Quick Tip Tuesday: Editor’s checklist

February 23rd, 2010

In this week’s Quick Tip, Jeff Anderson shares how he introduces the Editor’s Checklist in his classroom. This checklist helps his students keep track of writing conventions as they edit and revise their writing throughout the year. Jeff talks more about this strategy in his book Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop.

Because I want to be a responsive teacher, responding to my students’ grammatical and mechanical needs as they arise, I have to strike a balance between what students may need at any given time and the overall blueprint of what my kids should know and be able to do when they walk out of my class at the end of the year. The editor’s checklist is an essential tool for meeting this goal in my classroom. This one tool can serve as a blueprint for the year, a placeholder, a record of your grammar and mechanics teaching.

I don’t mean the editor’s checklist found at the teacher supply store, or the lengthy list that comes with textbooks, or even the individual list that your students don’t keep in their writing folders. I bow down to worship any teacher who can get all of his or her students to keep their own personalized lists of idiosyncratic errors, but I could only keep up with these individualized checklists with my 150 students for about three weeks into the semester. I stress the word I because if I did not sit with individual students and tell them what they needed to work on, the lists were never made or added to or even referred to. It’s just like when I corrected errors on their papers. I would hope that if I sit next to them, working one-on-one, they would learn new writing skills by my modeling.

Researchers tell us to teach skills in context. They tell us to conference for one-on-one instruction, but I had thirty other students who were clamoring for me to assist them as well. I wonder, do math teachers teach most skills one-on-one? These attempts at teaching mechanics didn’t work because I never got to every kid. And I just deepened their dependence on some “other” authority instead of scaffolding them to tackle and reason with grammar and mechanics on their own.

Finally, I began keeping an organic editor’s checklist: a system that grows from student writing and what research says kids have to know. In my class, we constantly move back and forth between the editor’s checklist and writer’s notebook.

On the first day of school, I hang a long piece of white butcher paper on the wall, in a spot everyone can see. If kids ask about it, I tell them this sheet is going to help them grow up and be ready for high school. If no one says anything, I say, “So when are y’all going to leave me alone about the white butcher paper?” I get puzzled looks. I love to puzzle my kids. I tell them their brains are growing. On the second day, before school, I write across the top in big green letters Editor’s Checklist.

“I think you are now ready for me to share with you,” I say, pointing at the butcher paper, “the editor’s checklist.”

Audible groan. Just the word editing sends shivers down students’ spines. Who can blame them? Especially when they are assuming it is probably just one more way to make writing like filling out a worksheet. Their adolescent brains downshift: One more way to be wrong; one more rule that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t apply to me; one more thing I couldn’t care less about; one more thing to check off, be done with, so I can sit, talk, and write notes. When I have given my students a photocopied checklist in the past, that is, in fact, what they have done. They have checked off each box, one at a time. Checklists mostly get us checks, not editing, but this organic editor’s checklist is different.

“Have you ever seen an editor’s checklist?” Most students say no, even though they probably have seen one in one form or another. “This chart is going to help us learn many of the important things to be adult writers. Writers’ secrets, if you will.” A good percentage of my middle school students want to be adults, so I shamelessly use this desire to manipulate them into caring about mechanics. “You’re not a child anymore,” I say, “but you’re not an adult either. You’re in between. One of the ways we make our writing more adult is to use punctuation marks correctly.” I get a few smirks, but I have everyone’s attention. “Have you ever thought about why we have punctuation? Or better yet, why we have laws and rules everywhere we go?”

“So we won’t get in trouble,” offers Stephanie.
“Tell me more, Stephanie.”
“Well, it’s like we can’t go through stop signs because there would be a crash.”
“What other rules keep you safe?”
Albert’s hand shoots up. “The pool over at San Pedro Park; there are these signs that say ‘No Running.’”
“At Pecan Grove Apartments it says the same thing,” adds Ramiro.
“Can anyone think of a pool where they want you to run?” I ask.

Silence envelops the room as they search their brains.

“I guess that rule is pretty standard.” We talk about the conventions of eating at the table, restaurants, driving. After we have exhausted all the possible places where rules serve us, I ask, “Whom do you think invented conventions or rules for writing?”
“Teachers?” wonders Jeremy.
“Maybe there was this mean English teacher a long time ago who had a red pen for a hand,” I say, holding my right arm stiff in front of me, thrashing it around in crossing-out motions. “And she just started marking up papers for fun, slashing them to bits.”
“Whatever!” Sara says.
“No, it wasn’t a mean old teacher with a red-pen hand. It was the writers. They wanted to be understood. Don’t you want to be understood too? Grammar and mechanics are conventions. The word convention meant agreement in its original Latin form. You told me we had agreements or rules about eating, being at a pool, and so on. You said they told us how to act. Well, writers wanted people to understand what they said, even when they weren’t around. They wanted people to understand their words so they started agreeing on things: A period means stop this thought; a capital letter signals that a new sentence is beginning or that a word is a name.” This discussion begins building the concept. Referring to the editor’s checklist, I explain how we will learn more about how to follow the rules and how following conventions of mechanics and grammar makes our writing easier to understand. And what middle school students want is to be understood—finally.

“Are you tired of nobody hearing you? Writing gives you that power, and part of writing’s power is in its passion, its details, but all of that is lost if the grammar and mechanics can’t hold the message together.”

Soon after, I read Punctuation Takes a Vacation. This whimsical picture book by Robin Pulver (2003) describes the plight of a class whose punctuation gets so sick and tired of being erased, left out, and moved around that all the punctuation marks rebel and go on vacation. The story and illustrations describe how much punctuation is missed. The book is one more way to stress the value of punctuation as a tool writers harness to communicate. In truth, the editor’s checklist may only be semiorganic. While it grows from the hubris of student writing, it also incorporates my state standards along with Connors and Lunsford’s top twenty errors, listed in Chapter 1.

After I teach grammar and mechanics concepts through snippets of text or writers’ secrets, students help me list each rule on the editor’s checklist (see Figure 3.7). If appropriate, we add an annotation that reminds them of how to apply the rule and its purpose. It may be more appropriate to refer to another list posted in the room or to start a different wall chart. Figure 3.8 offers advice about which rules could go on the editor’s checklist and which could be posted separately. I find that posting capitalization rules and sentence patterns by themselves has several advantages. Separate lists serve as categorical organization for the high-priority rules and ensure that there is room left on the editor’s checklist for other important rules.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Writing

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