Feels Just Right: Crafting Middle School Writing Instruction

Marilyn Mayer, 2009 TC


Do you worry that we teach writing by seeking help from how-to gurus who are divorced from the realities of today’s students?  Are your writing instruction books gathering dust on your bookshelf as you grapple with helping students to pass high stakes tests and still find time to actually write?  The generic title of Laura Robb’s Teaching Middle School Writers belies a book that appreciates a teacher’s passion for students by promoting writing through thinking and learning.


Choice is the operative word throughout Robb’s book.  She believes that by giving students writing choices, a teacher can optimize the talents of a student.  She surveyed a wide variety of students in states as varied as Kentucky to California and New York to Michigan, asking them what kinds of writing they did–diaries, journals, letters, e-mails, poems, stories, and texting, and what their preferences were.  Her ten question survey shows clear differences in male-female writing preferences and she uses this knowledge to custom fit her lessons.


All writing has to start with a solid foundation in reading, and Robb advocates leveling reading materials.  She gives a heartbreaking story of an inexperienced, but dedicated teacher trying to teach Anne Frank to her eighth grade class, a class in which only two students read at grade level.  Rather than having all students read the same book, Robb selects books—often centered around a common theme—that fit the reading levels of individual students. By leveling reading materials, Robb has all students then write about what they read. Her advice fits perfectly with the latest educational trend, i.e. differentiated learning.


For years I’ve been creating rubrics, with the belief that my students should know what’s expected of them before they take on a writing assignment, but Ms. Robb advocates creating criteria.  Her criticism of rubrics is that they move from high to low grades, thus making the lower scores filled with negative statements.  By listing criteria, students can raise their awareness of what constitutes good writing.  For instance, the criteria for a fifth grade journal assignment might combine a content criterion—that the student include three journal entries, with a performance criterion—that the student discuss or elaborate on one event or incident.  Criteria can also change according to the genre of writing and can easily be adjusted to meet the needs of diverse writers.  Ms. Robb follows her criteria advice with models for revision and self-evaluations.


Revising or editing?  Ms. Robb discusses how her notion of writing criteria can help students to revise—change and fix content, or edit—fix the mechanics of a piece.  This work can be a Mount Everest for students.   Too often, a teacher pressed for time revises and edits the piece, and the student copies it.  This process doesn’t help the student to become a better writer and doesn’t give the writer a sense of ownership.  By having students revise and edit according to the criteria, they can do these jobs independently.  As elements in the criteria come up, the teacher can do a mini-lesson that teaches how to correct the problem, and the students can then tackle the corrections themselves.  The goal should always be student independence.


Robb’s final advice is to ease into 21st century writing methods. She quotes several studies that have found that texting does not lead to poor academic writing.  However, Robb is well aware that other studies suggest the alternate conclusion, and encourages teachers to research the issue. Students text as a form of written communication, and Robb feels it’s important to meet writers where they are.  Robb feels that by starting from a level of comfort, a student can take greater risks in writing. None of us wants to do a task that’s difficult and results in negative feedback.  So why should middle schoolers be any different when asked to take on a writing assignment?  A class blog is another 21st century recommendation to improve writing, as well as further the sense of a class writing community.


Robb’s book has a Goldilocks feel.  It keeps the best of writing workshop, accounts for the new reality of testing, and folds-in 21st century literacy skills.  Every teacher has felt the frustration of a student saying, “I can’t.” And for every student who says “I can’t write,” there may well be a complement of teachers who say “I can’t teach writing.” Robb’s book addresses this all-too-common problem.   Teaching Middle School Writers will give teachers the confidence and know-how to say, “I can and love to teach writing.”  Laura Robb’s book can replace a score of How-to-Teach-Writing books on a teacher’s bookshelf, and leave the teacher with renewed vigor and confidence in teaching writing to the students of the 21st century.



How Do You Get to Regents Mastery

The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice.

Joe Cortese (2009 TC)


As I round out my second decade of teaching high school social studies, I’ve finally begun to see something very simple–practice improves performance.  Coaches have known this since the beginning of organized athletics.  Football players gripe about the blocking and tackling dummies; basketballers loathe line sprints; cross-country runners dread the hill workouts. No doubt Greek wrestlers scrimmaged (perhaps slathered in cheap, olive oil– extra-virgin would have been Olympics-grade) endlessly prior to the Games.


So, an essential question for the social studies teacher might be “How can I get my students to write better DBQs (document-based questions) and thematic essays?  They only use the minimum number of documents–and never any outside information (which is required for mastery scores–in their DBQs), and they just don’t tell the story they know about in their thematic essays.  I mean, I know they understand the material, but they almost never write it!”  The typical answer that these beleaguered teachers will hear is one they dread: “By having them write practice DBQs and thematic essays, of course.”


And then the twitching begins…because a reasonable, natural reaction to the suggestion that one isn’t doing enough work–especially in these times–is “I’ll never have time to grade them!”  But please relax–I’m not your ten-years-out-of-the-trenches administrator, and I’m certainly not a bureaucrat from the State Department of Education.  Unlike those [well-meaning] folks, when I say “I’m here to help you,” it’s sincere: here’s something that I’ve learned to use that gets my students to invest more in their learning, rather than giving me more of their papers to grade.  I’d like to explain to you how “writing to learn”–a powerful, simple tool–can slide smoothly into your classroom.


Athletes are assessed on their performance in league games; students are assessed on their summative assessments (i.e. Regents exams).  Just as sports teams have a few scrimmages, teachers should have a few practice Regents essays.  However, both are difficult to stage, direct, and assess.  Both suck vast quantities of time and energy.  Most sports practices are made up of drills, right?  Why shouldn’t Regents essay writing prep be similar?


I’ve listened to peers, students, and especially resource room teachers, and know that most teachers don’t really have time to assign that much writing.  Some of it is compressed into major papers; some is homework; much is done in test essays.  Can a typical second-string linebacker be expected to make the key tackles in the fourth quarter of a tight football game if he hasn’t spent countless sweaty practices hitting the tackling dummy?  Of course not—so how can we expect a typical middling Regents history student to nail the DBQ and thematic essays in June…if she hasn’t been writing virtually every day in class?


Think about it: if you’re only required to use writing during a high-stakes moment, how well will you employ that skill?  But if you’ve been practicing that skill regularly—so regularly that writing has become one of your most-trusted learning tools—wouldn’t you be much better at demonstrating mastery of the work at hand, and achieving vastly better results?


So here’s what I’ve been doing in my classroom.  I have my students write something almost every day.  I don’t often grade these assignments, which I call “microbursts” of writing, because their purpose is to get the kids comfortable with the physical and mental demands of academic writing. I simply want them to write about what we’ve been doing in class.  Think of these microbursts as intensely focused exercises, and as examples of the new buzzphrase, formative assessments.


Reflect, if you will, on your relationship with writing.  How long have you been writing–and doing it with better-than-average success?  How many papers, essays, book reviews, lesson plans, letters, etc. have you written in your collegiate and professional life?  You write without thinking about the work inherent in the process–because you’ve worked hard at learning to write without thinking about the many mechanical and conceptual steps that the writing process demands. Teachers–at least most–take their own writing skills for granted.  A huge light bulb moment for me was to realize that most students don’t–because they can’t.


Since most students write rarely, they have to think a lot harder about what to write about, how to write it, how much to describe, who they’re writing to, what the finished product is supposed to be, and why they’re writing it.  In many cases, they even have to concentrate on the act of putting pen to paper and creating written words.  When all these factors need to be addressed consciously, the product is often…poor.  When the product is a Regents Exam essay, it’s usually graded at 1 or 2 (5 being high mastery)–a recipe for low exam scores, failures, course retakes, low graduation rates, and vastly increased pressures on teachers and students alike.


When I have students work in short bursts to compose a personal reaction piece, answer a simple, open-ended question, tell what they think would happen next, or compare two arguments—after experiencing something powerful and thought-provoking—I prepare them to write better essays.  When I give them plenty of practice writing opportunities, they’ll become more fluid, natural writers—and they won’t freak out at exam time when they have to reinvent the entire essay wheel in an hour.


I mentioned having the students write after giving them “something powerful and thought-provoking” to consider.  This is just a natural way to access their human nature.  Nobody writes for no good reason.  Reluctant writers need a compelling reason to write.  Social studies–history, government, and even economics–is full of injustice, tragedy, triumph, and controversy.  It is the stuff of flesh and blood, fear and courage, power and frailty.  To really use its inherent drama well, its teaching must capture the primal reactions of its learners when they are still primal.  A great way to do this is by using microburst writing assignments.  A social studies teacher can draw from the vast repository of reality at her command because it all derives from human nature.  And to my experience, that’s the most powerful writing motivator there is.


If  teachers can get students to engage in enough willing, immediate, engaged practice writing, they will be much better prepared to succeed in the high-stakes Regents arena.  When writing can be made organic, automatic, and comfortable for students, their–and our–hard work will pay tremendous dividends.



Rewriting the Writing Process

Michael Brewster, 2008 TC


As I begin to compose this piece on writing, I am reminded of William Gass and his sentence seeking a form, about paying “attention to what has been written that will tell me what to write.” Gass is reflective at the beginning of his piece, foregrounding his own metacognitive process so that his reader will understand more completely the importance of thinking about the activity of writing as much, if not more, as contemplating the topic of the writing itself.


For a professional writer such as Gass, the act of composing is not a linear process, parceled into neat divisions. Instead, he writes and rewrites together, allowing the words first to find themselves, and then to reveal a larger form in which he may organize them. As taught in many schools, revising is simply a matter of clarifying and organizing a rough draft, refining thoughts with precise language. Students come to internalize a single draft as a progression of words, aligning sentences according to a prescribed order so that paragraphs are constructed. Once the assigned configuration is achieved (or attempted), a student will then address superficial rather than structural issues and come to call this beautification a final draft.


As a writer, I have struggled mightily with revision, and have come a long way from when revision was limited to cosmetic sweeps through a text to correct mistakes. Occasionally, in prose, I have been known rewrite a small number of words for clarity; or more likely I’ll cut a chunk of it right out. I guess I have been most successful revising my own poetry- reordering lines and seriously considering each mot juste with tremendous care. It has taken a huge shift in my own practice, facilitated through my involvement with the National Writing Project community, for me to rewrite my own ideas on revision.


Reflecting on my personal struggles with writing has granted me insight into my teaching practice. I I know I still harbor the urge to “beautify” my prose rather than really revise. Nancy Sommers examines this urge, latent in so may writers, in her article, “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers,” one of my touchstones for a rethinking of the idea of revision. She argues that what passes for revision is actually drawn directly from the classic rules for public speaking, where true revision is impossible (try to unsay something) and linear. Writing, however, deviates from public performance and is uniquely suited to personally reshaping, revising and recognizing ideas—in other words, writing is deeply connected to learning in ways that the old-school teachers Sommers criticizes tended to overlook. True revision becomes rewriting, emphasizing the activity of writing again, not just a matter of “polishing” a piece for the teacher. True revision will be unpredictable and original, more about thinking than perfecting. Messier, yes, but more valuable for that reason.


As a member of the Seven Valleys Writing Project, I take part in meetings with my fellow teacher-writers. At one such meeting, we had a fruitful, if short, discussion about the topics I’m touching upon in this article. I was attempting to explain the idea of process as I see it in my classroom and the problems I encounter as a teacher working with both eighth- and eleventh-graders. Prior to their placement in my class, my students have already been trained, as it were, in the Writing Process, and so my composition techniques and strategies are more alien to them than I would have liked. My colleague Brian Fay posited that the emphasis of ON the product, the evidence, undervalued the real process, the nitty-gritty messiness of the writing-as-activity. He said that if we want to measure thoughts, what we should do is value the journey of writing, which is an expression of thoughtfulness. Surely he meant that in addition to being a product, as this article is, it is also a period of time in which I demonstrate (if only to myself) the activity of thoughtfulness.


Writing is a generative activity, we say, because we know that when we write we are able to not only surprise ourselves with a thought or explanation which comes seemingly from nowhere, but we learn during the process of writing. For writing is not a destination; we do not refer to the activity in class as a have-written. The thoughtfulness of a piece is rarely completely demonstrated in the polished result. But polish comes from somewhere.


Nancy Sommers surveyed student writers and compiled their thoughts on revision.  She points out most students didn’t use the words revision or rewriting in their explanations of that crucial step. They saw the word revision especially as something their teachers used. Instead, they used words like scratch out, do over, reviewing, redoing, marking out, slash- all of which describe the tendency to change vocabulary, to reword their writing with a conservative economy as their goal. Sommers also surveyed experienced adult writers, who all expressed the need for continual (as opposed to linear) rewriting.


For most experienced writers, ideas do not flow from top to bottom in the way they will be presented for publication. Importantly, they also do not hinge upon a detailed outline. Instead, a draft is a working document, especially in its nascent stage, where the river of sentences may not cascade gracefully to a fully-realized conclusion. Instead, the first paragraph written may be the ending of the story. A completed article may gain a new opening. Each sentence is both a vehicle of thought in writing and a target for obliteration in rewriting. William Gass loaned me this militaristic metaphor when he wrote:


“…for every sentence allowed to remain upon the page will resemble the dazed survivors of a battle, after the dead and wounded have been carried away, when their alternatives have been rejected and erased…”


Students may well understand this feeling, but more likely as victims of a teacher’s red pen than as conscious cullers of their own work. It is our task as teachers of writing to shift the students’ focus from the word level to that of the sentence and paragraph. The impulse for minute, microscopic examination of spelling, of synonyms, of usage mistakes is not inborn, it is learned. Teachers of writing, especially those in the content areas, should not have these superficial (and, I would argue, easily correctable in proofreading) errors become the focus of writing instruction. When a premium is being placed on writing as a whole being both a demonstration and evidence of thoughtfulness, then students will save precious time in needless rewording and invest themselves more into the messy, nonlinear writing process.


[A note on this Writing: Rewriting may well be contemporaneous with writing, but the revised piece benefits from the perspectives and wisdom of other thinkers. Varying levels of collaboration with Brian Fay, Jerry Masters and David Franke have contributed to this “finished” piece, and I would be remiss to not point out that Collaboration is a key part of the Writing Process. Brian’s thoughtfulness, Jerry’s firm guidance and David’s revisions are all incorporated herein. A sequel covering digital collaboration over Google Docs is probably called for in the near future. ~MB]

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