It was one of those moments. One of those moments when things just don’t seem to be working. One of those moments when you find yourself starting to head down the ugly path of, “Why can’t my students do this? It’s not that hard.” One of those moments when I felt my frustration rising as I struggled to comprehend why revision was proving to be such a challenging concept for this group of students. I felt myself get ready to blame the kids and then luckily I stopped. Luckily I took a moment to get out of the ugly place and really ask myself calmly, “Why are my students struggling?”
After talking it through with one of my most valued and trusted education cohorts, my classroom assistant, we came to realize that our students had no idea what revision really was. They truly believed that revision meant sitting and waiting until the teacher told you what to fix and then making sure you made all the corrections that you were given. With that understanding, they found themselves completely stuck. They had a serious problem. They looked at their drafts and they didn’t see any teacher writing on them. They looked at their drafts and they didn’t see anything that they were supposed to fix. They looked at their drafts and they had no idea what to do with them because I had not pointed out all the places that I thought they could do better.
Let me pause here for just a moment and explain that this year, my writing workshop has worked a bit differently than in years past. I have a different group of kids sitting in front of me this year (as always) and I have had to adjust (as always) in order to meet them where they are. In most years, I introduce the entire writing process early on in the year and then let the kids move through that writing process on their own. We get better at the process as the year goes on and the kids adapt the process that I share with them in order to find a process that works for them as writers.
But this year, my kids needed a bit more guidance. And so, for the first few weeks of the school year, in our first writing unit (which was personal narrative and memoir) my students simply brainstormed, planned and drafted. Many of my students ended up with four or five first drafts by the time we were ready to talk about revision. My students needed a bit more guidance and a bit more time to just build themselves as writers before I introduced the idea of revising and editing and so that is what I gave them.
This meant that we ended up at the start of October with no real revising experience. So I began to introduce the idea of revision and shared with them that the first step was simply going back to the drafts they had already written and looking for places where they could make their writing better.
And that is where the wheels fell off of our communal bus. That is when I went to the ugly place. And that is when I realized that the reason my students were struggling is because I had not explained to them that this year, in this classroom, they had to take ownership over their own writing. There would be no sitting around and waiting for me to tell them what to fix. We had worked side by side through the entire drafting process. I noticed what they were doing and I pushed them to do even more. I conferred with them. We set goals. We made plans for them as writers. We talked about ways to improve what we had already done. I had been with them through the entire process and now they needed to take the lead.
But what I realized is that this concept was new to them. They were still waiting for the red pen, or (in our current world of technology) the Google Docs comments that told them what they should fix. And those comments, those corrections just weren’t going to come. Not from me anyway.
So we had to find a different way. And while it is so tempting to just start blaming the kids, I realized that we had gotten to this place because of us. The teachers. We had made the kids so dependent on us to make their writing better that they had no idea how to reflect and revise on their own. And while it would have been easy to sit and complain and give up and move on. I knew that I had to make a different choice.
Because it is my job to teach my students to do what they don’t know how to do.
So here is what we did. I began by looking at the anchor chart that my students and I had built throughout our personal narrative and memoir unit.
This chart was built as we examined mentor texts and learned from other writers specific strategies that would help us to make our narrative writing better for our readers. This list had been build as we learned to be better writers. As we studied the writing of others, we gathered our strategies here. This list reminded us of all that we had learned how to do in our first writing unit. And so this list served as the basis for how we could reflect on our writing and make our writing better.
The first step in our reflection process was to use a reflection chart that I created that listed each of the seven writing strategies that we had learned in this unit. I then had my students assign a specific color to each of these strategies. They then printed out all of the drafts that they had written throughout our unit and searched for evidence of where and when and how they used each of these writing strategies in their own writing. Yes, I could have had them do this right on Google Docs, but I felt that this group of kids needed to hold the papers in their hands and lay them all out in front of them at once and search for evidence that they had used our writing strategies.
Anyway, I explained that I did not at all expect that any one piece of writing would have all seven of these strategies and I didn’t even expect that each writer would use all seven of these strategies anywhere in their collection of drafts. I simply wanted the students to look back at their writing and notice which strategies they had used most often. So the students took their markers and underlined or highlighted the parts of their own writing that showed that they had been able to apply a specific writing strategy in their work. As they found evidence of the use of each strategy, they wrote down on their reflection chart what piece or pieces of writing they were able to use these strategies in. For the strategies that they did not use, I asked them to think about and write down ideas of where they might be able to use them as we moved into making our revisions. Here is an example of what their reflection charts and their drafts started to look like:
And yes, there were kids who underlined parts that didn’t exactly show proof that they applied the specific strategy. But I don’t think that was the point. The point was that the kids were going back and reflecting on their own writing. The point was that the kids were taking ownership of looking at what we were supposed to learn how to do and assessing if they were able to learn and use those things or not. That was the point.
After completing these reflections, I then asked the students to select just one piece that they wanted to revise and edit. Using their reflection charts, I asked them to select a piece that they loved and that they believe they could improve upon. I then handed them a revision checklist. The checklist again listed all of our writing strategies and I asked each student to find at least two ways from our revision checklist to make their writing better. If they had an idea of how to improve their writing that wasn’t on our checklist, they were welcome to add that to the checklist. As they made the changes to their writing, they were to check off which two ways (or more) they used to revise their writing. Here is an example of our revision checklist:
The final step of our writing process was the editing. Again, I did not collect and correct all of the spelling or grammar mistakes in my students’ writing. I don’t believe that they really learn anything from that process that they will apply to their writing in the future. Instead, I want my students to use the strategies that I know will help them to find and fix their own mistakes in their writing. So our editing checklist had a few key things that I wanted my students to look for and change in their writing. The expectation for the editing checklist was that they used each and every item on the checklist. We had a talk about how easy it is to just put checks on the checklist without actually doing any of the work. But we also talked about how that doesn’t really show me what they have learned to do on their own. And even more importantly, that is not going to help their readers at all to better understand their writing. Here is an example of our editing checklist:
I had the students then print out a final copy of the one piece of writing that they revised and edited. I then had them clip together ALL of their work from this writing unit. They turned in all of their drafts that had been highlighted or underlined for evidence of application of our writing strategies. They turned in their reflection charts, their revision checklist, their editing checklist and their final copy of their revised and edited piece of writing.
These stacks of work were incredible evidence of the learning and growing that my students did throughout our first writing unit. I shared these stacks of works last week, so proudly, at parent-teacher conferences. It was incredible to see the parents’ reactions to their children’s learning. What was great was that parents were impressed not just by the final drafts, but by the work that took the parents through the entire writing process. I sent the stacks of work home with the parents along with my students’ completed reading and writing reflections.
When I look back on the revising and editing work that we did at the end of our first writing unit, I am confident that my students have learned something really important about revision and about editing. They may not have fixed every single spelling and grammar error. They may have left their writing unclear for the readers in certain places. They may have missed opportunities to add emotion or detail or reflection to their writing.
But I think that they have learned something even more powerful than all of that. They have learned what it means to look back on a piece of work and assess, for themselves, how they did. They have learned that they do not need to rely solely on a teacher to tell them how to make their writing better. They have learned that they know many different ways to make their writing better and they have the power to make the choices of which ways make the most sense for a particular piece of writing. They have learned that revision is more than just fixing what your teacher tells you to fix. They have learned, in short, what it means to really be a writer. And for that, I am extremely proud of them.
If you would like to take a closer look at the documents that I used for reflection, they can be found HERE.