Last week my students and I began to establish the "language" we're going to use to talk about writing this year. After having written three different narratives together, it was time to begin talking about the quality of our writing. This work provided a thoughtful, yet productive way to end the quarter and will help us transition into working to improve our writing for next quarter.
Quality and Improvement
At the beginning of the lesson, I had my students create a T-Chart with Quality: What Makes This Good Writing? on one side and Improvements: What Would Make This Writing Better? on the other. Prior to sharing a narrative I wrote with them during class, I directed their reading by saying, "As I read my story, I want you to look for at least 2-3 things that you believe makes my writing good and 2-3 things that you believe would make my story better."
I displayed my narrative on my smartboard and read it to the entire class. After I was finished reading, I reminded them of their task and gave them a few minutes to write down their thoughts. I had a T-Chart written on one of the whiteboards in my classroom where I kept track of their thoughts about the Quality of my writing and Improvements I could make. I then asked them to rate my narrative using the five star rating system often used in media reviews. Finally, I had them complete this sentence starter:
I like/don't like this writing because...
The feedback I received included things like:
"Interesting words" "Missing comma"
"Good dialogue" "fragments"
"It was funny" "worked should be work"
"Descriptive details" "more feelings"
"I could picture everything" "repeated words"
My personal favorite feedback included this from one of my bilingual students:
"A million stars times a million!" (five stars)
and this from the same student:
"I like your story because it was honest, it made me laugh out loud, I was about to pee, realistic, good spelling and dialogue."
My favorite part here is the part where the student mentions she was about to pee! While I was reading my narrative, I watched her reaction and had to stop a few times because her laughter was making me laugh. As a writer, I'd accomplished what I'd set out to do: write something that some of my students could relate to and would find funny. I'd taken a horribly embarrassing situation from my freshman year of high school and tried to write about it exactly as I'd felt at the time. I tried to imagine myself as that horrified 9th grader.
As writers, we write for a variety of purposes, but in my narrative, I was writing to entertain. With this feedback from my students, I'd accomplished my goal--something I might not have known without having read and shared my story with my students. Their feedback was priceless.
In having open-ended questions and in having prefaced our conversation with some procedures that included: avoid insults, be polite, and be honest; I created an environment where students can openly share their ideas about my writing (and later on, their peers' writing). Whether whole class, small group, or in a think-pair-share, writing to and sharing with a "real" audience is invaluable to writers of any ability or age. This is one of the many lessons I hope my students picked up on in the day's lesson.
I wrapped up our discussion by saying, "We're going to use this 'language' we created to talk about our writing for the rest of the year. Each time we write a piece together, we're going to use this 'language' we've created and add to it. Then we'll use this 'language' to give each other feedback and, eventually, to grade our writing. Doing so will help us create an environment that is safe to share in, trusting, and productive. We will write, share and give each other feedback the way that real writers write, share and give each other feedback."
I then asked for three volunteers from each class to share their writing for our next class period. I gave their pieces to them to practice reading aloud for homework. The next day, I followed the same steps I'd used with my writing. Each of us took a half-sheet of paper, copied the T-Chart (Quality and Improvement) down, and listened to each writer share their stories.
After each student shared, we talked about the quality (good things) in each piece and the things that could be improved. I made a list of these on the board for each writer, and took a picture of it with my phone (I printed these pics and gave each writer the feedback the next day). After each person shared, we rated the writing with the five star system and used the same sentence starter as before. When we finished, I had students pass their feedback to each writer. Next quarter, we'll use this feedback to make the suggested improvements.
More Focused Revising and Editing
Using this "language" that my students and I build together, I create rubrics which we use to assess our writing. Usually, I have 5-7 areas within these rubrics (think descriptive details, clear ideas, word choice, sentence fluency, etc.) with score indicators of 3 (does this well), 2 (needs improvement), and 1 (doesn't do this at all). After the drafting phase in the writing process, we can use these rubrics to help us assess our drafts. The first time through, I'll model how to use a genre (or form-specific) rubric with a couple of student drafts and then we'll practice together as a class.
Once we've practiced together, I have my students sit in groups of 4. At least 2 group members will need to assess 1 writer's draft before the writer moves into the next phases of the writing process (revising and editing). Using this feedback from at least 2 peers, I have each group report out which area is a common problem. Then, I create mini-lessons based on common problems. For example if details are a problem, I'll show students how to use a strategy called Idea-Details to help them add or change details in their paragraphs.
Creating rubrics in "student-friendly" language is something that I've had a lot of success with. Here's why:
- Students have a clear understanding of how they're being graded.
- Students have created the "language" they're using to assess their writing, which allows for ownership over how they're being graded.
- Students have a "plan" that allows for more focused revising and editing (areas many students need more practice in).
- Students can see improvement in these focused areas, which allows for better quality writing.
- Students can begin to recognize a pattern in areas that need improvement (ie. leaving suffixes like -ed, -s, or -ly off of the end of words or having dangling modifiers at the end of sentences).
- Students have genre (or form) specific rubrics to work with.
When students work with a "language" they've helped create, I've found that they're more open and willing to improve the quality of their writing. And that's exactly what I'm after--better quality writing, improvements we can all keep track of, and growth as revisers, editors, writers, and thinkers. When we work together to evaluate and assess writing in ways that make sense to all of us, the results are definitely five star!
For more on Idea-Details or helping students talk about quality and improvements in writing, see: The Writing Teacher's Strategy Guide: Practical Lessons for All Grade Levels.
Portions of this article are © Copyright 1995-2012 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., and are used by permission. For more information, and free teaching materials, visit www.ttms.org or contact Margot Lester at email@example.com.