A Slam Dunk: How a Basketball Metaphor Led My Writers to Better Revision

Image via pixabay.com.

Scaffolding.

This is exactly what I had on my mind on the eve of a busy day this semester.  I had spent the first quarter of the school year working intensely to give my senior honors students as much commentary on their writing as possible.  Along with conferring with them verbally during the writing process, I was leaving a few comments on each of their pieces of writing when a draft was complete to give them ideas for revision.  And I have to say— I liked the result; just giving them a few comments was helping them narrow in on a few areas they could improve upon without completely overwhelming them. Overall, there was noticeable improvement between drafts.

But, then I got tired.  And not the normal kind of tired.  I became the kind of tired you get when you feel like you’re just giving too much of yourself to your job.  The kind of tired where you just want to go home and read a trashy novel or watch Grey’s Anatomy and turn your brain off for a while.  You know, teacher tired.

If you’re reading this, you probably know how dangerous teacher tired can be… it’s why you’re fighting against it, right now, by looking for something that can improve your practice.  I’ve seen it burn a lot of people out, and the 22-year-old newbie that I once was swore I’d never let that monster grab me. I’m 8 years in now, and I’ve learned that when I start to feel teacher tired reach out its scaly claws, I need to use it as an opportunity to be reflective rather than join the cynical crowd.

And so I asked myself…why do I feel this way?  Why am I the one doing all the work?

I teach seniors, which means my students are going to have to be their own advocates in less than a year.  I, along with my copious amounts of commentary, won’t be there next year. They’re going to be on their own, which means they don’t just need writing skills; they need revision skills too.

So, I began to look at first quarter as a scaffolding experience.  I had just given them tons of examples of what productive revision comments look like.  It was time to hold their feet to the fire and have them practice the skill. So after they completed a draft for their college essays, I handed the reigns over.  I asked students to read through their essays and make three comments that focused on aspects of their paper they wanted to improve for the next draft.

And… like most “firsts” in the classroom… that was a fail.

Even my most thoughtful of students wrote really generic answers such as, “This essay needs to flow better” or “Needs to be more descriptive.”  None of their comments were specific enough to help them know what steps to take next in order to improve the piece of writing. While I was initially really frustrated with this (who wouldn’t be?), I again used it as an opportunity for reflection.  And what I realized was that my own process of learning to give effective feedback to writers had been a long, self-taught one met with a lot of trial-and-error. My students haven’t had that training.

So I decided to give them some feedback training by breaking it down in a way they would understand.  When they came into class the next day, I displayed this slide on the Smartboard:

I asked students to envision receiving this feedback after playing basketball in a game or during P.E.  They generated a plethora of questions they would ask after hearing this comment:

  • What’s wrong with my shooting that needs to be fixed?  Is it the placement of my hands, the placement of my feet?  The way I release the ball?
  • Is there a specific type of shot I’m not excelling at?  Is it my layup shot that needs work or my free throw? Or both?
  • What can I do to improve?  What steps can I take to resolve the issue?

Because I know not all my students are athletic, I provided two other feedback examples, too.  I also asked my culinary-inclined students what they would say if they were told, “Your pizza tastes bad” and my musical and theatrical students how they would respond to the comment, “Our last performance didn’t go so well.”  Students generated a similar list of questions you saw above with the basketball comment; overall, they agreed that this feedback was just not specific enough. It’s not likely any change was going to be made with such vague commentary.

I also pointed out that narrowing in on something specific might mean ignoring other areas of weakness.  Even though I’m 5’10, I’m a mess of a basketball player, so if you tell me I need to work on my shooting, I’ll probably just brush it off.  Because I know it’s true. And, quite frankly, I don’t want to hear that because it just reminds me that I’m no good at basketball. But if you identify one issue I’m having that I can realistically work on immediately, I’m much more inclined to listen.  If you show me how to place my hands on the ball, this is something I can feel good about trying the next time I shoot the ball. Yes, there are probably still 20 other issues going on, but helping me position my hands will, in the very least, make my shooting a little bit better.  And maybe once I master hand placement, I can move on to the proper way to stand, and so on.  I put this slide on my Smartboard:

With this slide as my guide, I transitioned the conversation into writing.  I explained that comments like the ones they had been providing on their papers may identify a general problem, but they didn’t narrow in on something specific they could realistically attack.  Like my basketball shot, this might mean ignoring some problems in pursuit of the most pressing. So, if your essay doesn’t flow well, I explained, find a specific spot that you notice the issue.  Dig in and try to diagnose the problem at that particular spot. There could be a lack of transitional words and phrases at the beginning of paragraphs. It could also be that the sentences are similar in size and style, so the writing is reading a bit robotic.  Once a specific diagnosis in one area of the writing is made, it’s a lot easier to attack it. Not to mention, it is a lot easier to feel confident about revision when the writer knows something specific and attainable to improve.

I kept this slide displayed as students tried again to provide feedback.  And guess what? As a whole, student comments were so much more specific and so much more effective at encouraging meaningful revision.  It took me the better part of a class period to show students the importance of effective feedback using basketball, cooking, and theatre as examples, but I was ultimately glad I made the time investment.  Because in the end, we owe it to ourselves and our students to hand over the reigns.

—Paige

How can we avoid “teacher tired” by making students more active in their own revision process? What are some tricks you use to teach your students the skill of effective revision?  Tweet me your ideas @TimmermanPaige!

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1 Comment

  1. I am teacher tired but have put your article in my “try this” file. Those are very relatable ideas I can use as we go forward with writing. Merry Christmas!

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