“I’ll revise if I know what to revise”
Over my 34 years of teaching students, I have found one thing in common: most students want to be good writers — they want to have a well-written piece that they can be proud of and that they can share with their peers. I have found this true with students from 1st grade through 8th. The problem is that students do not always know what to do to help their writing unless they have instruction. That is where I come in. I am the instructor!
But in order for me to be able to instruct students in the art of writing, I have to have an understanding of what needs to be taught, and how to teach it in such a way that students understand how to revise their writing. And I have to have time to work with ALL of my students. In this case, it is 27 students in a class, about 150 students in two days time, and we haven’t even addressed what this is supposed to look like with remote learning! And as all writing teachers know, this is not always easy because all our writers need something different.
This is the point where my writing assistance tool has come in handy this year. Using Writers Workbench allows students to analyze their writing for the skill/trait that they specifically need in their own writing.
For example, today we are revising our personal narratives and I have selected 3 writing traits for students to look at in their writing: be verbs, vague and abstract vocabulary, and style elements (sentence structure). By running an analysis, students find writing issues — mostly using percentages and identifying and focusing on the high percentages given in the program. The student model I used to show students how the program worked, for example, had 80% of its sentences using be verbs. This prompted a discussion of what be verbs do to a piece of narrative writing and where and when be verbs are more appropriate in this genre of writing.
After showing the analysis on my student model, I demonstrated a couple of strategies students could use to change these verbs to action verbs. This skill is difficult for my 8th graders, probably any writer for that matter, after the be verbs are already in the writing. But students were using this analysis, asking for help to revise their verbs, and then rerunning the analysis to see if their percentages went down. The program highlighted these verbs in the text. Many students don’t have the ability to locate these problem areas effectively, so this analysis program gives them a place to start to consider how to make their writing better. Again, most students will revise writing if they know what to do and HOW to do it.
The Vague and Abstract Vocabulary skill of this analysis was probably more accessible and familiar with students. Finding better word choice is in their wheel house, and we had already used this analysis once before this year. I noticed more comfort with this skill and the use of this writing assistance tool that I did the first time we used this. I noticed students spending more time on the skill they felt they understood more: better word choices. They could easily make changes here whereas the be verbs required a lot more command of language to revise a sentence into something with an action verb.
I noticed students working on different skills as I moved around the room. This writing assistance tool empowers students to work on the skills they feel they need to in their writing, and the tool helps them identify — through percentages and highlighting — those areas of need. I think this is huge for 8th graders. It takes time to conference with individual students to help them identify problems in their writing. Writers Workbench, at least today, was a huge time saver. I modeled the analysis on a student piece of writing, students ran their analysis, I modeled how to make changes, and then I moved around the room to assist students in the strategies that I showed them.
I think it is important to still guide students through the analysis of this program. They don’t have the background in language yet to understand how these skills affect their writing and WHY they should make the changes. So turning them loose without instruction with be a mistake. It is important to go slowly through the analysis — not overwhelming students with too many writing skills at one time. It is my goal that students use this writing assistance tool on their own with their writing — that they have the understanding of the program, the writing skills/traits, and what revision can do to make their writing better, or a piece they can be proud to share.