Blogstitute: The Messy Process of Talk and Revision


Welcome! We are excited to kick of this year’s Blogstitute with Jeff Anderson and Debbie Dean, authors of the recent book Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond. In this post they discuss how to make the messy process of talking, writing, and revision, productive for students. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question for chance to win 12 books at the end of the Blogstitute. You can also follow along or comment on Twitter using #blogstitute15.

Getting Messy with Talk and Reading and Writing and REVISION
By Jeff Anderson and Debbie Dean

Since talk is messy and interactive, so is our blog entry. We alternate in the dance of conversation:

revision-decisionsDEBBIE: When I was in first grade, I idolized my teacher. I wanted to be her. And I would imagine myself in her spot, calmly walking up and down the straight aisles between desks with little students all diligently (and happily, it seemed to me) writing between the solid and dotted lines on the paper. The only sound I remember was pencil scratching. I could look up as she walked slowly past my desk. She was smiling. She seemed never to have known stress in her life.

When I was in my own classroom, however, the picture wasn’t so tidy. There was noise—lots of talking—with some students at the computer and some with notebooks on the floor in the back corner. There were even a few outside in the hall, sitting on the floor with their backs against the wall, writing (they needed more quiet—and who could anticipate that the hallway was more quiet than the classroom?). There were students—surprise!—who weren’t writing at all. Some were staring out the windows (prewriting???) while others complained, and one or two just put their heads down on their desks for a while. And the thing was, although I felt like these days were sometimes very stressful, I was happy, too.

For the most part, my students were engaged in the messy aspects of writing—not all in the same spot at the same time, not all as heavily engaged as others (at least for the moment), and talking! Talking! Not writing in silence, without anyone to bounce ideas off. Actually talking about ideas or reading parts aloud, laughing or crying sometimes. No, this wasn’t the neat writing class I’d imagined, but it felt like we really were engaged in writing.

JEFF: Sometimes we feel guilty that our classrooms are so alive, that the writing process is so messy. But that’s how it works. If we want things done one way for one answer, then we need a worksheet. If we are going to steward our students into deep thinking and decision making—creating and modifying on their own—it’s going to get messy. Debbie and I acknowledge this in our new book, Revision Decisions (Stenhouse, 2014). Revising is not a straight line: it erases, retraces, and replaces as students muck about in real thinking about the effects of their choices.

Messiness is not a free-for-all, though it can look that way at times. We need reliable patterns of thought to get us started. For instance, I am sure my class would be quite messy and loud if at the beginning of the year I said, “Okay, now we’ve reached the revision stage of the writing process. Revise.”

No modeling, no instruction, and no place to start gets us a steaming pile of no revisions.

So, one thing Debbie did in Revision Decisions is to give teachers and students a starting place for intentional talk. First, we give examples of what writing looks like revised and not revised. We learn there are replicable moves successful writers make to revise. We teach the mnemonic DRAFT (first used in 2011’s 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know):

  • Delete unnecessary repetition
  • Rearrange words and phrases
  • Add connector punctuation, words, and phrases
  • Form new verb endings
  • Talk it out

Specific enough to do, broad enough to allow for play. And play is serious business. It needs a bit of structure and flexibility to stretch and grow.

DEBBIE: When Jeff and I started work on the book, we talked a lot about play—about how the elements of play are important to writing and developing writers. We read about play theory and thought about all the ways that play corresponds to writing. Think about it: children may start play with a general goal in mind, but they develop structures to the play as they go along, structures that make sense to the specific situation of the play. I was at the park with my grandson. The same square structure was a rocket for a while, then a train, and finally a restaurant where I was told to give him my “food order,” which he brought. We “ate” and then I “paid.” Isn’t writing a lot like that process? We start with an idea. We may discard it or adjust it, but once we find what we want to say, we modify the text, shape it to our needs and the situation. And talk is essential to this process, both in play and in writing. We need to try out our ideas.

When we were writing Revision Decisions, Jeff and I talked—a LOT. Sometimes online, sometimes on the phone, sometimes face-to-face. It was a lot like play—trying out ideas and seeing how far they would take us. Once we had settled on the general structure for the book, much of our talk followed the DRAFT device as we worked through our revisions. But we have an advantage: we have enough experience to know how to move among rearranging, deleting, adding, and forming. We can use these actions naturally because of that experience, but our students need scaffolding to learn these ways of talking.

By beginning with the patterns in the book, teachers can help students learn ways to talk productively about their writing. As Jeff said, this talk is intentional, not a free-for-all. In the same way that play develops as children gain experience (my grandson needed to have gone to restaurants to structure our play restaurant), students gain experience using the patterns of the book until their revision talk is natural. When students see the talk modeled and get to practice it, the patterns became their own—and then they can modify them to meet their own purposes and needs. And that’s exactly where we want them to be as writers: independent talkers and revisers.

JEFF: Yes, independence. Letting go, allowing fits and starts, good and bad, allowing for experimentation. For a thriving revising classroom, we let loose and let go of the idea that every revision will make writing better and that when it doesn’t make it better, we’ve failed. The truth is, if we are doing revision well, experimenting and risk taking, then it’s a sure thing we’ll mess it up from time to time. We have to allow the space for error and experimentation.

In this world of computers, I’ve had to learn to copy and paste the awkward passage I’m revising into a new document. That way, I can experiment, try anything, and if it works, I can copy and paste into the document. If I made a mucky horrible revision, then I still have my thought. Better yet, I can pull a Don Graves and rewrite the whole group of sentences again without looking at the original. There is no one way to revise, but we can give our students guideposts with things like DRAFT.

We model the guideposts and then we let the students play with words. That’s revision. Just like students get better at writing by writing, they get better at revision by revising. Helping students make decisions about revisions is our game. Revision Decisions is our name. I think I better stop now, but you continue the conversation wherever you are. Take a risk, play with sentences, and see where it takes you.



37 comments June 15th, 2015

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