KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. A mantra I usually don’t heed until the end of the year. When I don’t have a choice.
Our end-of-the year to-do lists are sometimes so lengthy and complicated, the only way to keep up with them is to simplify. To pare the lists down to their essentials. To prioritize.
Sometimes student drafts feel a lot like the end of the year: fraught with chaos and accompanied by a miles-long to do list. Fix your commas. Bring out your voice here. Can you say more about that? Add detail in the fourth paragraph. Have you thought about a title? Consider zooming out more in your conclusion. Don’t forget to italicize the title of the book and refer to the author by her last name! Paragraphing needs work. Let’s have a conference!
Just as our heads swim at the end of the year, students’ heads swim when they receive a paper — or have a conference — with copious amounts of motley feedback.
What did your mother always tell you to do when you were overwhelmed and being pulled in one thousand directions? Make a list, and prioritize! I can still hear my mom’s voice in my ear, and I know it behooves me to take this approach now, as a teacher: as I prepare my own to-do lists, and as I put feedback on student writing. And taking it one more step, I need to instill this in my students as well.
These three goals — prioritize my lists, prioritize feedback, teach students to prioritize in writing — came together last week as I put written comments on my students’ last papers.
Focused Feedback Equals Focused Revision
When it comes to writing on drafts or conferring with students, it’s hard to hold back. I see a million things I want to fi… I mean, point out, to student writers, but before I open my mouth, I remind myself of something simple: Who’s piece of writing is this? Gabe’s. Lydia’s. Sadés. Ephraim’s. (Not mine.) I also summon the rule of three: students can only remember three pieces of feedback or three corrections you make. I don’t know if I heard that somewhere, or made it up, but it seems right to me! (Be right back. Let me text Rebekah about this).
Oh well. I’m going with three.
Over the years my approach to giving feedback has had many faces. But recently I’ve been using a very, simple three-prong format that focuses my comments and ultimately focuses the students’ revisions. Here’s what it looks like:
Here’s what I do:
- Comment on something the writer is doing well.
- Considering all the things a writer might work on, choose a primary revision focus. (Another way to think about the primary revision focus is the “must-do” thing the writer needs to take his or her piece to the next level).
- From the same list, determine a secondary focus, should the writer have more time and more skill to move beyond the main focus.
I paste this blank feedback chart at the end of the student’s document and insert my comments there. When leaving comments in the margin, I try to make sure they connect with the primary or secondary focus.
Help Your Students Make a Plan
Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed, I ask my husband to help me make a plan. It may seem juvenile, but this is what my mom used to do with me when I was in high school. It was so comforting to have someone talk through my to-do list with me, and then invent various ways of tackling it. I still need this kind of help/encouragement in my 30s, so I can only imagine my students need it to.
I feel overwhelmed when I throw myself into a piece of student writing and start commenting in the margins without thinking first. Conversely, when I have a feedback plan, I feel worthy of being a teacher, and my comments are stronger and more focused and ultimately more helpful to the writer.
I think it’s important to teach students to take a minute to step back, consider their writing, and formulate a plan as well. Students are quick to dive in and start making changes; only without a plan, these changes usually stay fairly superficial and fall along the lines of editing rather than revision.
Last week, as my students chose pieces they want to revise for their culminating portfolio, I talked about the importance of prioritizing. As I stressed choosing a revision focus for each piece, I saw them staring back at me, panic on their faces. Their faces seemed to say, “How do I begin? This feels like such a big task…I don’t know where to start. What do you mean prioritize?” So, thinking on the spot as many of us do, I sketched a possible plan on the whiteboard, and later that day transferred it into a Google presentation:
The visual reinforces the recursive-ness of the revision process. Just as in writing, revision necessitates the gathering of information and resources: more evidence, different mentor texts (or the same mentor texts with a new focus), and feedback. It also prioritizes prioritizing: The fourth box suggests that writers choose a revision focus.
I tell my students that it’s better to have a focus than to try to tackle everything. So many writers, even after publication, see things they want to change. But eventually everyone has to call it quits and turn the writing in. I have found that writers who have a focus truly believe their work can get better, and therefore make meaningful changes to their writing. Conferences are a great place to help your students find their focus.
In class that day, some students immediately made a copy of the Revision presentation and put their own steps in each box. Below you’ll see two students’ in-process revision plans: Carter writes a plan for his analysis piece on snowboarding technology, and Lydia chooses a focus for her analytical list-icle on dog breeds.
Many of us ask our students to revise writing for an end-of-year assignment. As you develop your end-of-year plans (and as you create goals for next year!) consider simplifying your life, your work, and your students’ work by heeding your mother’s advice: make a list, and prioritize!
How do you decide what feedback to share with students? How do you encourage students to take a focused approach to their revision? Please leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett or on Facebook!
A New Kind of Final Exam – exploring Google Apps to help students independently revise past work
A 5-Day Revision Study – exploring ways to teach revision strategies in a meaningful way in the context of student writing