When was the last time you read a book that made you want to change your whole approach to teaching writing?
For me it was November, on a plane ride to Minneapolis, with Georgia Heard’s The Revision Toolbox (Heinemann, 2014) cracked open in my lap. I devoured it in a single plane ride and have been obsessing over it for months now. I’m finally getting a chance to sit down and tell you why.
60- Second Book Review
The Revision Toolbox is predicated on a simple but transformative approach to thinking about about writing: all writing is revision. Heard writes, “Revision means to have a vision of what we want our writing to be like. Real revision is inner work: clarifying what we really think and believe about an idea; getting at the heart of a story; distilling our sentences and words to best express how we feel and what we think. Revision is how writers write” (1). Even a FIRST draft represents an act of revision because the writer has rehearsed an idea in her head, turning it over and over like a small stone in the palm, until it’s a bit more polished and ready to hit the page.
With a title like The Revision Toolbox, the book promises to be chock full of strategies for helping students revise. It more than delivers on this promise. From revision checklists to quick exercises like “Refresh Your Eyes,” to suggested talking points for strategic conferences and an appendix replete with graphic organizers, the book is brimful with use-in-your-classroom-tomorrow ideas.
But it also vibrates with big ideas and inspirational quotes. Although fitting, the utilitarian title belies Heard’s signature poetic voice that runs throughout the book. Quotes like “We are not reading to check for spelling or punctuation…but to compare the accuracy of our words with what’s in our hearts and minds” inspire with soulful wisdom.
While most of the student writing samples are from elementary school-aged writers, Heard sprinkles in some lessons and mentor texts suitable for high school writers. But this is besides the point. The philosophy that undergirds this book is timeless. I have used copious lessons from this book with my high schoolers. The lessons Heard presents naturally adjust themselves for the age group you’re working with; you’ll have to try them to see what I mean.
My Big Writing Takeaways
The whole book is special, but my single biggest takeaway is the concept of revising with different lenses. The idea is simple: introduce one lens at a time, and have the students “resee” their writing with that very specific purpose in mind. For example, on the first day, they might reread with the lens of focus and clarity, looking for ways to hone their main idea or elaborate their heart. On a different day, students might revise with the lens of language, going in search of dead words or cliche writing.
Revision lenses have changed the way my students view writing and view themselves as writers. Revision lenses turn the big, insurmountable challenge of revising into a series of possibilities that help the writer get closer and closer to the idea she is supposed to write. One at a time. Over a period of time. Revision lenses make revision concrete. Manageable. Meaningful…
I so appreciate that Heard gives us a language for talking about revision that is both utilitarian and passionate. She talks about “finding the heart” of your narrative and “cracking open words.” She encourages us to write narratives to “someone who is really there” and likens the writing of conclusions to “leaving the house.” She inspires me to use the language of love and life to teach writing.
How I Hope To Use It
After finishing the book, my first thought was, “I wish I could start the year over…” but soon this thought vanished when I realized I could start the next day and make a difference. So I did. I taught my first writing-as-revision lesson on cracking open words the Monday after NCTE. Since then, I have reframed most of my writing lessons as revision lessons. Here’s what a typical study in my workshop looked like before and after reading her book:
|Typical Study Before Reading The Revision Toolbox
||Typical Study After Reading The Revision Toolbox
|Days 1-2: Study Mentor Texts
Day 3: Generative lesson on ideas/possible topics
Day 4: Lesson on possible structure; students start to brainstorm ideas for their writing
Days 5-9 Lessons on word choice, sentence structure, and style; students begin drafting
Day 10: Students turn in rough draft; I return the next day with comments
Days 11-14 Revision/editing lessons
Day 15: Students submit final draft
|Days 1-2: Study Mentor Texts
Day 3: Writing off the page/brainstorming ideas/rehearsal in the mind
Day 4: Flash draft––get a draft down as quickly as possible
Days 5-9: Revision lessons: a different lens each day!
Day 10: Students turn in rough draft; I return the next day with praise, a possible revision focus (one lens), and an editing focus
Days 11-12: Students return to lessons/lenses as needed
Day 13: Student submit final draft
You’ll notice that our study takes less time because it’s more focused. Students produce writing on the third day of the study–but they are mentally rehearsing and revising from the start–and work throughout the remainder of the study to clarify, sharpen, and deepen those initial thoughts. Confidence improves because the flash draft is makes it messy. The writing shines because revision makes it better.
Should You Buy the Book?
If I’ve done my job here, you’ve already clicked over to Amazon or Heinemann to purchase The Revision Toolbox. But if you’re still on the fence, let me just say this:
Like Georgia Heard’s poetry, this book delivers a message that speaks to the core of our being. On the surface, if offers an approach to teaching revision. Look deeper, and it resonates on a much more personal level, reminding us that revision is not just how we write, but how we live. To borrow from the first page of Heard’s book, it’s about clarifying what we really want for ourselves and believe about ourselves. It’s about having a vision about what we want our life to be like––and living into that vision.
Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett.