Saturday, March 8, 2014

Learning about Teaching about Writing

(With apologies for having just finished The Luminaries, in which each chapter starts with one of those old fashioned summaries, and for the last several chapters, the summary is nearly as long as the chapter. Anyway, after 832 pages of that, it was just sort of coming out my pores.)
In which I use a model paper for revising, and end up with good news. 

Before I handed back first drafts on Tuesday, I wanted to prepare students to receive and act on the feedback I had written on their papers. In particular, I wanted to show students a strong thesis statement and body paragraphs that build on each other in a logical progression as opposed to being a collection of points that could be shuffled into any order without seriously affecting the paper. 

So I pulled out a copy of an exemplary student essay on a similar prompt from a  number of years previous. After I’d made copies, I read the model essay over again and was disconcerted to realize it was not quite as good as I’d thought several years ago. 

To salvage this lesson, I asked the students read the essay, locate the thesis and topic sentences, and then identify in their small groups 3 strengths and 3 weaknesses of the essay. Their discussions were articulate and insightful--praising the word choice, use of support, and the punchy closing quotation, and wondering about the hook, placement of the thesis, and the effectiveness of starting a paragraph with a quotation. 

My happiest epiphany, though, was that while fewer of our students might have the natural advantages of native English speakers, I am doing a better job of teaching writing than I was 7 years ago.

In which I take one more step on the treasure hunt for ways to hold students accountable for learning grammar and conventions to use in their writing rather than just making the corrections indicated by my red (actually green) pen. All this without creating a monster of work and record keeping for myself, and preserving a sense of humor. 

Before handing in the revised draft Friday, I had students pull out and review their editing corrections from past papers. That was the new piece. Then we went on to things we’ve done before--giving them time to practice the proofreading skill of placing a straightedge on their paper to focus their line-by-line reading. 

I had good conversations with students while they were doing this--wondering whether an opening sentence was too general, looking for ways to reduce occurrences of an overused word. And as I edited those papers Friday and Saturday, I was pleased with the quality of proofreading they’d done. 

I think I’ll add one more step on Monday when I return my edits (just the first 10 errors I find). The usual assignment is for students to explain why each of the 10 edits were marked, and to illustrate the explanation with the before and after version of the sentence from their paper. New step: Students will indicate which of the corrections they feel they need more practice on, and find, record, and complete an online exercise, quiz, or game to help them.

And--so exciting--I get to wear my editing t-shirt Monday:
     Let’s eat Grandma.
     Let’s eat, Grandma.
     Commas save lives.

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