Reader Mail: How can we help students better understand what they are doing in their own writing?

After the last installment of my four-part series on reading like a writer, I received a question from Lisa in Waunakee, WI about helping students better understand what they are doing in their own writing:

“How to help students explain WHY/HOW an aspect of the piece (like a description, an added scene, a certain line, the use of irony, the organization of the piece, etc.) helps/improves the piece…? My question is more about students explaining this about their own writing, especially how it contributes to their overall work…For example, a student could write the wittiest dialogue (perhaps inspired by a mentor text) but the conversation doesn’t move the plot forward or convey something new about the character. Or maybe it does, but students struggle making those connections in their own writing. Students don’t have to be completely “right” when they theorize about someone else’s writing, but there’s not as much wiggle room when theorizing about their own writing since they are making all the decisions. I want to help them better understand what they’re doing in their own writing. They are good at labeling WHAT they did, but they have a hard time explaining HOW that thing functions within their own work.”

I’m publishing my response below, eager to extend my reading like a writer series and help those of you who may wonder about this same issue!

Dear Lisa,

This question takes young writers seriously, and I love that. In other words, it’s not just enough to learn about craft, throw some into their own writing, and call it a day.

You are asking about how we can help writers become more intentional about their own craft work, and about how we can help them make craft choices that support their purposes as writers. This is so important.

The first thing that comes to mind is to encourage a culture of play and experimentation in your writing classroom. Daily notebook time and imitation writing are two of the best ways I know to do this. In the beginning, when students are just learning about craft and trying it in their own writing, I think it’s okay to celebrate the WHAT and wait on the HOW. In other words, if David decides to include a bit of witty dialogue in his short story simply because he thinks it’s funny, that’s a good enough reason. For now. Or if Caitlin decides to write a poem with 6 words in the first, third, fifth and seventh lines, and 4 words in the second, fourth, sixth and eighth lines because she likes how it looks on the page, that’s fine. For now.

Once students have had more experience reading like writers and shaping their own work with craft, it’s time to up the ante. Our students deserve to have a better understanding of how the pieces of the whole are truly working together.

What might this look like?

In workshops, Rebekah shares a great story about a student who was working on a piece of commentary about Bernie Sanders as the best presidential candidate for her generation. In a digital conference with Bella, Rebekah discovered that she had added an image to her writing:

Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 6.01.17 AM.png

This is what Rebekah wrote: Hi there. Think about how this picture conveys Bernie — he looks strong. Maybe a little angry. He looks like he’s yelling or ranting. Maybe this is your intent — to portray him as powerful. If so, great. You’ve chosen the right picture. But there are other pictures that portray hi a little more scruffy, more loveably — this is the imagine others want to convey about him. Give this a thought. Think about the Bernie you really want to show to readers. Make sure your picture matches up.
I just love Rebekah’s response here because it both validates and complicates Bella’s choice. Bella has tried something new in her writing (adding an image for effect) and deserves some praise. But then she invites Becca to think about the effect of this choice on her writing: is this is the image of him you really want to convey? When I break down Rebekah’s teaching moves here, I see a validate-challenge-complicate-invite protocol that I think could be incredibly helpful to teachers:
Validate: You’ve chosen a picture that conveys Bernie Sanders in a particular way — good job!
Complicate: This specific picture makes him looks angry — is that what you’re going for?
Validate: If so, great choice!
Invite: If no, can you find another picture that would better match your message?
After some revision work, Bella came back with this photo, showing a softer, friendlier version of Bernie:
Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 6.01.23 AM
Here are a few more ideas for helping students be more intentional about their craft work:

Try it multiple ways

Students often begin with a craft move they want to try in a piece of writing simply because they saw another writer do it or it sounds or looks cool on the page. And this is okay — especially in the beginning. But if we want students to think more deeply about the effects of their choices, let’s invite them to work backwards.

Anthony is working on a poem about running. He’s a cross-country runner, and he wants to share about the total relaxation that overcomes him when he’s been running for over 30 minutes — the high that moves from his head to his toe. We’ve just finished reading “First Love” by Carl Linder, a poem about a boy’s love for basketball. In this poem, short lines mimic the choppy movement of a basketball being run up and down court. Here are the first few lines:

Before sixteen

I was fast

enough to fake

my shadow out

and I could read

every crack and ripple

in that patch of asphalt.

Anthony wants to try his hand at short, choppy lines because he loves how the “First Love poem” sounds. A brief conference with Anthony in which we nudge him to think about line breaks, we might encourage him to write out the poem in different ways — short, choppy lines; long lines over one stanzas; pairs of long lines, etc. It’s easy enough to cut-and-paste different craft moves and structures in and out of a piece of writing. Have Anthony bring the different versions to a conference, and read them out loud to him so he can hear how they sound. “What structure best communicates the feeling of the relaxation and peace that overcomes you on a long run?”

In the example you give of a student who wants to include a witty dialogue that doesn’t advance plot or character, invite the student to write that section of his piece in three different ways 1) with the witty dialogue 2) without it 3) dialogue with a completely different tone. It’s easy enough to delete/cut/paste craft work without much effort; the simple exercise helps give students a different vision for their work, one that might better match — or even complicate and transform — their original intentions.

Partner Craft Work

Some students are more responsive to their peers. Have each student select a craft move they have embedded into their writing. Then, these students should switch papers, and write a little marginal note next to the craft move about the effect they see it having on the piece of writing. When they switch back, the writer may learn a different perspective — one that supports her choice or one that makes her want to play some more.

 Justify Your Craft

Rebekah and I describe this exercise in our new book Beyond Literary Analysis, but it can help writers of all different kinds of texts think about the effects of their choices. The slide below shows a list of guiding questions and an excerpt of a student paper with a comment bubble: in the comment bubble, the student responds to a guiding question to justify the kind of evidence or the content of evidence he has selected to add to his writing.

Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 7.05.30 AM.png

Students can handwrite their justification in the margins of their paper, or they can use the Comment feature in Word or Google Docs to type it. Both tools allow for the continuation of a dialogue between teacher and student, or between peers.

For students working with narrative writing or poetry, the questions may look a bit different:

  • Why does this craft move matter?
  • How does it support the overall work of the sentence/paragraph/piece as a whole?
  • Does the removal of this craft move change the feeling, tone, or effect of the piece?
  • Is there another way to achieve this feeling/effect/purpose?
  • Why were you inspired to include this craft?

Cloze Passage Thinking Work

I have also found success in asking my students to think about how the craft move they are integrating has helped other writers achieve similar effects with a simple cloze passage that helps them draw this connection:

I want to add ___________________________ to my piece of writing because/so ___________________________. I saw this in the piece _____________________________ and it helped that writer __________________.

Some writers struggle to revise or undo the craft work they have added in. This cloze passage helps them think through a choice, and connect their writing to others’, before they begin the work.

~ Allison

How else might we encourage students to think about the effects of their choices? When is it okay to celebrate any amount of craft work, and when do we need to expect students to be more intentional and thoughtful in their choices? I’d love to hear more about what this looks like in your own classroom — find us on the Moving Writers Facebook page or on Twitter @allisonmarchett

For future posts in this series, please let me know which skill(s) you would like to see broken down into use-in-your-classroom tomorrow scaffolds and tricks that move your writers forward. The skill can be as basic as “show don’t tell” or more process-oriented like “how to work a notebook into your routine”. Just let me know what kind of support you and your students need!

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