“The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle” (and How to Help Your Writers Deliver it with Assessment Reviews)

I came across one of those well-intended but ultimately wrong-minded tweets today while scrolling through Twitter.  It offered advice for “ELA teachers” from someone who isn’t one. It suggested encouraging students to try out a new Microsoft Word feature that will basically auto-suggest (or replace, if I interpreted the gif correctly) segments of student writing that the algorithm decides aren’t “effective”.  This isn’t new of course–various companies have also been trying to sell educators similar technology for “painless paper grading” for at least a decade.  

The problem here is more that it mistakes writing for something it isn’t.  Writing isn’t a set of rules or a standard of measures–we sort of maybe encourage this bad thinking with the ol’ “Writer’s Toolbox” metaphor.  You could have a measuring tape in there, but “too wordy” isn’t really a thing by itself, despite what Microsoft WriterBot 5000 (not its actual name, as far as I know) might beep or boop at you.  It’s a subjective concept that depends on context. So is bad grammar–I used some intentionally at the end of my last post in order to be playful. Sometimes I just like the way a sentence fragment sounds.  Like the way it feels.

That being said, while the idea of your typing machine doing the decision making for your student writers is just the most epically grodiest thing ever, the concept underlying it isn’t wrong:  All writing should involve some fine-tuning in the final stages.

But so much conferring time is spent with exploration of ideas and how to express them powerfully that I don’t often have meaningful conversations about the “spit and polish” phase of a piece.  It’s important, but it’s usually the first casualty of a time crunch.

So this year, I’ve been trying to chip away at the idea of sharpening and refining in the space of a different sort of conference:  Assessment reviews.

Whenever I give back a reading or viewing comprehension assessment (ours, by design, are almost never larger than 5-10 questions, whether short answer or multiple choice or some combination), I try to have at least a brief conference with every student about items they struggled with.  I won’t pretend it’s always manageable, but most often, you can squeeze such conversations in more often than you’d think.

Often, I try to group students by which items they missed–especially when particular items were a strong measure of a more complex learning goal.  This creates more of a comfort level too–the kids are sitting with 3-4 other students who also struggled on an item and they can see that their errors aren’t some monumental personal failure.  

This assessment conference structure provides a great opportunity to have some frank conversations about clean, clear sentence writing.  

Quite often, students don’t realize that their inefficiency or lack of clarity as writers is actually preventing them from communicating the best version of their ideas.  Should be a fundamental notion, I know, but until kids think of themselves fully as Writers, they’ll need constant reminders.

Whenever I gather them up to talk about their short answer responses on assessments, I try to center at least some of the conversation around their choices of phrasing and use of context-specific language.  

writing clarity
Note the amount of writing here–the student is THINKING, she just isn’t communicating with clarity.

For example, two days ago I had a conversation with a frustrated student who felt she had thoroughly analyzed a passage of complicated prose from Gatsby, not realizing that in fact the vagaries of her phrasing had borne her ideas back ceaselessly into obscurity.  Here’s part of what she had written: “I believe he [uses this diction] because he’s trying to say that his lack of “lifting work” is disturbing his upperclass being.”  I pointed out that the phrasing “disturbing his upperclass being” was really confusing and made it sound like she was saying that manual labor was keeping him from just being rich (an inaccurate reading of the line).  So I asked her to say out loud what she thought she’d communicated. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that–verbally–she gave me the Ol’ Razzle Dazzle and knocked the answer out of the park.  

razzle dazzle
In this scenario, I am the lion–though I do not normally sleep through writing conferences.

And yet we still had to talk a bit more about how all of the specifics she had conveyed out loud were invisible in her written response.  The original still made sense to HER. The fact that she was using phrasing inexactly and not pinning down the essence of Gatsby’s relationship to manual labor (he looks like someone who never does any) was invisible to her until I, a reader, took the time to explain what her phrasing communicated to ME. This path from thinking all the things to clearly articulating the ones that matter is at the heart of a lot of young writers’ struggles.

Conferencing about assessment responses also allows for really concrete discussions about vague and meaningless statements.  One of my students who struggles with making inferences recently wrote this in response to a question asking him to explain how Cisneros’ final vignettes in Mango Street provide closure to the story: “Because they kind of explain what the book has been getting to the entire time.  It gives you the sense of wow it’s over.”  

You might think my dude just didn’t read the thing, but on subsequent questions on the assessment he deftly explained thematic elements of the book with examples.  He read. He just couldn’t hear in his head why this written response was content free–it turned the language of the question into a more colloquial, content-free reaction to experiencing the ending.  

A two minute conference with him about this short answer will hopefully help him consider similar issues in his bigger pieces:  “What do you think this answer says about how Cisneros left the reader with some final ideas?” “What specific element of the book’s ending did you include in your answer?”  Like most writers, he’ll hear the vagueness when he has to explain the content of his own writing out loud.  

He might not be able to fill the gap with better content observations like my other writer, but he can certainly go forward with the small goal in mind of making sure he avoids vagueness and addresses his subject directly.  

When the conference is based on a few sentences, an amateur writer can better see the disconnect between the prompt, the response that they crafted, and the thinking that they had hoped to convey.  Ideally, we’d conference large pieces of writing extensively with all of our students all the time–nothing improves a writer’s thinking faster.  That standard can be overwhelming though. For you, certainly, but also for your students, who might be pretty fatigued by the whole affair by the time you start calling on them to put a shiny coat of wax on the whole thing before submitting the final product.  Assessment conferences offer a low-stakes space to have a different kind of chat with kids about the clarity of their writing. 

–Mike

How do you help kids add clarity and specificity to their writing?  Tell us on Facebook or shout me out on Twitter @ZigThinks !

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