Teaching middle schoolers how to write is the hardest part of my job. Because today’s students are tasked not just with supporting, but analyzing deeply1 what they read through writing, the impossibility of teaching them how to do this has been wrought with my defeatist attempts. Given that research has shown2 that timely, descriptive, and individualized feedback yields the greatest gains, something has had to give. So in the spirit of having a will if I could only find a way, I decided last year to make small, but critical changes to my practice. In much the same way international backpackers are advised to pack half the clothes they think they need and instead take twice the amount of money, I’ve had to adjust not just my approach, but my mindset about the entire process. Here’s where I’m currently at:
- I’ve slashed the length
- I’ve “flipped” the task
- I’ve gone green
Starting from the bottom up, the adoption of StudySync has seamlessly integrated a paperless platform into an (almost) already paperless process. No more spirals to collect, and then hand back, and then collect – every class period, every day. Writing notebooks are gathering dust in the back of my room and I couldn’t be happier to recycle them. Since writing assignments are completed and submitted in StudySync, I can access them at school on my laptop or at home on my desktop. Feedback and grading are embedded within the assignment. I highlight entire chunks of student writing and with a click they can read what comments I attached to that specific part. The line of students waiting for me to decipher what handwritten notes I scribbled on their page the day before is finally gone. That’s a relief, but it’s not even the best part. The best part is that it does what Google Classroom and Google Docs does not: With the addition of a “Next” button at the top of the page, I can send my student’s writing back to them for review while another student’s submission simultaneously loads for me to start the task all over again. The process is fast.
“Flipping” the task has been huge. In years past we read in class, discussed in class, and answered questions about the reading in class. Writing was homework and returned with a grade days (or weeks) later. I came to realize that if anything was going to change, I had to recapture the process part of the writing process. To do that, I decided writing had to happen with me in the room. Now, reading is done at home, and writing about the reading is done in class with me. It is literally astounding the amount of quality questions I get from kids when they are writing as I walk around the room. I am exhausted at the end of writing workshop days and not because I’m frustrated. It’s because I’ve been back and forth and up and down all day answering, critiquing, suggesting, coaching, and conferencing with kids. Up to the point of actually assigning the task, I’ve taught the method, given examples, modeled, and annotated in front of them. But until they have to start doing it themselves, they have no idea how to actually do it. So I simply make them start. Right then and there. At first, this process is labored and lengthy and I wonder what in the world I got myself in to.
Lastly I cut the length because without doing that, I couldn’t give the amount of feedback I give, let alone the amount of immediate feedback I give. Let me warn you: This part isn’t pretty. It’s messy in the best kind of way. I burn through student work like a vicious lawn mower so brutally that I warn the kids ahead of time. If I’m going to be quick, I don’t have time to be polite, let alone have time to fix my typos. The important thing is that I can critique the evidence3 used, the way the quotes were embedded, the way the text was cited, and the way the student elaborated on the evidence to support the thesis in about a minute. In a class of 25, several students will have me critique re-writes several times; some just once. While they are waiting for me to give feedback on a re-write, they are critiquing the work of their peers which automatically generate through StudySync. I could manage this process too, if I wanted, but mostly I don’t. They have the opportunity to read other students’ work and give feedback on that work while they wait for their latest feedback from me. After a few sessions, I am giving less generic feedback and getting deeper… because they are getting better. It is really gratifying. The high fives start meaning something because they begin to see how their hard work pays off. Some of them actually begin to authentically like the process. Writing from sources and with evidence starts to make sense to them and come easier. At the end of these maniacal sessions, I feel insane – but really proud of what was accomplished – and I know that the pace will not go on like this for forever. Gradually we work into longer and longer pieces much like a runner training for a marathon, the longest training day the very last.
By the time the state assessment comes in the spring, they feel ready to run the race. By the time they end the year in May, they are ready for a new course, and I am ready to pass the torch.
1 See AzMerit Standard Setting Report pg 176 & 180
2 For a quick reference see 5 Research Based Tips for Providing Students with Meaningful Feedback
3 See AzMerit Writing Rubrics in which the phrase “elaborative techniques” is used