lab reports and journal articles, but collaboration among undergraduates and K-12 students is more rare. In some extreme cases, we might call it cheating.

I recently tried out a new way of teaching writing which involves collaboration. You can read my posts about here:

I have had an opportunity to present how it works both to my own colleagues and at a local conference (here’s hoping NCTE is interested as well; we find out next month). One of the things I pointed out both times is that if we write professionally, we expect to have an editor. No one says we don’t really know how to write on our own if someone edits our work. No one says we’re cheating. Yet, with students, I have heard teachers argue that students need to write in isolation. As I mentioned in the post, I have seen students revise much more often now that we are doing writing workshop, but one of the other byproducts of writing workshop has been a classroom community that I didn’t anticipate. I have noticed it even if we’re not writing. Students are friendly and collegial with one another. They have learned to value each other’s voices and opinions. They work together readily.

We were recently working on multigenre writing projects in the classroom, and as I came in the room and prepared to start class, I noticed two students who had both chosen to write about Edgar Allan Poe sitting together. They do not normally sit right next to each other. They had their heads together sharing their work with each other and talking about the different types of writing they were doing for the project. Would another teacher have wanted to keep them apart because they were working on similar projects? Possibly. Why? They shared great ideas with each other, and their projects will be stronger for the sharing and feedback. I think we are afraid sometimes that it is not original work if students collaborate, but truthfully, we often benefit from models. Models can show us how to do something and give us ideas we might otherwise not have had. A recent study by Thomas N. Wisdom, Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone from University of Indiana explores the ways in which social learning can improve problem solving. The implications of the study suggest that sharing ideas and encouraging individuals to work as a team will result in better learning:

The results of both experiments show that imitation can be productive for groups as well as individuals, because it enables the preservation of good tentative solutions in “group memory” and their further improvement through cumulative exploration. These results also showed that the pursuit of larger amounts of exploration can result in diminishing returns for both individuals and groups. (Wisdom, Song, and Goldstone 1419)

One of the things I have noticed about writing workshop is that students often open their laptops and revise their own writing when we are collectively editing a peer’s paper. They notice something they want to change or that they want to try, or they have an idea based on something their peer has said. As such, my students’ writing has strengthened a great deal over the course of the year.

Students might not necessarily go on to be professional writers, but often, the situations in which professional writers work mimic the writer’s workshop more than writing in isolation does. Journalists always collaborate. It’s understood that an editor and copyeditor will work on a journalist’s writing. The writing room for just about every television show you can name involves collaborative writing. Students can apply these skills to the other work that they do.

Students have commented on first trimester course evaluations that the class is “like a family” and that they are “always collaborating.” Second trimester, one student said they “are asked to work together and by ourselves. We do a lot of group work.” The same student added that I make “sure we understand things before we move on.” Another student remarked that the class is “an opportunity to meet challenges.” I share these comments because I think they are a window into how establishing a classroom community and offering opportunities for collaboration helps students learn better and enjoy their learning more. We are reading article after article about the skills employers are looking for in college graduates, and over and over, we read that the ability to work as a team and to collaborate and to communicate well are important. However, we are strangely selective about the opportunities we give students to collaborate. We rarely allow students to write together, and having seen the ways in which collaborating in this way have not only contributed to my students’ ability to write but has also built a strong classroom community, I’m convinced that collaborative learning like writer’s workshop is the way to prepare students for the real work of the world.

Work Cited:

Wisdom, Thomas N., Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone. “Social Learning Strategies in a Networked Group.” Cognitive Science 37 (2013): 1383-1425. Print.

Image by Lolly Man

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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.

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqLgSa7A-VQ

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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