Going away to college was a big shock for me on many levels. I had never been away from home for more than a few nights in a row. How would I ever survive on my own? How do I wash my clothes? Who will take out my trash? I was scared and nervous for the first week or so until I became acclimated. Then, things quickly got better and I started to enjoy myself. I can handle this college thing, I thought. After a few weeks of classes, I had to write my first essay. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeasy. I wrote numerous essays in high school. This will be a piece of chocolate cake, with vanilla frosting. I spent hours at my word processor. Yes, I typed that accurately. My parents couldn’t afford a computer for me during my freshman year at Keene State College and so I had to type all of my work on a word processor. It wasn’t too bad. At least I could never be distracted by the simple machine. I completed my paper and handed it in with a smile on my face. I am awesome at college. I can do anything. Maybe I’ll run for president… Then, came the reality check. When I received back the essay that I poured all of my heart and soul into, all that I saw was the big red C- circled at the top. That was it. No comments other than some proofreading marks scattered about. No explanation of the grade, no rubric, nothing but the red C-. What does that even mean? I didn’t know what the teacher had expected. I did what was asked. How do I grow and develop as a writer? I thought. I had nothing to go on. Now, while I did eventually figure out what the professor expected of me, it took much energy and many more red C- grades.
As a teacher, I never want my students to question where their grades come from nor how to grow as a writer. As we utilize the Writer’s Workshop model of writing instruction in the sixth grade, it’s very easy to meet with our students regularly to provide them with feedback on their written work. We conference with our boys throughout the writing process. We also allow them to seek out feedback from their peers on their writing as well. We utilize writing groups and author’s notes to allow the students to showcase their growth and learning as writers. We celebrate writing in the sixth grade. Students will routinely share their work aloud with the class or a peer. For us in the sixth grade, writing is about the process and not the final piece. We have students draft and redraft as many times as it takes for them to demonstrate their ability to meet the graded objectives. We want our students to know exactly where they stand as writers, while having a lot of fun.
Today in Humanities class, the students worked on finishing, revising, and editing one of their favorite poems which they worked on during our unit on poetry. The students spent much time being sure they chose their best piece. Then, they labored over every word, syllable, image, and rhyme in their poem. It was so much fun watching the boys count syllables on their fingers, play with words, try new similes and metaphors, and craft creative titles for their pieces. As students finished with this first phase of the revision process, I had a chance to conference with a few of the boys regarding their poem. This is one of my favorite parts of the writing process because I’m able to have candid conversations with the students about their writing and the process involved. I ask many questions as I provide them with feedback.
One of the first questions I asked the boys today was, “How would you like me to provide you feedback? Shall I write it on paper, jot it down on the whiteboard table, give it to you orally, or comment on your Google Document? What would work best for you?” Each of the three students I conferenced with wanted their feedback differently. One student wanted me to write it on his whiteboard table while another student wanted it written on paper. The third student wanted his orally. Then, I went through their piece, line by line, asking probing questions along the way. Why did you choose this word? Why did you use punctuation there but not here? What does this line mean? What message are you trying to send the reader? Every time I provided them with ways to improve their piece, I posed it as a question and not a command. I want the students to make the choices and own their learning and writing. I wonder why you used this word? Do you need punctuation in the middle of this line? For every question I asked, I made sure to tell them, “I’m not saying yes or no, I merely want you to think about it as you revise your piece. How can you make your poem even better?” I want the students to see that they have options and not demands being placed upon them. The process of revision is part of the process of writing. It’s not a box to be checked off on the writing list. It’s about growth and development. I want the students to see how they can improve upon their writing by making them think about their words, punctuation marks, thoughts, and ideas.
To promote this process of writing and revision, rather than give the students a grade on their final piece, we assess the students on a few specific objectives for each written assignment. When we introduce a new writing piece that will be graded and formally assessed, we introduce and explain the objectives on which the students will be graded so that they are aware of the task at hand. As we work with the students to revise and grow their work, we provide focused feedback to the students. While some of the feedback is directly related to helping them better meet or exceed the graded objectives, some of our feedback is focused on helping the students grow as writers. Over the years that we have utlized this model of writing instruction in the sixth grade, we have seen improvement from the students in not only their writing abilities but also their engagement with the tasks and assignments. Although some of the students begin the year disliking writing, because of the way we teach writing in the classroom, the students grow to enjoy writing. Some students even work on their writing pieces during their free time. It’s crazy! We’ve seen the students gain more skills as writers and matriculate into the seventh grade more talented than students we’ve taught prior to utilizing the Writer’s Workshop model. Because our model of writing instruction focuses on the process of writing and not the product of writing, the students feel safe and comfortable taking risks and trying new things as writers. The vast amount of progress we see from many of the students throughout each year is phenomenal. Our boys grow into poets and authors by the end of the academic year.
Perhaps this transformation comes about because we provide the students choice and freedom in their writing topics. Or maybe it’s because we provide them feedback in a more open and safe manner that allows the students to own their changes and revisions. Or perhaps the students develop so much as writers in one year in our classroom because of the way we celebrate writing and get the students excited about it. My co-teacher and I model good writing habits as well. We write right along with the boys and they hear us share our pieces aloud throughout the year. We put ourselves out there because we expect our students to do the same. Empathy is important for them. Maybe that’s why we’ve had such success in the sixth grade with writing. I think the real reason is much more complex, just like the process of writing. It’s about the journey and not the destination.