Paragraph revisions

In the last two days I’ve completed a graduate class in education, assessed 125 or so paragraphs on reformers in the late middle ages, and finished up my participating teacher’s portfolio for clearing her credential. (I’m a new teacher mentor.) I have been up since 4 AM. So if this entry makes less sense than usual, it’s because I’m tired. (But totally riding the high of having accomplished all that.)

Testing is over!!! WOOHOO!!! Tomorrow we go back to our normal schedule and everyone is just thrilled.

A little background: I write fiction. I have two longish short stories published in charity anthologies where my name was on the front cover and I have various other things done here and there. I’m working on my first book, but it’ll be years before I can publish it. When I write, I post my work to Scribophile, which is a website for writers to network and find other writers to critique their work. I recently completed a short story about two ninth-graders, and it was critiqued.

I wanted my students to understand that everyone, no matter how long they’ve been writing or what their publication status is, can improve their writing. I wanted them to know that feedback is a useful and important tool, and that comments designed to improve a person’s writing aren’t punitive. I wanted to show them how the sausage was made. So before I “passed back” their paragraphs, I displayed this image:

Maria 1

This is the first page of said story. The yellow is highlighter, and the green is comments that one of my crit partners made. (I have permission to share this.)

I explained that my friend wanted to help me be a better writer, which is why she wrote so much. I wanted to be a better writer, which is why I asked her for her help. All of this work was done to improve my skills, because while I’m good, I could be better. I told them I looked forward to getting my stories back because I had improved so much since getting feedback on them.

I said, they shouldn’t be afraid to see comments, that they were going to see a lot of comments, and that some of the comments would be good ones. I said it was important to point out what a person is doing right, just as my friend pointed out the good characterization above. I said number of comments doesn’t mean anything about quality of writing. For example, I said, people who had barely written anything on their drafts got only one comment: “Please finish your assignment.”

I showed them a classmate’s work from their own period. I deliberately chose students who’d written really good paragraphs but who’d also gotten a lot of comments. I brought up that student work and told everyone explicitly that I thought the writing was wonderful. But all these comments? They were designed to help the student grow because anyone can be better.

This is the heart of differentiated instruction. I’m coming to the conclusion that you can’t effectively differentiate instruction unless students are only measured against themselves. Assigning “objective” grades measures student work against something outside of themselves.

My “excellent” students can be better. No 7th grader writes extraordinarily well. Every 7th grader has room to grow as a writer. So they should. Slap As on the work of the top kids, and they won’t grow. They won’t get feedback they need to improve, because if they do get feedback at all they’ll ignore it on account of they got an A, so why bother? And half the time A-quality work doesn’t get much feedback because it meets the standards of the assignment. So now my “excellent” students who have been coasting know they have to work hard and try hard to maintain that A, and that they’ll get something real out of the effort. No more easy As.

My “poor” students can be better, and this gives them the breathing space to do so. Anyone in a general education classroom can improve their writing with a little coaching. My “poor” kids love not being graded because they can try their hardest and know that if they do show improvement, that’s what’s going to count. About half of my “poor” kids are trying very hard now, when previously none of them tried. The rest are sticking it out to see what happens, but I’m betting after a few months of being held to no standard other than their past achievements, they’ll move too. It gives them a chance to crawl out of the D-F Dungeon, and to learn something useful.

So after embarrassing the heck out of my “excellent” 7th graders, we took screencaps of the paragraphs and comments and uploaded them to their portfolios. I’m hammering into their head the absolute need for images of their less-than-perfect work. “We’re doing before-and-after shots,” I tell them. “No one can tell how much you’ve improved unless they see your before-shot.” I also mentioned marking heights on door jambs when kids are growing, measuring biceps before weight lifting, etc.

I also found that they were very encouraged to work on improving their paragraphs because they saw that I get a lot of corrections too. Showing my image to them took the sting out of their collection of comments. I think kids need to see more images of teacher rough drafts if we want to encourage them to write more in general.

I also think this is a lot of work. It took me 5 hours to assess/leave feedback on those paragraphs, and Wednesday afternoon/evening I get to do it again. So I think I’m going to be assigning only one paragraph per unit, and next year I’m going to bow to what people have been saying (“assign fewer essays! stick with paragraphs only!”). I would work myself to death if I had to do all this work with full essays every unit. Maybe I’ll do two papers next year but that’s it.

That said, I have plans on assigning another paragraph at the end of the China unit we’re starting tomorrow. I may use a single point rubric on that one. I can have my students pick 2 or 3 things they want to improve as writers, then choose one of those for the rubric. I’ll give them examples of options, of course, and I’ll write more about that as time passes.

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