Last week we worked on writing Odes. As we moved into revising and editing our poems, I realized many students weren't doing a solid job identifying where their Odes needed improvement. We'd invested a lot of time writing them, and I didn't want to abandon the hard work we'd accomplished thus far, but I also knew that I needed to tweak my approach to these phases in the writing process, or we would all feel discouraged about the work we'd done.
Enter The Five BIG Questions
After providing each student with a formal copy, I introduced The Five BIG Questions. I explained that I knew they were struggling with making improvements to their Odes, and we needed a different approach in addition to the Tell-Show, which we'd already tried using without a lot of success. Those students who had shared with the entire class weren't receiving helpful feedback.
The previous week we'd read several sample Odes, which we analyzed carefully for: imagery, figurative language, organization, format, etc. to establish some criteria for what makes a well-written Ode. Using a student-written sample from this same collection, I asked for a volunteer to read it aloud.
After reading it together, I asked my students to simply watch and listen as I modeled how to answer The Five BIG Questions. After each answer, I shared what I came up with. I then explained that we were going to have two other writers read and evaluate our Odes using The Five BIG Questions:
- What makes this writing good? (Quality)
- What would make this writing better? (Improvement)
- What's the one most important thing the writer wants you to know? (Main Idea)
- Why did the writer write this? (Purpose)
- What do you (the reader) need to know to understand and enjoy the text? (Audience)
After sharing my answers with my students and displaying them where they could be easily referenced, it was their turn. I handed out the drafts I collected earlier (purposely giving stronger writers weaker Odes and weaker writers stronger Odes). I then gave them a solid 20-30 minutes of work time to read the poems and write their feedback down on their Five BIG Questions Evaluation forms I'd distributed earlier.
As students worked on writing in their feedback, I walked around the room to answer questions and evaluate the type of feedback they were writing on their forms. If I thought they could give better feedback, I asked questions like:
- What do you mean by _________?
- What else did you notice?
- Why did you make that suggestion?
- Which words/lines were your favorites?
Once students finished, I collected the poems and evaluation forms and gave them back to the original writer. I then gave them some time to read the feedback they'd been given. If they had a question about something their evaluator wrote, I gave them a chance to talk to that person to clarify things.
The next day, I collected drafts a second time, gave students another evaluation form, and re-distributed the poems to a different evaluator.
Towards the end of the class period of the second day, I had students copy and complete this Sentence Starter:
- I thought The Five Big Questions activity was...
I also asked them to rate this activity using the Five Star System we also use when evaluating the books we read. When students finished, I asked for a few volunteers to share their responses, which included comments like:
- Constructive criticism is always helpful.
- Sometimes you need to hear what other people have to say about what you're writing.
- Really helpful because it gives you feedback on what the person likes and what I need to add.
Interesting, right? These comments sound like the types of comments "real" writers would share given the same activity.
I then asked students who rated the activity four or more stars to raise their hands. In all five classes, the majority of students in each class raised their hands. I didn't expect to have such an overwhelmingly positive response, especially since our class time had been relatively silent during their work time. From now on, after every draft we write, we'll use The Five BIG Questions to lead us into our revising and editing work.
Breaking Up The Routine
Until this piece, I hadn't given my students the opportunity to give each other "formal" feedback on their writing. Sure, we'd shared bits and pieces of narratives and opinion pieces we'd written, which some students could opt out of if they chose to (either by not volunteering to share their work or by not giving any feedback in class discussions about the work shared). In some groups, students naturally had helped each other out by talking about how to fix a mistake, or other changes that needed to be made.
In this opportunity to give formal feedback, students were critical, honest, and sincere. They noticed things that I might have overlooked; things that real writers would point out to each other. And, they were engaged in their work for a solid 20-30 minutes in complete silence!
Introducing The Five BIG Questions with a short piece (like a poem) gave my students the opportunity to be successful in giving formal feedback for the first time. Focused feedback that gives them something tangible to work with as they polish up this piece for submission.
It should be noted that The Five BIG Questions can work with any text. I modified the questions to make them form specific for this particular piece. They're also make for a great journal entry as a reading strategy and serve as an ideal pre-writing tool for Book Reviews.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.