Author: Laura Robb

The Writing Teacher – Test Prep or Real Writing

 

We all want our students to love writing and write well. We all want our students to pass our state’s writing test. These two goals create a great tension, and too often, test prep wins out. And so, students write from prompts most of the year. I can’t say this enough: Writing to prompts does not develop writers!

Yes, I want students to become test-wise by experiencing writing to a prompt. If we simulate state test conditions over two days every six weeks, students will gain enough practice. However, to make these simulations benefit students, make a list of areas that need mini-lessons and additional student practice. It could be learning to write a compelling lead or introduction, paragraphing, varying sentence openings, using strong verbs, or specific nouns, etc.

When students apply craft and writing conventions to topics and genres they select, they can grow as writers. Choice leads to students selecting a topic they care about and love. The result is that students are more willing to work hard at improving their writing by investing the time it takes. So, here’s a key point to remember:

Teach students to write well, revise, and edit, and they will pass the test.

Each year that we buy into the pressures of test-prep-writing, we lose multiple opportunities to teach students the craft and art of writing. The caveat is that for teachers to teach writing, they need to do four things:

  1. Write, Write, Write. This can be objective observations about students,  letters to friends and family, a blog, a diary, or journaling about a trip. The point is that by writing, we raise our awareness of the process, and that understanding enables us to support student writers.
  2. Read professional books and articles on the writing process. Learn what published writers have to say about teaching writing. The more you learn, the better you’ll be able to support your students.
  3. Read children’s literature so you can develop a bank of mentor texts. Find mentor texts that students can study to deepen their knowledge of genres, leads, endings, uses of dialogue, or how writers handle shifts in time, etc.
  4. Organize instruction into a workshop and set aside 45-minutes of writing time at least four, preferably five times a week.

Present mini-lessons on writing craft, conventions, and genres. Keep them short and interactive. Keep the workshop authentic by offering students choices.  Unlike test-prep writing, students will be at different points in the process. To bring closure to any stage—talking about ideas, brainstorming ideas, planning, drafting—negotiate a deadline date with students.

Professional articles and books will guide your planning of mini-lessons and offer suggestions on modeling and thinking aloud to show students what writers do. Pair-up with a colleague and support each other, observe each other, and you will find that your students will crave more writing time. Most important, allow yourself to make mistakes knowing you can learn from these and give yourself the gift of time as you traverse new paths!

You can learn more about the writing process and teaching writing from Laura Robb’s Heinemann books: Teaching Middle School Writers and Smart Writing: Practical units for Teaching Middle School Writers.

The Writing Teacher: Editing Strategies

 

Editing can be a challenge for teachers.  Who is best to do the editing?  Laure was very clear to me, the students.  But the process needs to be guided by the teacher. I asked Laura to share some thoughts and strategies on how to effectively engage students in editing.

Teachers tend to edit for writing conventions by correcting students’ writing because that’s what their teachers did to their work. Two things happen if we continue this editing practice:

  1. Teachers, not students, become better at editing for writing conventions.
  2. Students don’t learn from their editing errors. Instead, they recopy the teacher’s edits and make minimal progress

 

How to Change This Picture

Help students understand that they need to edit their writing by narrowing the scope of what they do.  First, negotiate with students the writing conventions to include in a rubric—these are the conventions you will teach and review. Then, have students use the rubric to edit for one convention at a time. This means that students will have to read through their writing to check for each convention because students have more success when editing for one convention at a time.

 

Fifth Grade Example

The rubric that fifth-grade students used to edit their book reviews included these writing conventions:

  • Paragraphing
  • Complete sentences.
  • Commas in a series
  • Underline title of the book

Students self-edited only for the four conventions listed and then had their writing partners edit book reviews.  Using feedback from self and peer editing, students composed a second draft that also included content revisions.

If students made other writing convention errors, the teacher noted these as she read students’ second drafts: Commas between compound sentences; active verbs; commas at end of introductory subordinate phrases.  You can think aloud and show students how you edit following a rubric. Then, create a list of what you did to help students as they edit their work.

 

Tips That Support Students

  • Have students read their piece out loud to listen for and test conventions listed in their rubric.
  • Think aloud and model how asking questions helps with the editing process. Create an anchor chart with questions like those that follow:

 

Some Writing Conventions Questions

  • Did I paragraph when I changed time, place, and topic?
  • Did I paragraph dialogue correctly?
  • Did I test sentences that go on for 3 or more lines to see if they are run-ons?
  • Did I rewrite run-ons so I have clear sentences?’
  • Did I start a few to several sentences the same way?
  • Did I rewrite to vary sentence openings?
  • Can I combine two short sentences?
  • Are there missing commas, quotation marks, or end-of-sentence punctuation?
  • Have I circled words I think I’ve misspelled?
  • Have I asked my writing partner to check my edits?

 

Closing Thoughts

Editing for conventions takes time. Sure, it’s easier for the teacher to do the work, but remember, we teach for independence. To help students achieve independence, they need to do the editing. It’s easy to slide back to how we learned and what we are used to doing. Feel tempted to do the editing? Sit on your hands and read, making mental notes of possible mini-lessons and places students need to revisit.  Jot feedback for students on a sticky note, and list ideas for future mini-lessons on writing conventions. It will take more time, but it’s the students who will progress by practicing a complex process.

 

To learn much more about teaching editing, check out these resources by Laura Robb: Teaching Middle School Writers (Heinemann, 2010) and SMART WRITING (Heinemann, 2012).

 

The Writing Teacher – Revision Strategies

Revision is hard to teach.  I asked Laura to share some tips on how to teach great revision strategies.

“I don’t know what to revise or how to revise.”  Too many students feel this way when teachers ask them to revise their writing for content and word choice.  It is important for students to revise their own work and then have a peer writing partner offer revision suggestions. The big question is, How can teachers help students revise their work?

What follows are seven tips that move revision out of your hands and into your students’ hands.

Tip 1. Have students use the rubric or content criteria you negotiated and their writing plans to check their first drafts.

Tip 2. Model this checking process using the first draft of a student no longer at your school. Think out loud to show students how you compare the rubric and writing plan to the first draft. Then, make a list of areas that require revision. For example:

Shorten the title

Need to add dialogue and punctuate

Make nouns like things and stuff specific

Sentence openings in 2 paragraphs all the same–need to vary them.

Tip 3. Have students make a list of what they need to revise.

Tip 4.  Model revision strategies.

To revise one or a few sentences or add sentences place a number next to the sentence that needs elaborating. On separate paper, have the student write the same number and complete the revision.

To generate specific nouns have students write in the margin a list of 2 to 3 possibilities, reread the sentence inserting each new and select the choice that works.

To vary sentence openings, students can combine two related sentences, open some sentences with a prepositional phrase or open with one of these words (called subordinating conjunctions): when, since, until, because, if, as soon as, although, unless, whenever.

Tip 5. Have the student invite his/her writing partner to make revision suggestions. Partners use a plan, rubric or criteria, and the first draft to create a feedback list.

Tip 6. Invite students to review all feedback, decide what they’ll include in their revisions, then write their revisions following suggestions in Tip 4.

Tip: 7: Ask students to compose a second draft that includes their revisions.

 

Now, teachers read improved second drafts and students learn how to use their plans and the rubric or criteria to figure out what to revise.  Of course, there will be errors not addressed in the rubric or criteria. Make a list of errors as you read second drafts. These become topics for future mini-lessons and student conferences.

Feedback on Second Drafts

Use students’ revision lists and rewrites to offer feedback. Look at the process from finding topics, brainstorming, negotiating a rubric or criteria, writing plan, first draft, revisions, and second draft. On a sticky-note, list a few things the student improved and/or did well using the rubric/criteria as your guide for responding. Then, take a few minutes to reflect on priorities–what you’d like the student to ponder and improve. Choose one or two needs and put these in the form of questions. Questions should be kind and encourage students to reflect. If necessary, let students have another shot at revising using your questions.

The point is to offer students a strategy, opportunity, and choice for improving their writing. When students feel confident doing the work of revision, you are teaching for independence!

Follow Laura @LRobbPrincipal

Check out this great book! Read Talk Write

The Writing Teacher – Student Partnerships

I asked Laura to share her thoughts on how an English teacher can create a culture of feedback by supporting student partnership.

Reading and grading papers is a fact of the teaching life. However, writing teachers seem to spend more time on students’ work because they provide students with lengthy revision suggestions and correct most of the students’ incorrect use of conventions.  Frustrations over workload and time spent grading quickly set in, but these feelings go underground when you organize writing partnerships in your classes.

Students can select writing partners or you can assign them. However, offering students choice motivates them to work hard and support each other through the process. Since partnerships can change after completing a writing unit, students will be able to pair-up with several classmates during the year. In addition, if a partner is working diligently on a draft, encourage students to seek assistance from someone who has completed that part of the process.

Writing partnerships benefit teachers and students, and the suggestions that follow provide tips that help you place the responsibility for writing plans, drafting, revising, and editing on students.

Supporting Student Partnerships. Collaborate with students and motivate them to write, and at the same time, you’ll boost their engagement in the entire process.

  • Create the rubric with student input so that they invest in the process.
  • Negotiate with students the amount of time they need for each of the following parts of the process: designing a rubric with you; brainstorming and planning; composing the first draft; revising for content and style; and editing for conventions.
  • Circulate among students when they brainstorm, plan, and the draft so you can discuss questions and roadblocks with them and offer suggestions that move them forward.
  • Read and offer feedback on second drafts, for these have been greatly improved by students.
  • Use the rubric to make positive comments on a sticky note and ask one to two questions that push students back into the revision and/or editing process.

Releasing Responsibility to Students Partnerships. Students learn how to evaluate a piece of writing by comparing it to a rubric. Have students write self and peer evaluations on notebook paper and file these in their writing folders.  Make sure students save all of their written work–from brainstormed ideas to second drafts–in a writing folder.

  • Have students discuss their topics before brainstorming. This ensures that they generate more detailed lists.
  • Ask students to use their rubric to evaluate the richness of details in their writing plan and add specific details when necessary.
  • Have students use the rubric to self-and-peer evaluate first drafts by measuring these against the negotiated rubric.
  • Help partners understand that first drafts require much work. Encourage them to revise for content first, then writing style, and finally for conventions.
  • Have students use their revisions and edits to compose the second draft.
  • Require that students turn in all of their work with the second draft on top.

The Payoffs

  Teachers find it easier to grade and offer feedback on improved second drafts. Moreover, student partnerships free-up teachers with the time they need to support individuals who struggle with a task.  

Partnerships foster independence in writing among students. When they experience how comparing a draft to the rubric provides them with suggestions for improving their piece, they can choose and use feedback to revise and rewrite their writing.