While “talking shop” with Ipo, she talked about her frustration with the writing quality in her classroom and she felt like she was spending so much time commenting on student essays only to get the next draft back with the same problems. Have you too been working on thesis statements and supporting details all year and the students just don’t seem to get it once you move on to the next topic? Do you feel like you’re working harder on grading the essays than they are at writing the essays?
For the students that are on the receiving end of your comments, what is their reason for “not getting it?” Students may be just as confused by teacher comments as we are on their performance. I know. I’ve been known to use my red pen (or purple, once I stopped using red) to vent my frustration at their “not getting it.” I would scribble profound comments like “awk,” “frag,” “unclear thesis” and “support”. My most famous comments: “vd” (verbal diarrhea) and “??!” So where’s the middle ground that will move students forward not to write a better essay, but to BE a better writer?
The English Journal (Vol. 90, no.1, 9/00, pp. 94-101) published an article, “Beyond the Red Pen: Clarifying Our Role in the Response Process” by Bardine, Bardine and Deegan that talks about their research on response. The first implication in the classroom is that while written commentary is an important type of response, extensive research shows that conferencing is an excellent way for teachers and students to dialogue about writing and begin the revision process. Conferences should be short and focused on the students’ needs, not on the teachers’ needs for the student. Donald Murray lists two good starter questions to begin a conference: “What did you learn from this piece of writing?” or “What do you intend to do in the next draft?” Jerelyn and I team conferenced and that took half the time, but it let us quickly gauge which students were on the right path and which students needed a major overhaul.
Besides using conferencing to cut down on the “write everything that is wrong on this paper” style of response, some other implications for our teaching from the article:
- We need to understand our own motivations and commenting style as we respond to our writers. Do we emphasize content or form in our responses? Are we emphasizing in class what we are responding to on students’ papers?
- Students will rarely look at comments if they don’t have the chance to revise, so give them the opportunity whenever possible. (I used to comment on their final as if they would take that and apply it to the next paper — NO).
- If at all possible, allow student plenty of time to write in class. This allows you to be available for conferences within the class period and it gives you an opportunity to do corrective mini lessons if you see students coming in with similar problems (like no transitions).
- Students want specifics and clarity in the comments teachers write on their paper. I used to sometimes use stars or wavy lines just as a note for myself so I knew what passage I wanted to focus on during conferencing, otherwise, “awk”, “weak thesis” or “support” doesn’t work without face-to-face.
- Continually emphasize, both in word and action, how our comments can be helpful for our students in successive drafts as well as future papers.
- Praise students when it is warranted. And even with praise, be specific, don’t just write “good.” What’s good about it? It’s why English teachers gave up the red pen, the whole bleeding paper thing.
- Mini-lessons and conferences used in conjunction with written comments actually are a powerful tool AND they cut down on your time with individual papers. If you see a common error like passive sentences, do a mini lesson and then have students find examples in their papers or their partners’ papers right then and there. Have them practice what they learned in the mini lesson right away by fixing it.
One last suggestion from Ipo: send the paper home and let the parents be a mentor reader for the student so that they can also conference about the writing. I would add that if you’re going to do this, it’s best to send them home with an ALMOST final draft rather than a rough, include a copy of the rubric and the assignment, and maybe some guidelines. For example in my teacher and peer conference, the writer asks for specific help (not “everything”) and the focus is only on that specific thing. It protects the kids from overly critical parent editors (like me).
As always, if you want to try something, let me know. And if you want a copy of the article, I can do that too.