This semester’s resolution: Focus on the writing process

New Year’s Day isn’t the only time for resolutions – that’s why I don’t make them on January 1. I also start a new year every August as I get ready for new classes and to try new things.

I maintain that a new year starts every day – not just the middle of August or the first of the calendar year, but even next Friday after a good #jerdchat the previous Thursday evening. After a good weekend of planning, my new year starts on the following Monday.

So I’ve resolved to change attitudes about writing in my freshmen English students, starting Monday, Jan. 6.

The need: writing improvement and appreciating the process

During one-on-one conferences with each of them before the break, I learned that many wanted to improve their writing skills. That, or they wanted to tell me something I wanted to hear when I asked them about goals. Plausible.

Grading their formal, structured paragraphs over short story topics the other day, I learned something else. I graded the first ones turned in, first. Those that were turned in late were on the bottom of the stack. Then, of course, there were about seven that were never turned in. With a few exceptions, those turned in early were from confident writers. The late papers were from students who, every time I came by their desk to check progress or offer feedback, hadn’t even begun. We spent the better part of three days ON A PARAGRAPH.

What took so long? I gave them choices. We’d read four short stories and I wanted them to focus on elements of fiction. They could choose any one of the stories and write about irony, symbolism or figurative language as it applied to that story. When you do the math for the possible combinations, that’s quite a few choices.

The students who turned in their papers late did not do their work in class where they could get feedback and make improvements as they worked on it. They hesitated starting because they lacked confidence, didn’t know where to begin or even really how to tackle it. Yes, I’d taught the structure more than once. Those paying attention – those confident students – were likely bored and wondering why their peers didn’t just pay attention and “get it.”

I marked their papers, wrote dozens of notes in margins, praising where I could, offering advice where an improvement could be made though it wasn’t inherently “wrong,” and then I sadly put a grade in the system, knowing that would be the end of that assignment. But it shouldn’t have been. And I still might resurrect them.

Now my task for the new semester is to put the focus on the process. I want them to understand that editing and revision is a part of writing.

Possible solutions: write more, edit more, participate more

First of all, they simply must write more. I’ll admit that having five preps, two of those being publications with extra responsibilities, has me stretching myself beyond what I’m capable of doing well. I didn’t do the first semester of English well. We didn’t get as far as I’d hoped, and haven’t focused enough on writing. So there will be more writing. I got a great deal on spiral notebooks over the break, so everyone is getting a journal. I’ll have them journal at the beginning of class two-three times per week. In addition, we’ll do reading journals during the two novels and “Romeo & Juliet.”

In focusing on the editing and revision process, I’m borrowing an idea from a yearbook staff that was published in one of the many magazines I get. They call it clocking. I’ll call it clockwork. The idea is an editing process that moves among several editors in a group in a clockwise rotation.

Each “editor” in a group edits for one purpose. The list I’ve come up with so far includes:

Sentence structure: This editor will watch for fragments, run-ons, awkward sentences, varied sentence structure and punctuation that goes with that sentence structure.

Content: This editor will check to see that flow makes sense, examples are accurate. Did writer use best example for that point? Is there anything contradictory or repetitive?

Don’ts/style: This editor will use a checklist of avoiding: 1st or 2nd person pronouns (unless form calls for it), contractions, informal language, misspellings, abbreviations, symbols. He will check to make sure piece is double-spaced, written on one side, correct paragraph structure and has a snappy title.

Vocabulary: This editor gives kudos on good vocabulary, edits for wrong word, spelling (again) and word choice (can make suggestions or not).

Paragraph structure: This editor examines the topic sentence, transitions, and conclusion sentence.

Once each paper has been through all these edits, the writer should have plenty of feedback to revise it, making it much stronger. In addition, each editor just got better at his or her area of expertise and got to see peer writing that is both better and not as good as her own.

The other demon I have to tackle is participation. My oldest son, who is working on his alternative teaching certification  suggested peer pressure and a party.

If I plan X number of these sessions (so long to write, then move directly into clockwork), and get close to 100 percent participation, we can have a class party at the end to celebrate what would surely be improvement in all our writing.

Allowing for absences, I’d shoot for 90 percent, but hopefully, the involved students would push the less involved students to get their work done so they can all bask in the reward. I’m up against a lot here, considering one third of my class did not turn in that last paragraph. I’d really hate to turn down the party, so I’m still considering how to make that happen.

What suggestions do you have to help tackle the participation demon?

Note: 

I’ve had a few tell me they like the clocking idea, so I found the video, which was accessible through a QR code in the Balfour yearbook magazine, fall 2012 edition. If you’d like to see a yearbook class demo the technique, take a peek at this link to the website.

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About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

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