Thursday, March 24, 2011

Increasing writing skills in students

Hey all...it's been a while since I've blogged, but life's been hectic here lately. I have a number of posts planned (all on my SpringPad notes), and I hope to get them out to you soon.

In the meantime, I just typed an assignment for one (of my three) grad classes I am currently taking, and figured it would work here as well. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, etc.

I did not select ONE particular student, as I can really pick ANY of my students’ pieces and discuss strengths and weaknesses (one of the “perks” of being an English teacher, I guess). In general, I find that my students can usually respond to a specific task well, but they have a hard time when I remove those supports. Students are pretty good at plot events, but not so good with the higher analysis of literary elements and effects (combining reading and writing skills). Students are pretty decent about getting an idea across, but struggle with the syntax (i.e. “good ideas, bad execution”).

After reviewing the pages in the book and reading some of the websites, I started thinking about things I could do NEXT year to help improve student writing across ALL my classes. These are the two I plan to implement: portfolios and creative writing (something that wasn’t in the text). I also picked up on an interesting grading strategy: “Mondays for comments.” I currently teach juniors and seniors.

For the portfolios: Some context is needed here. My department chair instituted writing folders for all English students a few years back. The purpose of these folders is to collect student writing over the course of their high school career, and the folders follow the students each year to their new class. I have always struggled with finding a way to use (or make use of) these folders as part of my teaching. One big reason is that I have not made them part of my “routine” yet.

This past summer, I planned to use them full-force. I created ideas (note the abstraction) upon ideas about reflection sheets and processes, etc. And etc. And etc. These ideas were just that - ideas. They never made it past the proverbial drawing board, and never say light of day in my classroom. The folders gather dust in the back of the room.

Next, year, however...next year, I plan to actually use them. After reading the section on portfolio assessment and having recent success with a new activity in class that required a lot of personal reflection on their part, I have decided to do it. Here’s my basic plan:


  • First few days of school: gather all the folders and devote a period to letting the students peruse their previous work. I will create a “note-taking” sheet that allows them to gather their thoughts, etc., about their work, and the first writing piece of the year will be a reflection that looks to the past AND the future (i.e. here’s what I’ve done, here’s what I want to do).
  • ALL student writing will be placed into the writing folder throughout the year
  • EACH QUARTER students will have a “quarterly” reflection on the status of their writing. They will have class time to thin out their folders, select the work they are most impressed with, and write about it.

I believe that writing about their personal process will help them understand that writing is just that - a process. And a major part of the process is to look backward before looking forward - you need to review and revisit what you’ve already done in order to proceed and progress on new work.

For the creative writing: I’ve recently been inspired by high student-interest in a creative assessment I developed (with help from others, of course) for The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Students have just finished reading the novel and are currently watching The Breakfast Club in class. They will write an analytical essay comparing and contrasting the two works in class (the “Critical Lens” for those NY folk), but I didn’t want to just leave it there. I did some brainstorming with my colleagues and came up with this creative assignment. Not everything is written, to take advantage of multiple learning styles, but a written component is required for at least half of the work.

The reason I bring this up is two-fold: first, when I reviewed the assignment yesterday in class, students seemed genuinely excited, something I have not seen for a long time. The questions that bubbled up turned this into a 30 minute discussion of HOW they could do the work, something I did not expect, but did welcome. Second, I was reminded on something I already knew - creativity is interesting. It emboldens the writer and facilitates flexibility in both ideas and words. I strongly believe that increasing the number of “creative” works will increase the level of interest and skill in a struggling writer. Finding success in a “different” form of writing will, hopefully, carry over into their “normal” writing. Confidence can be a powerful motivator.

The final idea I got from the text is more for me, as teaching writing (i.e. grading writing) is difficult for me, and attempting to do it well take A LOT of time (and, to be honest, I am not sure how well I am doing it). The concept of “Mondays for comments” is intriguing to me. Here’s the basic idea: (assuming the assignment is due on Monday) any paper handed in on Monday will get comments written on it; late papers will only get a number grade (again, I reference Tom Schimmer's post on eliminating late penalties - perhaps this is the "balance" I was looking for). I can see how this has the potential to speed up the grading (and returning) of papers, as I think we all find ourselves in the quagmire of being burdened with too much grading. The problem, of course, is getting the proper feedback to the students in a timely manner. To extend this system, I might develop a “code” that a student could write on his/her paper if they WANT to receive comments - that way the interested and motivated become part of the process; for the others who do not want comments (these are the students who receive a paper back, with my comments, and time, all over, and simply throw it in the recycling bin). With this sort of system, my time is freed up, the students who WANT the extra feedback get it, and anyone else is free to attend extra help to discuss their grade.  (To the readers: is this educationally sound?)

I feel that these are things I can institute next year with a modicum of planning and preparation on my part - it is more about forming a habit for myself. If I can make it routine, I believe the students will benefit.