Friday, November 8, 2013

Owning the Process

Good writers value the writing process. They use it on papers outside of English class, later on in college where drafts are not required, and still later on in life when they need to communicate a purpose to an audience. They do this because they are good writers, and they are good writers because they do this. Which comes first? I dont know, but it is a virtuous cycle. How can I help more students to value, own, and capitalize on the process? 

Recently, I tried reflection. First, when students turned in the final draft, they also turned in everything that I had required them to do as a part of the process--starting with the journal they kept while reading the novel the paper was based on, right on through all brainstorming, organizing, drafting, revising, and editing, with the final draft on top. That represents a lot of work--I had assigned it all because I thought it was all important in contributing to the final draft. I wanted them to see it all together--the sheer volume of hidden work that goes into good writing--and to understand that good writing starts way back with good reading. 

Additionally, since professional writers use the process in idiosyncratic--not lock-step--ways, I wanted students to identify which parts had been the most helpful to them in their own writing process. So I came up with the following reflection sheet for students to fill out and turn in with their final packet of papers:


Prewriting (reading journal, small group/class discussions, quick write for a thesis, planning with a mind map or an outline, re-reading the shalom article like a writer)
  • What worked best for you, to prepare you to write? Why?
  • What didn’t work for you, to prepare you to write? Why?
  • What did you learn about prewriting while working on this essay?
Drafting (2 days in class, homework)
  • I used my class time for writing--working on my own, getting help from classmates and teacher when necessary, and returning quickly to work (circle one):
a. very effectively b. pretty well       c. not so well       d. not well at all

  • I did the best I could on writing my rough draft (circle one): 
a. definitely b. pretty much       c. sort of sloppy       d. just something to hand in

  • What did you learn about writing a rough draft while working on this essay?
Revising (teacher feedback, beginnings and endings, 1 day in class, homework): Circle 1
5: all suggestions carefully considered and many--plus additional improvements--thoroughly and creatively integrated
4: all suggestions considered and most integrated with understanding; a few other changes made
3: all suggestions followed, sometimes woodenly, word for word, making the paper uneven
2: some suggestions followed, some ignored
1: few or no changes made

  • What did you learn about revising while working on this essay?

Editing (1 day in class, “Find Someone Who,” 10 teacher editing mark corrections)
5: all changes understood and made throughout paper with evidence of further self-editing
4: all changes understood and made throughout paper
3: most changes understood, made effectively in the part marked, made haphazardly in the rest of the paper
2: most changes made in the part marked, but not followed through in the rest of the paper
1: few or no changes made

  • What did you learn about editing while working on this essay?

  • What did you learn about the topic/content while working on this essay?

  • What is 1 question you want Mrs. Essenburg to answer about your writing?

As I was creating this reflection protocol, I realized that it was also an opportunity to reinforce definitions of adept application of the process. Students who are unskilled in writing may not realize what excellent process skills look like. For instance, they might not realize (no matter how many times I’ve said it) that simply making the editing corrections that the teacher has marked without understanding why they were marked, and without combing the paper for similar mistakes and well as for additional mistakes, is not excellent editing. On this reflection they had to own their own level of skill at a given step of the process. 

Heres my process as I’m working my way through this stack of student work: When I pull out a student’s file, I first read her reflection on her process. I check through the file for the presence and thoroughness of each component. I make a brief comment on the process. I peruse her reading journal, making a comment or two. Then I read the paper, mark the rubric, and respond to the student’s final question on the reflection paper.

Benefits so far? As the class starts on the next novel study, I’ve observed to them that many students comments about prewriting said they had not been consciously thinking about the essay prompt while journalling and discussing in small groups, and they wished they had. So be thinking now as you journal and discuss about the next essay topic. I’ve also told them that while asking a question is a good way to engage with text and fulfills the requirement of the journal, students who wrote the best papers engaged with the text in many additional ways, such as responding to a quotation, making a connection, or making a prediction. 

I’ve also uncovered individual misunderstandings. One student said what he wants to remember in prewriting next time is to fix all the little mistakes. Another student said that none of the prewriting was helpful, only having a whole class period to work (which was actually drafting), but his final question was “How can I make better use of teacher feedback?” I was able to address these misunderstandings individually.

When we begin planning the next essay, I’ll use the data to teach that there are a variety of personalized ways to use the process. For instance, one student said she’d spent too much time creating an outline that was too detailed, which she ended up changing. Another said next time, she needs to spend more time planning.

Will repeating this exercise with every final draft this year increase students understanding and personal appropriation of the writing process, and will that result in better writing? I certainly hope so--I need to justify to to our tech coordinator the amount of printing students did. 

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