Sunday, February 20, 2011

Teach Smart: Tangible Ways to Improve Student Writing

Well, good afternoon, Spot! You're looking like quite the intellectual with those new trendy glasses of yours! I'm glad to see you're in there editing and revising your latest CBAS entry! That PEG sure can score at lightning speed. The uncanny thing about her, Spot? Is that she is not too far off the mark from my scoring and the scoring of other teaching friends of mine.

Recently, I posted a lesson plan, I'd like the writing teachers and/or parents to see. The other day, I took the time to teach my students to 'get a visual/quantifiable' understanding of what the scoring on CBAS or my rubric scoring might actually mean. Following that, I gave them some strategies to help. Here's a little look into what we accomplished that day:

How do I apply writing process/writer’s workshop principles in other forms of demand writing? Recognizing the things that I know as a writer and transferring it to: 1) demand/’quick writes’ and 2) revising my work?


Up to this point students have worked in CBAS as a parallel assignment at home, writing for 15 minutes or more each night, and crafting a response to a prompt at home.

In the classroom, students are working on a feature article. In a series of short mini-lessons each day, they have learned how to plan (“What’s in Your Wallet?”), how to pack (“Touching the Specifics”) and how to insert research (“Listing Facts, Then Crafting them into Your Piece”).

All the while, parallels have been drawn in an explicit manner to show kids how this genre transfers to the writing prompt on the CMTs, to the CBAS home work they are doing, to the college essay or an essay that they’d be asked to write in order to attain a job.

Today’s objective:

Students will visually scan and mark-up their work to give it balance: paragraphs equal in size and/or sentences that vary in length, based on the following assumptions about good writing:

*Length is strength! If your work is not long enough, you haven’t sold your idea to your reader. (In truth, some writers are able to get to the point in a quick and clear manner. But more often, ideas need to be drawn out in a longer text.) Your purpose is to take the seed of an idea and help it grow in the reader’s mind. If your piece is short, your reader’s understanding will be limited.

What to do: look at your work and physically touch each line as you count how many lines in your piece. Write the number in pencil in the lower right hand corner.

Canvas students for their responses to create a range with no judgment.

*Ideas are balanced. This means your ideas are packed in tight, specific paragraphs. Remember how we packed our ideas for our feature article? Each paragraph, including the introduction and the conclusion should have a minimum of four sentences inside.

What to do: scan the sentences with your finger. Write the number of sentences in the lower right hand corner underneath each paragraph.

NO PARAGRAPHS? No problem! It’s important to indent as a sixth grader/to shift each time you move into one of your three focus ideas. Be sure to get into that habit! It makes revising your piece much easier.

(For those viewing this with horror in the outside arena...yes, we still have sixth graders who are missing this critical skill. It can often make for very confused writing. But we must proceed with caution, these are often our most fragile writers.)

What to do: take your pencil and draw a vertical line along the left side of the margin, stop when you need to shift into a new paragraph and mark it with the paragraph symbol.

*Sentence lengths should vary. Just as we’ve done with the ‘feature article’ in Writer’s Workshop, we’ll do right here in CBAS—study your sentences. Go in and trace a line underneath each sentence in your first paragraph. Some sentences should be longer, others should be shorter in length. You should have a nice mix of long and short. You can easily see the ‘shorties and the longies’, but if you’re having a hard time with that—think…4 or 7 words=equals a shortie, and longies=7 or above. You’ll see it right away!

Talk to the other writers in your cluster grouping about what you notice inside your piece. Make a list in your mini-lesson notebook of two things you’d like to change.

How to fix any of the imbalance in your piece:

*Balance of ideas: if you have shorter paragraphs, or if your piece is short in length, you should go in and take the mini-lesson on support. WHY? Your ideas are not completely developed. You may need to add some strong proper nouns, or create a one sentence connection to make your reader understand what you are talking about (an illustration…your idea in action.)

*Sentence length: If your sentences don’t vary in length, your piece will not have the fluent sound of someone talking. That is what you really want here. You need to speak on the page the way you speak in the classroom. Too many short sentences sound robotic. Too many longer sentences can confuse the reader by bogging them down in either over-stating (repeating yourself) or too many unnecessary words (too chatty!). Take a mini-lesson on sentence structure and/or mechanics.

Your job now is to go into your work, you’re already logged in, and start to take your ideas right from the page to the computer. Always reread the section you want to ‘perform surgery’ on, so you can warm your brain to make the right decision. When you are finished, be sure to save your work, so you can work on it some more at home.

CLOSURE: We’ll close in the same way we always do…asking ourselves two questions: 1) What have I accomplished with this piece today? 2) What is my work for next time?

A footnote: Upon reflection, this lesson was a lot to take on in one session. All good ideas, but too much for a sixth grade class in one sitting. What I've done though, is give them a tangible overview, an understanding of the what and why of scoring, and a hands-on way to make changes in their work. The next time I see them, I'll crack open each of the principles: show them student work that is shorter in length and discuss what an undeveloped piece offers. I love this lesson! I follow it with an 'Extreme Makeover' lesson, something we can break apart and brainstorm and then come back together and work on together.

Why does this model work? Well, honestly, there are no quick fixes in writing! Writing is a process that takes years of non-judgmental coaching, and lessons to achieve student success. The hope should be that each writer will, in fact, progress under my tutelage. So I know I have to get a leg-up with each one of them this year! I do think this instant self-scoring, CBAS program is a great tool. But it is one that could certainly raise concerns and suspicions for sure. So to each of you out there using it in the trenches--be sure parents and students as well know that you are doing a heap of background work to support it in the classroom. Otherwise it could succumb to public misinformation and then tank-out for sure! For now, for this teacher? It's working, and with no data as yet, I still believe it will boost skills like never before.

Happy writing, Spot! And happy teaching of writing to all my colleagues out there in the teaching world!