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- Stop Censoring Our Classrooms - March 7, 2016
- Preparing for Parent-Teacher Conferences - October 16, 2015
- My Experience with TNCore – the Tennessee State Standards - September 15, 2015
- Tips for Choosing a Novel to Study - June 9, 2015
- Choosing the Right High School Reading Intervention Program - April 30, 2015
- Four Things Teachers Should Try Before Removing a Student - April 6, 2015
- Dear 'Bad Students': Prove Us Wrong - March 12, 2015
- Improving Education: Response to Joel Klein - February 26, 2015
- Writing Hacks for Grades 9-12 - February 12, 2015
A while ago, I shared tips for grading writing. Now, I am sharing my philosophy about writing instruction in the secondary English classroom. What follows are four of my strongest-held beliefs.
Give students an opportunity to improve
Many students believe writing ends as soon as they turn in their final copy. (For many students, it is also their first draft.) These same students rarely take the time to learn from the feedback so that they can do better next time. While you cannot force any student to want to progress, you can still set up an environment to support improvement.
One way is to offer students a chance to increase their grade if they rewrite their papers. Students who care about their grade will be given incentive to strengthen their writing. Sadly, those who are satisfied with just “getting by” will not be moved. In order to reach more students, I required them to keep writing portfolios. Students must store all their major papers in a folder. Every so often, they are required to choose a paper to rewrite after making corrections. (My first go-around, I only required students to rewrite one paper so as not to overwhelm myself.) To ensure that students made meaningful changes, I stipulated that they must improve three or more different areas, including adding more details, changing passive voice to active, correcting mechanical errors, combining shorter sentences into longer sentences, cutting down choppy sentences, and so on. Students were allowed to choose which corrections to make.
Teachers should not do all the revising and editing
When you give students a chance to rewrite their papers, you should not correct all the errors yourself. You could write a comment or use a symbol to point students in the right direction (e.g. “r/o” for “run-on sentences” or “CD” for “add more concrete details”), but you should stop there. Point out the error and leave it to the student to figure out how to correct it.
To give students more of a challenge, you could just mark the areas where you find errors without pointing out what is wrong. (I would circle or highlight.) Students will have to discover what is wrong before they could correct it. A more daring challenge would be to count the number of mistakes you found without marking where you found them.
Correcting everything yourself adds more time onto your already busy schedule, and it robs students of a chance to obtain independence with their work. At least require that the students take a day to correct what they can before you rescue them. In the meantime, point them toward a trusty resource.
Allow students to find their own style
There is a process for almost every type of writing mode. You have the generic 5-paragraph essay, the DARE method for argument papers, and one of my personal favorites, the IT PEE S for writing an analytical paper, among others. However, when these methods are overused, teachers can stifle their students’ creativity.
For example, most of us have had it drilled into our heads that we *must* present the thesis statement in the introductory paragraph; typically, it is the last sentence in the introduction. Should a student dare to try something different, such as asserting the thesis statement for the first time in the conclusion, some teachers would be quick to dismiss the student as making a grievous error. After all, this is not the method the teacher has been taught nor is it the method that the teacher taught the class. But is it always wrong to break the mold?
I read such a paper once when searching for exemplar papers; it was written in response to an argumentative prompt. In it, the student simply stated the issue in the introduction, described the advantages to one side of the issue in a body paragraph, refuted that same side in the next body paragraph, established support for the other side in the last body paragraph, and conclusively affirmed his or her position in the conclusion. The writing was sophisticated and earned one of the highest marks in its set. I strongly suspect that the grader who read the essay was impressed with the student’s ability to stand out from his or her peers. Because the student saved the thesis for the grand finale, the audience was eager to keep reading ahead to see where this student was going to take them.
When we encourage students to take risks with their writing, they might surprise us in the end. I am not discouraging sharing methods and formulas for writing, especially for new modes of writing. But formulas should not impede a mature writer who is developing a unique writing style. My philosophy here is that if the student successfully answers the prompt, logically organizes the paper in some fashion (not necessarily *the* fashion that I taught), and provides sufficient details and support, then I will accept that paper. As for the 5-paragraph essay, I would rather read a well-constructed and thorough 4-paragraph essay than a 5 (or more) – paragraph essay in which the student regurgitates a point just to fill space. Sometimes, students cannot think of three or more points to write about, but they can craft convincing support for two of them.
Grammar isn’t everything
Grammar is a point of contention among my colleagues. It boils down to how much we weigh grammar while grading essays. Some people in my department feel that grammar is equally or more important than any other aspect of a paper. After all, how can you successfully get your message across if your paper is full of errors? Conversely, the rest of us feel that grammar, though important, should not take precedent over content. Since the point of writing is to convey a message more so than it is to showcase one’s grammatical skills, readers should pay less attention to grammar and more attention to the writer’s ideas. If you can understand what the writer is trying to say despite the grammatical error (or honest typo, whatever the case may be), then the writer has accomplished his or her task.
That is not to say that secondary students should sidestep standard English. Rather, I am asserting that we should give equal or greater attention to other aspects of writing. How can students correct their grammar if they have no ideas to put on paper? Articulating one’s thoughts is already a difficult process; there is no need to hinder that with my grammar critique. In fact, I have found that when grammar is the teacher’s focal point during grading essays, students who struggle become too discouraged to write. “The less I write, the less my teacher can nitpick,” or “The teacher is only going to tell me how horrible I am at spelling or that I can’t write a complete sentence to save my life, so why even bother?” Even my more capable students expressed dismay at having grammar count so much on their essays. An honors student recently told me that he was “excited” to be in my class when he found out that my main focus would be on students’ ideas and that grammar would only be worth a fraction of the grade. He had previously studied under a teacher who counted points off for every single grammar mistake beyond what the rubric stated. (For example, if the lowest point column was reserved for “5 or more grammar/mechanical/spelling errors,” the teacher would deduct additional points for each additional error found. It would be possible to fail an essay based on grammar alone, no matter how brilliant a student’s ideas were.) This same teacher commented more on the student’s mechanical skills and less on the student’s content. On the contrary, I want to discover my students’ thoughts more than I want to admire their proofreading skills. After students are comfortable with responding to prompts, I can then turn their attention to grammar. As English teachers, we risk forgetting that some students lack the strong language aptitude or interest that most of us have. We are not all meant to be editors!
Although I feel strongly about writing instruction, I realize that my way is certainly not the only way to teach. Feel free to respond in the comments section; debates are welcome so long as they are respectful! Thank you.