Working as Our Students’ Editor

Working as Our Students' Editor

Print this infographic, and tape it to your desk or inside your planner! Share with a friend or your department members.

Near the very top of the Things That Disheartens English Teachers list are the comments we leave on students’ papers that aren’t considered, aren’t heeded, and — if we’re honest — often aren’t even read. I hear it from secondary teachers constantly; even in the best case scenario, it seems that students work hard on a piece of writing, the teacher works hard making thoughtful comments to move the writer forward, and then … nothing.  

Sure, there are measures we can take to ensure that students are reading and thinking about our comments. In the past, I have required students to respond to every comment I left to demonstrate their understanding. At NCTE15, Jeff Scheur (@jscheur) shared that he has students write a paraphrase of the feedback they have received before they dive into the revision process. I love that idea.  But while these mechanisms work and are absolutely a step in the right direction, they don’t drill down into why this happens, why students glance at the grade and then ignore the feedback.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking: students don’t read our feedback because it’s boring, it’s small, and it isn’t meaningful to them.

As a teacher, regardless of my best intentions, I find myself getting sucked into minutiae when I read students’ best drafts. We’ve had writing conferences about the big ideas, the structure, how the ideas flow and work together. When I get to that finished piece, more often than not, my feedback has much more to do with missing punctuation and craft techniques that I don’t yet see

As a writer, the best feedback I’ve ever received was from our editor, Katie Ray (@katiewoodray). I checked my email every ten minutes for days after sending Katie a chunk or chapter of Writing With Mentors, excited to see what she would say. I treasured my editor’s feedback — not because it was always glowing, but because her feedback taught me something about my writing, taught me something about myself as a writer. Katie could see the work from the 30,000-foot view — she saw how the pieces fit together (and when they didn’t), she often understood what we were trying to say better than we did.

A great editor doesn’t start out looking for the deficits in a piece of writing; a great editor holds a mirror up to the writer so that she can move forward.

Here are some moves that an editor makes when giving feedback on a piece of writing:

An editor honors what has been achieved

Editors don’t give cheap and easy compliments (like, “I really like your formatting. The bullet points are so nice and easy to read.” – an actual piece of feedback I have been given.)  An editor honors the work that has been done and what is going well. An editor also pushes at the edges of those promising bits — deepening, complicating, expanding them.

An editor sees the bigger picture

One of the chief beauties of an editor is that they can see what the writer herself is too close to see. An editor sees when a writer is veering off course or when the writer is actually moving in a different direction altogether. This bird’s-eye view of the work can refocus a writer, build connections within the text and outside the text, or help them pull together disparate ideas into a more cohesive whole.

An editor removes the “audience fantasy”

Brian Sweeney (@MrSweeneyNYC) spoke at NCTE about the “audience fantasy” — an imaginary game we play with our students whereby we pretend that a real audience beyond the teacher is clambering to read their writing. We write things like, “This is unclear for your reader”, when, in reality, the only reader is the teacher. An editor’s job is to make a piece of writing its best before it goes to publication. Katie Ray’s feedback aimed at making our book useful and readable for a real audience, and this real audience motivated our writing. If we are helping our student move toward real publication rather than pretend publication, our feedback might also prove more meaningful for our young writers.

An editor uses the language of possibility

Katie always charged her feedback with what if? and maybe? Editors make suggestions, bring forth new ideas,see potential  and use language that reflects that hopeful sense of possibility. Editors dwell in what could be — with some tweaking, restructuring, revising — and help their authors see the same potential in their own work.

An editor gives the writer agency

By using this language of potential and possibility, an editor gives the writer the final say over their creation. So often, when we leave feedback and put a grade on a piece of writing, we are taking the final say over the creation. We say, “This is an A” or “This is a C”.  And though we hope our students will choose to revise, the verdict has already come down.

Ralph Fletcher (@fletcherralph) says that there is always tension in the editor-author relationship because while the editor suggests, the author has the creative authority to say, “No, I would really prefer it the other way.”  As teachers, we encourage our students to make author’s choices — we need to gives students the authority to make all of the choices real writers make, even disagreeing with their editor.

I don’t want to leave small, irrelevant feedback for my students any more.  They do need to improve their punctuation. They do need to incorporate the conventions of a given genre. And I will need to figure out how to help them do these things while refocusing to work as their editor — showing them what is possible in their writing, encouraging them to move forward, giving them feedback that is meaningful and inspiring.

For you, what’s the difference between a teacher’s feedback and an editor’s feedback? What are some moves you might make to become an editor for your students? Leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet us @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett. 

Translating Writing With Mentors for Elementary and Middle School, Part I

IMG_4824Our bookshelves are jammed full with books meant for elementary and middle school teachers. Donald Graves, Nancie Atwell, Georgia Heard, Katie Wood Ray, Ralph Fletcher, the gals at Two Writing Teachers — these are the teachers who have taught us how to teach writing, who continually push us to reconsider what we think we know about the students we teach.

And they are also the teachers who inspire us to acts of translation — taking strategies designed for children and converting them into strategies for our teenagers.

When teachers ask us if it could work the other way around — could they take the strategies we use with our high school students in Writing With Mentors and use them with their younger students — our answer is a resounding YES!

In our next post, we will walk you through the writing process we outline in Writing With Mentors, and show you how each phase can be adapted for work with younger students. But let’s start at the very beginning — at the foundation. We have a few fundamental beliefs about working with mentor texts that transcend grade level, beliefs that apply to any student writer  in any classroom context:

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Restaurant Review PLUS Interview with Writer

MentorTextWednesday

Mentor Text:

Wells, Pete. “Fred and Barney Would Feel Right at Home.” The New York Times. The New York Times Co. 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 7 April 2014.

Author Information:

“At the Critics’ Table.” The New York Times. The New York Times Co. 3 Sept. 2013. Web. 7 April 2014.

Background:

Driving to work this week, I had an epiphany.

Mentor text study should not be limited to the study of texts but should include the study of the mentors themselves.

Here’s what Katie Wood Ray has to offer on this topic: “In genre studies, particularly, it’s a good idea to find out as much as you can about the people behind the texts you’re reading and the kind of work they do to support their writing. If possible, you may find interviews with writers and either include them in the stack of texts for students to read, or in whole-class gatherings, you might highlight what you think are the important points from the interviews. Also, ask students to pay attention to any author’s notes or information on book jackets that might provide insight into the writers and the work they do” (128).

I had read this passage in Study Driven before, but it didn’t sink in until this week. And then the guilt hit. I use mentor texts religiously but rarely do I stop to talk about the person behind the words.

What message are we sending to student writers about writers when we talk around  authors but not about them?

In an effort to make good on Ray’s suggestion, I immediately went to work to find author information to support the text we’re currently reading in our review genre study–a review of M. Wells Steakhouse in Long Island City, Queens.

How I Used It

Students are in the “immersion” phase of genre study. We are using these questions from Study Driven to frame our reading:

  • What kinds of topics do writers address with this genre and what kinds of things do they do with these topics?
  • What kinds of work (research, gathering, reflecting, observing, etc.) does it seem like writers of this genre must do in order to produce this kind of writing?
  • How do writers craft this genre so that it is compelling for readers?

We read through the review once together.

Students then did a second draft reading in which they paid special attention to the focus questions and made notes in their margins.

Afterwards, we plotted our noticings on the board. Here is the working list that we will continue to add to and refine as we immerse ourselves in several more mentor texts:

Review (Restaurant) – Initial “Noticings”

  • Includes slideshow with images from restaurant
  • Hyperlinks to other reviews of restaurants owned by same couple
  • Introduces the concept of “the steakhouse” and sets essay up to “set apart” the new steakhouse
  • Balances unbiased information about the type of restaurant with opinionated review
  • Compares this restaurant to other restaurants
  • Talks more about the substance/food than the chefs themselves (though he does give a bit of background information)
  • Discusses about 11 dishes
  • Uses the language of food
  • Uses figurative language & comparisons
  • Covers apps, main entrees, and desserts—you feel like he’s tried everything
  • No forecasting statement—he takes us on the journey he experienced
  • Has a 3-sentence conclusion
  • Delivers a rating system at the end: atmosphere through wheelchair access
  • Runs about 3 pages
  • Includes prices
  • Has a creative, captivating title that alludes to a television show
  • Includes LOTS of detailed imagery about each dish
  • Has a star system–how do they assign stars? Are the restaurants being compared to ALL restaurants? or restaurants of their kind?

After we charted the noticings, I shared the following clips to enhance students’ understanding of the work of a restaurant critic, as well as introduce them to Pete Wells, The New York Times restaurant critic.

Video: The restaurant critics’ guide to using disguises and fake names

Video: What actually happens at the critic’s table

If you look back at the list of noticings, you’ll see that my students wondered about the rating system. I was able to show them this clip to help explain how critics assign stars.

Video: NYT restaurant critics demystify the star-rating system

Ray, Katie Wood. Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop. Heinemann: Portsmouth, 2006.

We’ve added a new section to our dropbox project–a folder called About the Writers–where we’ll post author interviews, author notes, etc.–anything to supplement the study of mentor texts and pay homage to the writers themselves.

Coming to Terms with the P-Word

My friends don’t understand why I love bikram yoga–the heat (105 degrees), the humidity (40%), the predictability (26 postures repeated twice).

“Don’t you get bored?” they persist.

No. In fact, the predictability of the class is one of the aspects that makes the yoga so enjoyable. Most people learn the 26 postures quickly–it just takes a few classes. Because the class has a predictable sequence, we know what to do and can enjoy a more deliberate practice because the series is so familiar. It never gets boring because our bodies are different every day, so we never know what kind of class we’re going to have. The predictability is a gift.

So when a student wrote on a course reflection a few weeks back that my English 9 class was “predictable,” you would have thought it was music to my ears.

But it wasn’t. “No one wants to be predictable,” I wailed to my husband.

I wrestled with this student’s “critique” all week. He had used the P-word.

I didn’t want to be predictable, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that I had sought comfort in our writing workshop routines day after day–and I honestly believed the students did, too. I picked up Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, searching for wisdom in my dog-eared copy. “Surely her classroom isn’t predictable,” I thought to myself, but as I turned in for bed that night, page 33 of her book seared into my head, I couldn’t help but think that her classes, too, seemed a bit…predictable.

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And I knew for a fact that Penny Kittle’s classes were far from boring. What did her classes have that mine didn’t? I was determined to find out.

In typical fashion, I fixated on this for a while–until Rebekah came to my rescue a few days later and sent me this text message:

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With a renewed sense of hope, I began to explore this idea of predictability in the writer’s workshop, and days later, I stumbled upon this quote in Katie Wood Ray’s Study Driven:

When teaching has a predictable rhythm to it, students recognize what’s happening and can engage with the whole process of teaching and learning much more intentionally because it is so familiar. Now, the fact that it is predictable doesn’t mean in any way that it is redundant or boring. The way you go about a study is predictable, but the content that comes from the study is anything but predictable. The teaching is “structured for surprise” (Graves 2001, 51) and it’s the promise of what you might discover together that gives both students and teachers energy for the study.

There it was on page 110 of her book. The rationale I had been searching for. Still, I felt that perhaps my classroom was missing a special ingredient. I wasn’t convinced I was structuring my classes for surprise, so I decided to compare my methods to hers.

  • At the start of a new unit of study, she immerses students in the texts she wants them to write. Check.

  • Then, once students have a sense of where they’re headed, students move into a close study of these texts. Check.

  • Students generate a whole-class list of “noticings” across texts. Here is an example of a list made during a study of feature articles in a fourth grade classroom:

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(The list goes on–what an inspiring list!)

Often I generate lists of noticings with students, but sometimes I dive right in to my own pre-determined series of mini-lessons. So here’s where our methods begin to diverge.

I have a fixed set of lessons I plan on teaching. Katie Wood Ray chooses what to study from students’ noticings:

You really have two choices about how to decide what to talk about during the next days of inquiry-driven lessons: you can choose something or you can let your students choose something. I would probably recommend that you do some of both over the course of close study. You’ll want to have some say in determining what seems to have the most potential on the list of possibilities, but you want to be sure that students’ interests are honored, too. Of course, since the list is comprised mostly of their noticings, you really ensure that you are following their interests no matter who does the choosing. (132)

After reading this passage, I panicked a bit. I thought of my color-coded Google Calendar, the mini-lessons planned out for weeks. I thought of my visually pleasing rubrics–the ones I often gave to students at the beginning of a new unit of study so they had a “roadmap.”

I thought about Penny’s classroom. In her book, she talks about the qualities of genres but never presents a set of plans–a prefixed curriculum.

And then I looked back at the list of noticings those awesome fourth graders had generated–all those wonderful, creative, possibilities–and I knew what I had to do.

***

I realize that I have to relinquish some of the control and do a better job of honoring students’ instructional interests. Choice has always been at the heart of my writer’s workshop–but now I know that my interpretation of “choice” has been one-dimensional. My lessons have always been teacher–not inquiry–driven.

So now, with a deepened understanding of the role that possibility plays in writer’s workshop, I’m excited to dive into my next unit of study with students. My mantra!?

Embrace possibility. Possibility. The new P-word.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

~ Allison

Kittle, Penny. Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2008.

Ray, Katie Wood. Study Driven. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2006.

How do you honor students’ instructional interests in your classroom? Feel free to add a comment below or find us on Twitter at @allisonmarchett or @rebekahodell1.