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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The Power of Flash Drafting: Less Thinking, More Writing

I am very late to the flash draft party.

It’s not a new concept. Ralph Fletcher mentions it in What a Writer Needs, and he attributes the concept to another teacher entirely. But I hadn’t heard about it until a Twitter chat last month when a group of elementary writing teachers raved about its power to jumpstart the writing process.

This isn’t something I hear a lot about in conversations centered on the secondary classroom, though. Many high school teachers may be flash-drafting; still, in my classroom, and in the classrooms of my colleagues, drafts have typically come to fruition by way of assignment (“Go home and write a draft of this paper. Bring it to class.”), by way of deadline (“I want to see at least a completed draft by Friday”), or by way of finished product (the organic flow of the workshop ultimately leading from some kind of draft to some kind of final product).

I have tried all three methods in the past, and, to some extent, all three have worked.

But in my most recent English 9 workshop, focused on the technique of evidence, I decided to take the leap and try a flash draft instead. After some initial idea generation, students spent one class period (for us, about 45 minutes) writing as much as they could and as quickly as they could. For a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the propensity for distraction, I asked students to handwrite rather than type. If they felt like they got stuck on one idea or  needed to research something, they should simply put brackets in their paper to indicate that something is missing and keep moving forward. I assured them that our traditional mini-lessons would follow and that this would only be the junk draft — getting ideas from brain to paper. No pressure. No over-thinking. Just writing.

It’s hard to say that this alone is the thing that made the difference in our workshop. However, students spent far less time dilly-dallying, conferences were vastly more productive, and the students unanimously — unanimously — reported that writing a flash draft made their process more efficient and productive.

Here’s what some of them had to say:

Writing a flash draft at the beginning of this unit changed my process by allowing me to get my words out on paper. It didn’t matter how good the draft was, and it allowed me to see what worked well and what didn’t work well.  

After I had written my flash draft, it helped me to realize that I hadn’t had very good evidence, and I needed to switch things up a little bit. My genre and topic ended up being used in a different way, but if I hadn’t written a flash draft, I probably wouldn’t have realized it until later on.

Writing a flash draft helped me because it gave me a starting point that I wouldn’t have been able to produce by just sitting there thinking about where to start.

My writing completely changed from the flash draft to my final. I got rid of all the writing and kept the ideas.  

My flash draft and my final draft are VERY different. My flash draft was work that I didn’t like very much, so I changed my direction. My flash draft narrative began where my final narrative ends.

 This was the first time that I have tried a flash draft, and it was a complete success. I normally think too much about my first draft, but the flash draft let me just get my initial thoughts down quickly.  

I didn’t collect and read the drafts. Rather, when we returned to class, we started revising according to mini-lessons, conferencing, and meeting in writing groups for feedback. Since students were writing in myriad genres  and I hadn’t provided any mentor texts or prior guidance (and we would be focusing our workshop on a technique rather than a genre study), I didn’t really even use the flash drafts to plan instruction.

These flash drafts were just for the students.

 Giving students the freedom to get their bad ideas out, providing an immediate deadline, and making students do the writing in front of me made all the difference. We were ready to really workshop their writing during the very next class. While students still moved at their own paces, everyone had a foundation from which to grow.

Connecting Writers’ Struggles to Mentor Text Solutions

I have recently found myself reinforcing (and re-teaching) the fundamentals of how to use a mentor text with my ninth graders. After our most recent unit, I asked students how many of them went back and looked at the mentor texts I provided on their own after we had used them in a mini-lesson. 56% of my students reported that they didn’t.  They “forgot.” Or, they “didn’t see how a mentor text would help.”

So, even if it’s March, it’s time to go back to the beginning.

As teachers, we know that a good mentor text can accomplish myriad miracles for our students. Ralph Fletcher notes that  “if you really want to write in a powerful way, you’ve got to read powerful stuff and just feel the power of it, because nobody writes out of a vacuum.” So, we tirelessly search for just the right source to inspire our students, to illustrate our mini-lesson. We walk them through the highlights — helping them zoom in on what they need to see.

But how do we teach them to do this for themselves? When they move into a different English class and aren’t given explicit mini-lessons, when their ninth grade writer’s notebooks have been lost, when they go to college and are entirely left to their own writing devices, when they go into the working world and need to produce a written product, mentor texts are the thing that will remain.

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