Working as Our Students’ Editor

Working as Our Students' Editor

Print this infographic, and tape it to your desk or inside your planner! Share with a friend or your department members.

Near the very top of the Things That Disheartens English Teachers list are the comments we leave on students’ papers that aren’t considered, aren’t heeded, and — if we’re honest — often aren’t even read. I hear it from secondary teachers constantly; even in the best case scenario, it seems that students work hard on a piece of writing, the teacher works hard making thoughtful comments to move the writer forward, and then … nothing.  

Sure, there are measures we can take to ensure that students are reading and thinking about our comments. In the past, I have required students to respond to every comment I left to demonstrate their understanding. At NCTE15, Jeff Scheur (@jscheur) shared that he has students write a paraphrase of the feedback they have received before they dive into the revision process. I love that idea.  But while these mechanisms work and are absolutely a step in the right direction, they don’t drill down into why this happens, why students glance at the grade and then ignore the feedback.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking: students don’t read our feedback because it’s boring, it’s small, and it isn’t meaningful to them.

As a teacher, regardless of my best intentions, I find myself getting sucked into minutiae when I read students’ best drafts. We’ve had writing conferences about the big ideas, the structure, how the ideas flow and work together. When I get to that finished piece, more often than not, my feedback has much more to do with missing punctuation and craft techniques that I don’t yet see

As a writer, the best feedback I’ve ever received was from our editor, Katie Ray (@katiewoodray). I checked my email every ten minutes for days after sending Katie a chunk or chapter of Writing With Mentors, excited to see what she would say. I treasured my editor’s feedback — not because it was always glowing, but because her feedback taught me something about my writing, taught me something about myself as a writer. Katie could see the work from the 30,000-foot view — she saw how the pieces fit together (and when they didn’t), she often understood what we were trying to say better than we did.

A great editor doesn’t start out looking for the deficits in a piece of writing; a great editor holds a mirror up to the writer so that she can move forward.

Here are some moves that an editor makes when giving feedback on a piece of writing:

An editor honors what has been achieved

Editors don’t give cheap and easy compliments (like, “I really like your formatting. The bullet points are so nice and easy to read.” – an actual piece of feedback I have been given.)  An editor honors the work that has been done and what is going well. An editor also pushes at the edges of those promising bits — deepening, complicating, expanding them.

An editor sees the bigger picture

One of the chief beauties of an editor is that they can see what the writer herself is too close to see. An editor sees when a writer is veering off course or when the writer is actually moving in a different direction altogether. This bird’s-eye view of the work can refocus a writer, build connections within the text and outside the text, or help them pull together disparate ideas into a more cohesive whole.

An editor removes the “audience fantasy”

Brian Sweeney (@MrSweeneyNYC) spoke at NCTE about the “audience fantasy” — an imaginary game we play with our students whereby we pretend that a real audience beyond the teacher is clambering to read their writing. We write things like, “This is unclear for your reader”, when, in reality, the only reader is the teacher. An editor’s job is to make a piece of writing its best before it goes to publication. Katie Ray’s feedback aimed at making our book useful and readable for a real audience, and this real audience motivated our writing. If we are helping our student move toward real publication rather than pretend publication, our feedback might also prove more meaningful for our young writers.

An editor uses the language of possibility

Katie always charged her feedback with what if? and maybe? Editors make suggestions, bring forth new ideas,see potential  and use language that reflects that hopeful sense of possibility. Editors dwell in what could be — with some tweaking, restructuring, revising — and help their authors see the same potential in their own work.

An editor gives the writer agency

By using this language of potential and possibility, an editor gives the writer the final say over their creation. So often, when we leave feedback and put a grade on a piece of writing, we are taking the final say over the creation. We say, “This is an A” or “This is a C”.  And though we hope our students will choose to revise, the verdict has already come down.

Ralph Fletcher (@fletcherralph) says that there is always tension in the editor-author relationship because while the editor suggests, the author has the creative authority to say, “No, I would really prefer it the other way.”  As teachers, we encourage our students to make author’s choices — we need to gives students the authority to make all of the choices real writers make, even disagreeing with their editor.

I don’t want to leave small, irrelevant feedback for my students any more.  They do need to improve their punctuation. They do need to incorporate the conventions of a given genre. And I will need to figure out how to help them do these things while refocusing to work as their editor — showing them what is possible in their writing, encouraging them to move forward, giving them feedback that is meaningful and inspiring.

For you, what’s the difference between a teacher’s feedback and an editor’s feedback? What are some moves you might make to become an editor for your students? Leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet us @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett. 


What Happens at NCTE Doesn’t Stay at NCTE

This weekend Rebekah and I travelled to Minneapolis for the NCTE Annual Convention. For the past 96 hours we have been immersed in the world of language arts, and while we’re exhausted and our backpacks are overstuffed, our brains and hearts are full and we just can’t shut up about NCTE.

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Rebekah and me at our first book signing!

We can’t stop processing and thinking and imagining and reading and cracking open everything we learned this weekend. As I draft this post on our flight home, Rebekah sits next to me reading Colleen Cruz’s (@colleen_cruz) Independent Writing (we feel so lucky to have met this rock star this weekend!) and making lists in her notebook.  When we get home later, we will hug our children tight and linger in mommyhood as long as we can – and when our babies are in bed we’ll most likely subject our poor husbands to a rehashing of everything NCTE. When we see our department members in the morning, everything we learned over the weekend will bubble up again. The joy and energy and brilliance and collaboration and creativity and thinking that occurs over a 96 hour period will continue to feed our planners, our notebooks, and our teaching souls for hours and days and weeks and months until we head to Atlanta next year. What happens at NCTE doesn’t stay at NCTE, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Whenever I leave a professional development experience I take a few minutes to describe the things that really stood out to me over the course of the conference. There’s so much good stuff that you don’t want to fall through the mental sieve. I find the following three categories helpful—things I can do in my classroom tomorrow; ideas I want to write about; ideas I want to let marinate—in making the most of what I learned at the conference.

NCTE Feeds My Planner, or Five Things I Can Do In My Classroom Tomorrow

  1. Kelly Gallagher (@kellygtogo) begins each writing unit with a several days of low-stakes writing to help students generate ideas. He uses infographics to inspire and motivate his students.
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    An infographic to inspire writing during Notebook Time!

    Here are a few infographics he shared with us that I plan to use during notebook time over the next few weeks.

  1. Georgia Heard (@georgiaheard1) knows how to get her students to revise so their writing sounds more like them. One phrase she uses to help students add detail to their writing is, “What’s the picture you have in your mind? Just say it to me, as you would say it to a friend.” I am definitely using this strategy in conferences tomorrow!
  2. Donna Santman (@dsantman) helps her readers talk about what they are reading by offering them different ways of thinking and questions for each part of the plot. Once students understand the basic narrative arc, and can describe where they are in a book, they can ask various questions to help raise the sophistication of their reading. For example, in the exposition, students might ask “Who’s here, how are they connected, and what are they like?” But during the rising action, students might ask, “What’s the trouble? What are the obstacles? How do the characters deal with them?”
  1. Dan Feigelson (@danfeigelson) leads his students to deeper thinking about what they are reading with revision lessons. After a read aloud of a few pages, Dan asks his students to jot down what they are thinking at this point in the book. Then he reads a few more pages, asks them to draw a line under that initial thinking, and invites them to jot down more: Has your idea changed at all? Do you want to add anything to your idea? Do you want to delete any part of your idea? This simple activity reminds readers that revision isn’t just for writers – it can be a powerful tool for comprehending what we read and developing increasingly more complex understandings about characters, plot, and theme. Below is another way of visualizing this activity:
My 1st idea How my idea changed and why

NCTE Feeds My Writer’s Notebook, Or Things I Want to Do Some Writing About in the Near Future

  •      Ralph Fletcher (@fletcherralph) talked about the revision dynamic between editors/writers and teachers/writers. He suggested that teachers should be more like editors in that teachers make suggestions, but students have the ultimate ownership over the writing and should not be penalized for leaving something the teacher advised he take out, for example. On the contrary, a writer must be willing to let go of a narrow interpretation of his own story to make room for others’. This realization may pull the writer away from his original draft.
  •      When planning for lessons, Penny Kittle (pennykittle) asks herself these three questions to help her prioritize her teaching. What are my answers to these questions?
    • What is essential?
    • What is important?
    • What is nice to know?

NCTE Feeds my Teaching Soul: Big Ideas I Want to Let Marinate

  •      Brian Sweeney (@mrsweeneynyc) admitted that he does his best teaching after school, in his school’s elective journalism class. Here he truly guides students through the writing process and they write for authentic audiences. He wondered how we can bring the journalism culture into our English classrooms—how can we all do this?
  •      Georgia Heard suggested that all writing is revision. How can we reframe writing as revision for students? How might this change the shape and sequence of our minilessons?
  •      Kelly Gallagher reminded us that the best teacher in the world (Nancie Atwell!) doesn’t grade individual papers. She grades portfolios and looks at the students’ learning over a period of time. How can I bring this practice into my school? How can I convince my administrators of the power of feedback over grades? How can I communicate to the parents of my students with written progress reports rather than letter grades and numbers?

These are just a few of the big and small ideas that are spinning around in my head. I promised my husband I’d take a little break from teaching on Thanksgiving, and I will—but there’s always Black Friday for this work! 🙂

Were you at NCTE? If so, what were your big takeaways? Or if you attended another PD conference this year, what are those ideas still swimming around in your head? Leave a comment on the blog, on Facebook, or say hi on Twitter (@allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1 ).

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 2.56.21 PMWRITING WITH MENTORS, HEINEMANN

September 2015

Available on Amazon or Heinemann!

Where we will be at #NCTE15

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We are getting SO excited for our first trip to Minnesota for #NCTE15 — the best weekend of the year!

We hope to meet you, dear readers! Here are some places we are sure to be during the convention:

Writing With Mentors Book Signing — 11am SATURDAY — Heinemann Booth (#832)

Teacher-Writer Roundtable (K.15) —  4:15pm — Want to join the ELA conversation? Jump into this writing thing in more intentional ways? These roundtable discussions are for you! Find out about writing professionally, starting a blog, writing with students, and more. Allison and I will be hosting a table — Teachers Writing Together: How Moving Writers and Writing With Mentors Came to Be

Conferring With Writers to Learn What We Don’t Know

Uh oh… My stomach sank, and I could feel the gears inside my head turn on and begin whirring, trying to catch up. Trying to think of the answer. The right answer. Or a good answer. Or any answer.

This right here — this is the risk we run when we commit to conferring with our student writers. They might just stump us with their need-of-the-moment, and we might be stuck in this slightly dizzying improv space as we mentally thumb through every professional book we have ever read, every piece we have ever written, every anecdote we’ve ever been told in search of a solution. This is why conferring was my last hold-out in running a true writing workshop. I was terrified of the unknown.

Zach's BuzzFeed List, which has had over 10,000 views! You can see his list live on BuzzFeed here:

Zach’s BuzzFeed List, which has had over 10,000 views! You can see his list live on BuzzFeed here:

There had been many of these moments in this workshop. Trying to do something new — branching out into more digital writing — I chose to have students study and write BuzzFeed lists. Anyone can publish to BuzzFeed, and the idea of a student’s list going viral was exciting and motivating. Surely, all of my students read BuzzFeed lists all of the time and will think I am amazingly cool, I reasoned.

Not so much.

Only a handful of my ninth graders had ever seen a BuzzFeed list, and I quickly realized that I was not as prepared to teach them as I thought I was. I had not considered the many decisions that a writer needs to make when publishing one of these lists.   Continue reading

The Power of Reading Work Out Loud: A Culminating Project for Poetry Study

A few weeks ago, I blogged about different ways writers can share and publish their work in the classroom. In today’s post, I zoom in on one of those options: creating an audio recording of a piece of writing.


Students use fluency phones to practice reading their work out loud!

“Here, try it,” I said, nudging the fluency phone towards Cameron, a 9th grade writer.

“I looks like something I used in second grade,” he said, taking the macaroni-shaped PVC pipe in his hand. He put it up to his ear and whispered hello into the opening. “Wow, that is really loud!” He smiled.

Carthen grabbed the phone from him. “Let me try!” she said and whispered something inaudible into the phone, giggling at the sound of her own voice amplified.

At first my students were skeptical of the fluency phones. They look like toys, or something out of an elementary school teacher’s bag of tricks. But soon, almost every student had taken one from the oversized bag.

The fluency phones are perfect for young students learning to read books with expression, and they are perfect for high school students learning (mustering up the confidence!) to read their own work out loud – an important step in the writing process but one that students often shy away from or skip altogether because they hate hearing the sound of their own voice.

Students used the fluency phones in preparation for the culminating step of our poetry study: making audio recordings of their work. This project took three days and revealed a lot to me about students’ fears connected to writing. It’s hard enough to share your ideas, they said. It’s even harder to force yourself to listen to them as you read out loud.

The Mini Project

On the first day, we talked about how to read a poem out loud with feeling. We listened to a few different recordings of professional poets, and one by a former student. For instance, we listened to a live recording of Billy Collins reading “Forgetfulness.” If you follow this link, you’ll find his recording, along with several hundred other recordings of poets reading their work. The Poetry Foundation really is an amazing resource!

With the text pulled up in front of them, students listened to the recordings, honing in on

  • how the poets “read” line breaks
  • the pace of each poem
  • how the poet communicated emotion with his/her voice

Then we made a list of all of our noticings. Students observed many things about the different recordings, including how readers drop their voices to indicate the end of an idea or create a somber mood; poems that are presented “faster” are still read slowly enough to hear every word, every pause; the readers sound like they are talking to you rather than giving a presentation; most readers slow down at the end of the poem; and poets pause on significant words, dragging them out more than others.

Then I gave students some guiding questions to help them think about how they might read their own poems:

  • What is the mood of my poem? How can I communicate this mood with my voice?
  • Is my poem fast- or slow-paced (are there more end-stopped lines or enjambed lines)? Where should I speed up my reading and where should I slow it down?
  • What are the most important words in my poem? How do I want to emphasize these words with my voice?

Students spent the rest of the period practicing reading one of their poems to a friend or to themselves with the help of a fluency phone.

The next day, the technology coordinator at our school previewed several apps that students could use to record their work, and students had an opportunity to try out different software and ask the coordinator questions.

The audio recordings were due two days later. I asked students to complete them at home, knowing it would be very difficult or impossible for each of them to find a perfectly quiet space on campus for recording.

When I asked my students to reflect on the experiment, although many of them said they hated listening to their own voice, they recognized the value in the project. Here’s what some of them had to say:

“I enjoyed the experience of recording because now the reader knows how I want my poem to sound in his mind.” — Cory M.

“[When I recorded my poem] I noticed how line breaks played into the speed of my poem.” — Cameron B.

“I enjoyed [this project] because it made me feel like an actual poet reading [my poem] out loud.” –Ella N.

“[When I read my work out loud], I noticed how some words didn’t sound well with other words. I also heard how my line breaks sounded and if I needed to edit them.” –James G.

“I was really able to notice the effect of line breaks. I hadn’t really noticed how much line breaks change the flow of a poem, in a good way.” Blair H.

“I feel like my poem was more deep and meaningful when read thoughtfully aloud.” — Liza R.

“I noticed that the last line of each stanza needed a really long pause for effect.” Daniel M.

“When I wrote my poem I meant for it to be sad and emotional to express how I felt when my Grampa died, but after I read it aloud I really got to hear how emotional it actually was.” — Abby E.

“The way you read it is the way you want people to read it, so it’s interesting to see what that is.”  Julia K.

What’s next:

Next week I am going to set up listening stations so my students can listen to one another’s poems. I plan to organize each station by theme, and invite students to listen to 1-2 poems at each station. I’ll be sure to report back about this activity in one of my next posts!

How do you encourage students to read their work out loud? Do you offer alternative ways of sharing or publishing work in your classroom? Leave us a comment below to tell us what you’re thinking about or find us on Facebook or Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.

Writing With Mentors Book Signing at NCTE15

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 9.15.09 PMWe hope that we are going to get to meet you at NCTE15 in Minneapolis next week!

We will be signing copies of Writing With Mentorat the Heinemann Booth (#832) at 11am on Saturday!

We would LOVE to meet you! Please come see us!

Archives of #teachwriting chat — Analytical Writing

We had a wonderful time last night chatting about analytical writing! Here are the questions we considered together:

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 1.46.08 PM The conversation was fast and furious, chock full of brilliant ideas for engaging students with analytical thinking and writing!

Missed it? Need to go back to take notes? You can read the full archives here!

Build Writing Independence with a Digital Menu of Mini-Lessons

So much of the workshop method is built on the desire to mold students into independent writers who will continue to thrive when they leave our classes. By the end of a year in my ninth grade Reading Writing Workshop, I hope that students will have discovered their own unique writing process, they will know how to use mentor texts on their own for instruction and inspiration, and they will know how to move from the seed of an idea to a polished, published piece of writing on their own.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 1.15.46 PMAt the end of the first quarter, it’s time to start thinking about how to help my ninth graders take workshop writing steps on their own.

About halfway through my ninth graders’ recent memoir study, I had taught all of the skills that really necessitated a deep dig as a group:

  • having a clear beginning, middle, and end
  • writing an engaging lead
  • crafting a resonant ending (or so what)
  • making a movie in the reader’s mind (a.k.a. showing-not-telling).

Each of these lessons led us into mentor text study (even using an episode of The Walking Dead as a mentor!) and conversation as a group. Since I tend to front-load content and structure lessons, the lessons that remained on my to-do list were style /craft lessons: paragraphing, using appositives to add detail, and properly punctuating dialogue.

These lessons are different — they are procedural, black-and-white. You do it, or you don’t do it.  And while students may well have questions about their own writerly choices regarding paragraphing or the use of appositives, these aren’t lessons that are dependent on class discussion. So, I decided these were the perfect lessons to flip!

A couple of weeks ago, I shared how I flip a portion of my mentor text instruction using I would never want to flip all (or even most) of my instruction. It wouldn’t fit me well. However, flipping a little bit of my instruction has some amazing benefits:

  • Students who are absent or need to encounter a lesson multiple times to truly understand the techniques being described have an artifact they can watch again and again on their own.
  • It gives students more crafting and conferring time. When 15 minutes are given back to the students as writing time, they have more time to work and play with their writing during class.
  • When I know that I am going to be absent, digital mini-lessons allow me to be two places at once and feel like my students haven’t sacrificed a day of productivity.
  • I am freed to do even more conferring!  

and, of course,

  • Students begin to be more independent as learners and writers.

I decided to take the three mini-lessons that remained (and one bonus mentor text) and create a menu of mini-lesson options.   I created simple screencasts, using Screencastomatic,  of the three mini-lessons just as I would deliver them live during class. I uploaded them to YouTube so that I could quickly link to them.

Yes, I probably could have found ready-made mini-lessons of some kind on YouTube, but I think it’s important for my students to learn from me. That’s what they are used to. Right now, I know them best. It’s a tiny chore with an enormous personal touch and payoff.  My screencasts (as you can see!) are not polished and crazy professional. They aren’t even perfect (I make a one-take rule for myself to try to ward of perfectionistic insanity). But they are me teaching my students, using my voice and my terminology. I think it’s worth it.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 12.54.02 PMThen, I created a document listing each mini-lesson (linking to the video) and giving a brief description of what they student would find in each. Students were required to watch and take notes on the three video mini-lessons. The bonus mentor text, which I had annotated with, was optional for students who were ready to do something more.

When I introduced this new concept to my classes, we talked about the needs of different writers. Some writers might want to learn from all of the mini-lessons up front, with more time to work freely on the back end. That may well be overwhelming for other writers, who need to tackle one mini-lesson at a time — first the video, then application in their memoir, then a new mini-lesson video. Some writers might prefer to do all of the writing until they are completely satisfied, and then go back to polish using the mini-lessons. Each approach is “right”.

Students worked at their own pace over four class periods — we began class with some Notebook Time and a business meeting as usual. I did a status of the class roll call each day to get a sense of where students were working, and then they were on their own — writing, watching mini-lessons, conferring.  They did whatever it was they needed to do that day.

When all was done, I asked my students what they thought. Here are what a few students shared:

“I really enjoyed the mini-lessons because I think I do work better independently. I liked how I had the ability to rewind if I needed to and I could go at my own pace. I would definitely like to do this again in the future.”  – Sydney

“I liked using the small mini lessons because it let me go through my writing process however I wanted to. The first couple days I had a broad idea in my head so I wanted to get that down on my computer as fast as I could, and then I went back and watched the mini-lessons. Even though I knew how to do dialogue, watching the video and powerpoint on it helped my dialogue in my memoir just with little tips of where commas should go, and whether they went on the inside of quotation marks or the outside.” – Josef

“I think that these REALLY helped because I was able to go through and stop where I needed and rewind. I could also watch the lessons in action which helped me to visualize and actually understand how and when I needed to use them. I would definitely suggest doing this again because it gives us a chance to learn on our own, which I think is a better way to learn overall.” – Bella

The first attempt was a success. Both the students and I enjoyed a little bit more freedom than we are used to during writing workshop. I had more writing conferences than ever, and students took a meaningful step toward discovering their own writing process. 

How have you flipped writing instruction in your classroom? Even if it wasn’t digital, how have you offered choice and independence in writing lessons? Leave us a comment below to tell us what you’re thinking about or find us on Facebook or Twitter (@rebekahodell1, @allisonmarchett).