Thursday, October 14, 2010

Practicing What I Preach

In my developmental writing class, the students just turned in their narrative essay assignment. The topic was to describe an event in their lives that shaped their attitude towards school or education. Initially, I asked them to write on the topic as a "free write" during the first ten minutes of class. When I handed it back to them, I congratulated them on having written a first draft of their essay.

We read other narrative essays, talked about pacing and organization, making sure your story has a point, as well as including vivid details, or showing instead of telling. We did outlines, different peer review exercises, as well as turning it into a more familiar looking grammar exercise (pressing enter at the end of every sentence). The assignment was only 750 words long, which most students cleared without problem. I saw students beginning to gain confidence in their own ideas and their own writing. 

And then came time to grade them. It was frustrating for me to go through the papers that I knew the student had worked so hard on but still came up short. How do I give feedback on these papers while making sure that the students didn't get discouraged or give out, without it sounding like empty encouragement? It inspired me to write my latest blog post on working smarter, not harder, but it also gave me an idea on how to let the kids know that all writing can be improved, as well as putting into practice (again) their critical reading skills. 

I printed out copies of my blog post and after I had handed back the students their essays, I passed them out and told the students to have at my writing. They read the essays by themselves, but paired off to talk about how I could improve the essay. They spent almost 30 minutes tearing my writing a new one. I was filled with incredible pride when my words were coming back to me, directed at my own work; they had really got it. 

My conclusion was too abrupt. I was missing important pieces of information (who was Dara Torres? When did you decide to be a teacher? When did you start swimming? What does swimming smarter even mean?), as well as jumping to far forward in time (you told me that I couldn't do that!). I had sentence fragments, muddled syntax (although they didn't call it that), and missing words. They looked at the story as a whole, as well as the individual word choices (you use the same word a lot) and grammar issues. 

The students seemed to really enjoy it. It helped that I sat there with a smile on my face the entire time. All it took was for that first student to speak up and offer their (tentative) advice and for me to acknowledge and accept it. I tried to show them that all writing can be improved and that feedback isn't personal, it's made in order to make your writing better. The message, found in the post itself, is that we all need to find a way to channel our effort in order to get the best results. 

Writing has always come easy for me, but it can always be better. For my students, here is the end result of their hard work on my writing. 

1 comment:

  1. What a fabulous decision. In my literature classes I get students to critique each others work anonymously - all are English as second language writers. But getting them to critique my writing might elicit interesting things, as I suspect sometimes my instructions for essay writing tasks are not as clear as i might imagine. Rather than assuming superiority, or clinging to it, perhaps humility and a willingness to expose oneself as still reliant on editing, revision and reflection is a vital component of demonstrating to students the skills they need to develop will be lifelong. Thanks.


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