Revision and Junior High Writers

For the last three weeks of the semester, my seventh graders focused on revision. I’m ashamed to say I don’t think I have ever specifically taught revision. In other words, I may have told students to revise—or sometimes I revised their papers for them—but we never delved into it as a unit of study.

Students had two assignments they needed to revise before the end of the semester: 1) An analytical essay on friendship, used as the district’s “common formative assessment,” and 2) A creative piece from their writer’s notebooks. Sidenote: I didn’t plan this strategically, but it was helpful that the two pieces were for such widely different audiences and purposes.

Here are the main components of how I decided to attack revision:

1) Review the Writing Process. We watched a BrainPOP! video on The Writing Process and took Cornell Notes (from AVID.org). We also read and discussed a some writer’s quotations on revision (from Goodreads).

Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.

Raymond Chandler

Middle school teachers will not be surprised to find out the above Raymond Chandler quotation was the overwhelming favorite amongst my seventh graders. (I have to grab them in whatever way that works.)

2) Model: I used Kelly Gallagher’s mantra of “I go, then they go” by modeling my own revision. I did this in two ways: First, I wrote an essay and then I used Microsoft Word’s tracking feature to show the changes I made in a 2nd and 3rd revision. I wanted my students to see that even experienced writers don’t get it right on the first, or even the second try.

You can check out my revised essay here: Essay with Tracked Changes

Later, for the more creative writer’s notebook assignment, I revised in real time in front of students. I didn’t want to cheat, so I revised a different piece from my writer’s notebook in front of each class period. I wanted to show them the thinking and the messiness and the back and forth nature of the revision process.

After I “revised in front” of my students, I set a timer and said, “Now, you revise your draft. Make it messy. Reread it several times. Experiment. I want to see words crossed out. I want to see additions.”

I didn’t know what would happen at this point, but when I set the timer, the students in every class were quiet and most made real changes. (However, a few did not, particularly my most struggling writers. I’m wondering how to help those students more. Would a word wall with descriptive words help them? A list of transitions? I list of questions to make sure they answered? Do they just need more opportunities to practice?)

Ultimately,  the reason most students revised with intention was that I told them they would be reading their pieces to small groups directly after the revision time. They had to think about the real audience who would be listening to their writing in just a few minutes. That put the pressure on—in a good way.

3) Publish: The essay assignments was “published” to my English Department because it was their common formative assessment for the school district. Some students care about their grades on this and some honestly do not.  That is why the student-selected pieces from the writer’s notebooks became so important. Those pieces are  published in our class anthology: Best of the Writer’s Notebook.  This e-book will be posted on the class website and I will encourage students and family members to add comments. Not surprisingly, students, even the ones who don’t care about grades, wanted those pieces to be as close to perfect as possible. Revision all of a sudden became very important.

We did a few more revision based activities as part of the unit, but I believe it was the my modeling and the real audience and purpose that forced students to actually go for it. For the first time, I can say with some confidence that my students understand that revision is a necessary, sometimes painful, always tedious part of the writing process. They may still be guilty of writing something in a hurry and turning it into the teacher without a second read, but at least they know better.

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