10 Questions for Jeff: Holding students accountable

Question 10: I believe it is extremely important to have students attend to conventions at every stage of the writing process but it’s hard for students and teachers to manage this.  What are some suggestions for holding students accountable for editing/conventions throughout the writing process instead of just at the editing stage?

Sarah Cordova

Jeff’s response: I agree that we should have students attend to conventions at every stage of the writing process and it can be tough to manage. Certainly, telling kids that all of their writing should be perfect at every stage would be counterproductive, but using what you know as you write is a good idea for making meaning. What we want is their attention to conventions. Not fear. Not worry.

To keep the conversation going and their attention piqued, I recommend using the invitational grammar and editing process described specifically in my book Everyday Editing (2007). In short, I display a mentor sentence that models a particular editing or grammar skill I want my students to know and use.

Let’s say I want students to use a comma after an introductory clause or phrase. I don’t start with definitions or rules. I start with a model or mentor sentence like these from Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants:

George and Harold were usually responsible kids. Whenever something bad happened,  George and Harold were usually responsible  (p.2)

If I want my students to attend to conventions and how they merge with the craft of writing, then I set up a bite-sized chunk of text like this to get the conversation started. According to neurologist David Eagleman, by having a conversation about anything we bring it to the brain’s conscious level of attention. This process is followed by imitation and some other invitations—more than I can put in a blog entry—but do check out Everyday Editing if this is a method you’d like to look at closely. It is the focus of the book.

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Add comment December 21st, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: The pressure of high-stakes tests

Question 9: In my state, high school students must pass a high-stakes writing test in order to graduate.  I teach students with learning disabilities – and many speak English as a second language. Although many of my students pass, it’s heartbreaking to see so many others struggle. One former student failed the test so many times that she asked if there was such a thing as a “brain transplant.” She looked at me dejectedly and said, “I think I need a new one.”

It can feel overwhelming, trying to get high school students who read and write at an elementary school level to pass a high school level test. I know we shouldn’t have to “teach to the test” – but when you’re pressed for time, it feels like there’s no other option. What do you recommend for teachers of high-stakes writing tests? Which of your books I should focus on to give students maximum improvement in the shortest amount of time?

Kris

Jeff’s response: I think we all feel the pressures of high-stakes testing—both teachers and students. The students you ask about—ELLs and students with learning disabilities—often suffer more under high-stakes testing’s reign.  Whether we teach high school or elementary, it’s important that we hold fast to best practices in writing instruction. It is helpful for a teacher to understand what is tested and how, though this does not require us to “teach to the test” to help our students succeed. Out of fear, some teach to the test and ignore best instructional practice. Information on best practices can be found in the Writing Next report.

In addition, as a high school teacher, you may also be interested in what Judith Langer and colleagues found on how to get the best test scores. Surprise! Best practice. And the report shows how “test prep” often has a negative effect on scores.

My experiences working with the populations described do benefit from best practice.. If you are looking for ways to use models to teach writing in general—narrative, explanatory/informational, or argument—see 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know.  If you are looking for ways to improve grammar and editing skills, see Mechanically Inclined or Everyday Editing.

I do think there are many things we can do. Writing fluency is a huge concern. How much time are students spending doing the things writers do? That’s how they’ll become better writers. As teachers, we orchestrate an environment where writing behaviors happen. The amount of time students spend collecting, drafting, conferring, revising, editing, and publishing—writing—will directly correlate with how well they are able to do it.

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Add comment December 20th, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: Collecting great sentences

Question 8: In Everyday Editing, you show how valuable it is to share good quality sentences from good books. Can you offer suggestions or advice on how to collect these treasures? What works for you? Thank you in advance for the answer!

Cynthia

Jeff’s response: Collecting wonderful sentences is a joyful process that you most certainly want to involve your students in, no matter the age. To get started on collecting the treasures, I give you a trove of sentences and in all three of my books, as well as for free on the Great Sentence Blog you can find on my website, writeguy.net. But I can see, you’ve caught the sentence-collecting bug.

First thing you need to know is what skills you want to have demonstrated through models in your classroom. Make a list on a bookmark or note card and keep it with you when you are reading. It’s better to have a list than to look for just one sentence pattern in one book. The list allows you to stumble upon the sentences rather than frantically search.

Besides using the models I provide, the second easiest thing to do is look at the leads of the books and articles you use. Check out first sentences or paragraphs of each chapter in a novel or article or essay. Writers spend so much time crafting them that there is often a treasure on the first page, ready to be plucked and studied with the invitational process.

Once you’ve modeled sharing sentence patterns with your kids, they start finding them in their reading and other classes and want to share them. Make this easy. The best thing I ever did was make some documents for different sentence patterns and have the kids type them in when they find them. Make your list and start today!

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Add comment December 19th, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: Is writing left behind?

Question 7: With all of the emphasis on Common Core reading and math, it seems like writing is being left behind.  What one strategy do you think is the easiest for teachers to implement in a school where writing is now on the back burner?

Dawn

Jeff’s response: I hope that the common core doesn’t leave writing behind. I don’t see evidence of this in the documents, but I think you are talking about the panicked process schools go through when they are afraid of poor performance in math and reading. And, yes, often when the school’s or district’s focus is reading, writing does get “left behind” in terms of the amount of time it is given or the amount of writing students do.

Letting writing lose focus, however, is very short sighted as writing and the study of writing models will be the very thing that will help students understand author’s purpose and many of the higher-level reading skills the Common Core requires. Not to mention the complex higher order thinking it takes to compose and revise.

You ask for one writing strategy. If I could only have one, this is the most elegant writing strategy I know. It’s a combo of a short read-aloud and a series of free writes.  Find a short effective example of the kind of writing students are studying—narrative, informational, explanatory, or argument.

Share the example aloud. Ask students, “What words or phrases stick with you?” Discuss and name their responses. They tend to be effective writing strategies that they highlight. Then, read aloud a second time. You may even have students follow along on a copy of the text. Then ask what else stuck with them. Name again the things they highlighted as ways writers successfully achieve the type of writing you are studying.

After the read-alouds and discussions, students do a quick free write and share. Repeat the process over three to five days, capturing the essential elements of that type of writing on a wall chart.  Next, students pick one of the pieces they’ve started in one or two of the free writes and develop that into a fully-processed piece of writing.  (FYI: All three of my books have selected model or mentor texts that can act as the springboard to these lessons.)

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1 comment December 18th, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: Displaying student writing with errors

Question 6: What are your thoughts on displaying students’ writing  that include convention errors?

Jeff’s response: This is a hot question that tends to be a bit controversial. I think it depends on a few the things: the level of the students, the types or frequency of error, the length of writing, and the audience for which it is displayed. If I am displaying K-2 writing, there are certain things like writing in all caps, or using only initial letters that I would not display. In fifth grade, when students have written a two- page narrative, I may not be concerned if the dialogue isn’t punctuated perfectly iff there was improvement or movement toward correctness throughout the process.

The error-free essay can be a bit of an overreach. I think it is a worthy goal to move toward, but I am not sure of the value of NOT sharing work that is in process or imperfect. I see plenty of conventionally correct writing displayed work that is vapid and shallow, but we wouldn’t worry about that as much—depending on the child, the grade level, the length, and who is seeing this. If an essay is going in a district magazine or a class book, then I think every attempt should be made to make it as correct as possible. However, we have to balance the cost of an error-free draft. What damage does it take to get there? We have to be aware of such things as writing teachers.

Some worry that the Common Core Standards state that “by the end of Grade 4, students will use correct capitalization and use references for spelling checks.” They may. And I think this should happen. But there will still be errors. I think the important thing is that we are moving toward correctness, not always achieving perfection. When perfection is required, much is lost in any endeavor—especially as young writers learn to write.

 

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1 comment December 17th, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: Helping students who are afraid to write

Question 5: I recently moved from middle school teaching to the high school level, and I have a couple of students in my classes who absolutely freak out when they are asked to do any writing.  Some of them would rather just take a zero on an assignment than attempt to write something.  One young girl cried all over her paper when I asked her to write something for me.  How do you help students who feel that they have absolutely nothing to write about, or who feel paralyzed at the thought of having to write, especially for a state writing test?

Shirley Rutter

Jeff’s response: This is a painful question, Shirley, but one I hear too often. Across the nation students are being diagnosed with PSTT. Post-Standardized Test Trauma. Okay, so I made up the disease name, but not the problem. Many struggling writers believe they don’t have anything to say, nor do they have the skills to do so if they happen to have an idea.

One of my friends — a high school English teacher– says the most important thing we can do to improve writing is to simply get out of the way and let them write. And all the while she says we should talk to them about what they are writing. Sounds simple. Most good ideas are. Let’s go with the premise that my friend Marsha is right.

To get the ball rolling, we have to create a space where writing happens. I write at length about this is my latest book. I call the concept motion. Once a writer starts writing, more writing comes. Writers can get feedback that makes them want to write more or less.  (“Motion: Getting and Keeping Writers Motivated,” chapter 1 of 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know.)

As writing teachers, the trick is to know the kinds of activities that get kids writing and the type of feedback that motivates rather than humiliates. To get kids writing, we know freewriting activities of all kinds, especially those that involve prior discussion or read alouds get the most reluctant writers moving. Secondly, students need to share what they have to say with their peers, and they need to hear how writing is responded to thoughtfully. Telling the writer what is strong and then offering focused feedback on one thing they can do better. For more specific information read another one of my recent Stenhouse blog entries.

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1 comment December 14th, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: To prompt or not to prompt?

Question 4: My question is as follows:   Should early elementary students be allowed to write about anything they’d like in their daily journals, or should the teacher supply them with various prompts?

Gloria Wilson
Eldred, PA

Jeff’s response: That’s a quandary, isn’t it? Do we supply a prompt or let them simply write about their own interests or thinking? And when we do let them write whatever they would like, sometimes they say, “I can’t think of anything.” If we always give them a prompt, we take away their belief that they can come up with writing ideas on their own. They can, so they need the opportunity to do so.

It isn’t an either or question. Give a prompt along with the choice that they may choose another topic instead if they prefer. And how do they come up with topics? That’s something writers do.

To collect ideas, teachers go to great lengths making lists: things I can’t wait to write about; the people and places they spend their lives in; their favorite activities and not so favorite activities. Heart maps, Writer’s Eye (Mechanically Inclined, p. 35-39), you name it. But often I notice kids don’t keep using that list when they can’t think of anything to write about. Make sure you keep modeling that we return to the list for ideas. And of course, keep adding ideas to the list. It’s a process.

In my books, I talk about the power of reading aloud as something that stirs the kids’ thinking, and then allows them to write about any thought that came to them. Perhaps it reminded them of something or made them think of something in a new way.  When we read aloud, we are showing the kinds of things people might write about (modeling), plus we are filling their syntactic stores. Brian Cambourne reminds us that whatever we listen to and reads “spills over” into our writing. I find that to be so. So we can prompt writing without a prompt.

The important thing is students are writing—daily.

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Add comment December 13th, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: When students misspell high-frequency words

Question 3: I am noticing that my 5th grade students are frequently misspelling “high frequency words” in their daily writing (e.g. “whent” for went), as well as using “slang” (“cuz,” “gonna,” “ur,” etc.) I know that editing work can take care of these mistakes, but I am concerned with how often I am seeing this in my classroom on daily assignments that are not meant to be edited. What suggestions do you have to improving this, and how should I make students more accountable for these types of errors?
Reilly

Jeff’s response: Should students be accountable for using slang in formal writing? Sure. I respect how you already know this can be dealt with in the editing process. But whent for went is another issue that’s not about texting or slang. So, let’s deal with slang for now.

It makes sense as kids text and instant message or imitate it–as we imitated the adults in our lives—they are going to start letting a few “ur” for your flow into their writing. As you said, it should definitely be edited out of their writing. But then you say, they are doing it in other writing that isn’t meant to be edited. I have to assume you mean a learning log or writer’s notebook entries, notes, reading logs, etc. When you say the writing isn’t to be edited, part of me says why does it matter? If they are the audience for their notes, as long as they can follow it, I don’t see a problem. Ready to kill me? Keep reading.

I do, however, think it’s a conversation we should have with students about purpose and audience. When we write things to be turned in—or that is to have a school audience of any kind, it’s your expectation, as it would be in any job that they have, that writers refrain from shortcut texting language.

High-frequency words like “whent” for “went” and using “than” for “then” are problems of not being held accountable for the words that they use with such high frequency. I have had success with 4-8 graders in this predicament, using word walls and holding them accountable for these 100 high frequency words. Google “high frequency word list” if you don’t know what they are. I highly recommend the work of Patricia Cunningham.

 

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1 comment December 12th, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: Responding to student writing

Question 2: What suggestions or tips do you have for managing editing and/or grading large numbers of students? I teach 9th and 10th ELA (have for 16 years) and struggle with getting papers back to students in a timely manner, often up to a month later for final grading. 

I want to incorporate more writing into my lessons and units, but am overwhelmed with the grading and management aspects.

Kimberly Payton

Jeff’s response: Many teachers out there feel your pain, Kimberly. In fact, I think this conundrum of how to grade more and more student writing often keeps writing from being assigned. First, I lean on Benjamin Britton’s quote: “If teachers read everything students write, then they are a bottleneck in the writing process.” In other words, if we are able to read everything they write, then they are most certainly not writing enough.

So, go ahead assign more writing. Students get better at writing by doing it.

Then, we may have to change the paradigm of how we give feedback on some of the students’ writing. For example, many teachers equate reading student writing with editing it. To many, if they don’t correct every error, they are doing their students a disservice. Poppycock!

In fact, I think we all know that’s not the only feedback students want or need—or even pay attention to. In some ways, we are doing their work for them. Don’t hear that you shouldn’t ever mark anything on student writing. But be judicious. Perhaps you have been showing them mentor texts for quoting information and citing it within the their own writing. Students have practiced, received corrective feedback, and then are explicitly told that these are the specific conventions you are focusing on in this particular piece of writing. And, once you assess the student writing, then those are the only errors you mark. Once you have marked three to five things, then stop. Draw a line and say you stopped correcting at that spot. Confer with the student and have them fix their own mistakes.

Keep a note card or a sheet of paper and note patterns of error you see. You can put hashmarks when you keep seeing it, and voila, you know what to address in mini-lessons. Once you’ve taught the concept again, have them correct their own writing or highlight where they’ve used the concept correctly.

So focus on certain conventions, and never be compelled to do your students editing work for them. And realize that the two-minute conversations you have with students about their writing ripple into their writing lives a lot more than a red mark with a pen ever will.

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3 comments December 11th, 2012

10 Questions for Jeff: Journals in social studies

It’s December 10th, so what better time to begin our 10-day series with Jeff Anderson. We received dozens of questions about writing and teaching writing over the past few weeks and we will post Jeff’s responses to ten of these. So check back every day this week and next to see if your question was chosen. At the end of the series we will announce the winner of our Jeff Anderson giveaway that includes all of his books and videos!

Question 1: What is a good way to use journals in social studies?

Elizabeth Wilson
Smethport, PA

Jeff’s response: I love this question. I hear a desire to include more writing in social studies, which is an admirable goal. First of all, I wouldn’t call them journals in the social studies. I call them writer’s notebooks in my English class, but journals have too many associations that won’t serve you well in social studies. Maybe call it a History Log or Historian or Geographer’s Notebook. Be creative. Just don’t call it a journal.

One of the best uses of a social studies log I have ever seen is a teacher using the History Alive program from Joy Hikam. As part of the routine, most days students use an “interactive notebook.” Students draw a picture or symbol or map on the left facing page that symbolizes or synthesizes what was discussed in class and then reflect or summarize on the right-hand side of the page. I like this because students use more than one mode, and the drawing actually supports the writing. This is a meaningful tool for thought in your subject area.

That to me is the essence of how you could use a learning log in social studies: a place to record questions, reflections, notes, wonderings. A place to draw maps, cartoons, write persuasive letters, plan PowerPoints or other media and yes, maybe even include a pioneer child’s journal entry as he or she goes out into the wilderness or witnesses any event in history.

Whatever you do, don’t make it a boring thing. Of course, you can’t use the kids as a gauge as they will always complain when they have to write. Short spurts. Talk in between. Share. Gather information. Discuss. Write more. Sharing will keep the writing alive and interactive.

8 comments December 10th, 2012


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