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They say when you turn off one of your senses, one or more of the others gets stronger.
That’s what I love about teaching writing. The endlessness of possibilities for process means you get to start all over each time. Each time is an opportunity to focus on one of the “senses” and to stand back and see what happens.
Prior to this year, I had never had my students publish their writing before. It was always one of those tasks that sounded great when I read about it in books. I may have even intended to do it in the back of my mind a time or two, but it never happened. Why? I was too busy focusing on other “senses.” I was so concerned with getting my writers to put something on the page and perfect it that publication seemed like such a longshot, such an impossible goal.
But this time, I did it differently. This time, I decided before the writing unit even began that my students’ writing would ultimately be published on a class blog. And beginning with that end in mind allowed me to see and try new things that would not have been possible had I not forced myself to honor that commitment. There were times in the unit I thought my students would never “get there,” and I fought the urge on several occasions to abandon the publication process. But I’m glad I stuck with it. Because what I learned in the process was invaluable to me as a teacher.
In my last post, I discussed how I used travel articles as a means of meeting the informative writing unit requirements for my class. I went through the steps of how I introduced the unit to students, helped them brainstorm and choose topics, and how I encouraged them to begin drafting. Today’s steps will focus on what came after the drafts. This is the cleanup that happened between putting something on the page and posting that something on the web for the world to see. And along the way, I’ll fill you in on what I learned as a teacher.
- Mentor Sentences. Once students had completed a draft of their travel articles, I read over some of them to notice patterns. Some of the patterns I noticed were weak introductions and a lack of exciting language to really entice the reader to want to visit the location. So I went back to our mentor text hub, Only in Your State, and I pulled out stellar sentences that I felt would amplify my students’ writing. We spent a class period examining these sentences and emulating the techniques with our own topics. The next day, students had the opportunity to incorporate some of these sentences into their own writing.
I want to point out that I’m aware that the concept of using mentor sentences is nothing new. This is a go-to strategy when writing with mentor texts, especially in a workshop setting. However, what made this activity especially meaningful this time around was that the students tended to take it more seriously knowing their work would be visible to a larger audience. There have been so many times I have used mentor sentences in class with hypothetical writing that never gets seen by anyone except me. While students are usually proud of the sentences they write during the exercise, I have noticed that there isn’t an overwhelming number of them that actually put the sentences into their drafts. However, most (if not all) of my students used the mentor sentences this time around, probably because they knew there would be a wider audience for their work. So my teacher takeaway from this activity is this: When you ask students to actually do what real writers do, they tend to actually do the work of real writers.
- Formatting. Because all of my students’ writing would be published in the same place, I wanted a uniform format for all articles to follow. I provided an example of what I wanted their writing to look like on the page, with guidelines for font size and style, spacing, and text and picture alignment. We then spent the next few days in class reformatting so that everyone’s article matched this uniform style. I know what you might be thinking, and the answer is yes— it was necessary to spend a few days on this for a few different reasons. First, most of my students were working from their school-issued iPads, which provides an additional challenge when formatting a document. Second, I came to realize that a lot of formatting skills we take for granted because we do them so often are not tools the average high school freshman has in their back pocket. I had to go back to the basics and do mini-lessons on centering and resizing photos, for example. And finally, most of our loveable freshmen have not yet become detail-oriented yet. While formatting isn’t difficult, it’s something that requires a keen, observant eye. I found myself needing to check over everyone’s work before moving onto the next step because even my most attentive students missed a step.
What a student’s writing looks like on the page is another one of the writing senses that was completely dead to me when I started teaching. I learned in college that my primary focus should be on the content of the student’s writing, not on its appearance. And while I still agree that content comes first, I’ve come to find that this no longer means appearance doesn’t matter. In my nine years of teaching, I’ve seen the world quickly evolve into one where writing that has a fascinating title gets clicked on, and writing that is visually appealing on the page gets read. As a result, my stance on formatting has gone from “it doesn’t matter” to “you should probably consider this” to “you should definitely pay attention to this.” But making this shift is, again, putting our students closer to the work of real writers.
- Teacher Editing. Initially, I went the traditional route when it came to editing student articles. Because publication was my goal, I naturally wanted my students’ writing to be grammatically flawless. I am cringing as I am writing this because I know better, but I spent a lot of hours during my Thanksgiving break reading each article and making tons of comments to help students perfect the mechanics of their writing. When students returned from break, they spent time looking at my comments and making changes.
As I said above, this part of the process made me cringe, and I almost didn’t include it as part of this article because I knew better than to do this. But I decided to be vulnerable and show my weakness because I think it’s important to remember that this is one of the downfalls of focusing exclusively on one of the writing “senses”; I was so caught up in publication that I neglected what I have learned about editing over the years. Through my comments, my students may have corrected some of their errors, but I’m not sure what they learned from this in the long run. It would have been more beneficial if I had scanned student work again for common errors and taught mini-lessons focusing on some of the big issues my students were experiencing. Not only would this have saved me time over my holiday break, but it also would have encouraged more critical thinking on the part of my students in identifying mechanical issues themselves.
- Student Editing. Another reason not to engage in such time-consuming teacher editing? My students’ articles were largely still not ready for publication, even after I put all of that time in and allowed them to make corrections in class. What my teacher-editing did allow me to do, however, was identify which students in each of my classes were strong at writing mechanically-sound pieces of writing. So when I discovered my students needed even more time and support before publishing, I enlisted the help of several “student editors.” I had about 6-7 editors in each class, and I put them into breakout rooms with a few students who were not yet ready for publication (my school was fully remote on Zoom at the time). My editors were responsible for checking over the others’ work and serving as a resource to help them get approved for publication. Editors let me know when they felt one of their group members were ready to publish, and I looked the articles over once more.
This was such a help and such a time saver in the long run. After reading Sarah Zerwin’s Pointless over the summer, one of the (many) resonating points she made was that we simply do not have enough time to give all students the frequent feedback they need as writers. However, we are sitting on a goldmine— we have a room full of writers who have completed the same writing task and can serve as resources to assist other students. Had I considered this earlier in the unit, I could have earned myself more relaxation time over Thanksgiving break!
- Publication. After the student editing took place, I looked over each student’s article one more time, and at that point, most of them were finally ready to publish! I used a free account on Blogger to set up the blog. It allowed me to “invite contributors” by sending an e-mail invitation to each of my students. This was nice because most of them were able to publish themselves, saving me the trouble of posting over 60 articles.
I did have a few tech hiccups while trying to invite my students to contribute to the blog and teaching them how to post. Luckily, my school has an awesome tech team that is always willing to work with me to help my teacher-visions become a reality. I definitely learned to be patient when it comes to publication, as there are many technical factors that can get in the way of it happening successfully. I also learned the importance of doing a “behind the scenes” trial run of a student publication with a member of tech support present, as this allows a lot of the kinks in the process to be worked out prior to having the whole class make an attempt.
You can visit my students’ blog, Only in Your Salem (and Surrounding Areas), by clicking here.
While there were a lot of obstacles and lessons learned along the way, seeing my students’ reactions when they say their published writing was well worth the effort. Equally important, knowing that students would ultimately publish made revision more valuable and reminded me to utilize the writers in the room with me as resources. I’m looking forward to trying this project again next year with my new insights, which were made possible by focusing on the writing “sense” of publication.
In what ways have your students written for publication? What lessons did you learn along the way? Let’s chat on Twitter @TimmermanPaige!