The Jens

The Jens
jen b & Jen P

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Figuring out our writing boot camp

One of the things I love about teaching is that I get two “New Years” every year, and with that, a chance for new resolutions and fresh starts. As we prepare to meet students this week, I have our writing boot camp ideas swirling around in my head and wondering if we can pull it all together in time. I’m glad we have a week of orientation with the kids first – not only to buy us more planning time, but it gives us a chance to get to know them and their writing before official core class instruction begins.

As Jen B mentioned, we read two articles last week that prompted this major shift in how we wanted to start our year: Junking the Old Way of Teaching Writing and A Cure for Bad Teaching of Writing, both by Jay Matthews.

I wanted ideas on how I could give meaningful feedback on student writing, so I re-read chapter seven of Carol Jago’s Papers, Papers, Papers and that confirmed for me one more reason for us to change our practice: the majority of kids don’t read comments on essays, and if they do actually read them, they don’t actually learn from them. So why are we wasting time correcting every error, making suggestions on how to improve, re-writing awkward sentences for them? She mentions that she keeps track of errors that show up across several students and uses those notes as the basis for mini-lessons on usage, style, and organization. She also cites research that shows comments are effective when the teacher refers back to previous papers and commend the student for concrete improvements based on prior problem areas.

One of her ideas for managing the paper load is something I’d like to adapt and try. She has students (or maybe had, as this was written in 2005) give her a blank cassette tape for each rough draft. She then read the essay aloud and inserted her comments as she read. Presumably, students would listen and then revise their drafts. She suggests allotting 10-15 minutes per draft and stopping at the end of that time period, even if you aren’t finished with the paper. I’m wondering if this might be a technique for students to use together – the peer reviewer could read the draft aloud, commenting and questioning as she reads, and the writer could jot down notes to help him remember what to work on. Or, if both partners have access to technology at home, they could work independently and record their reading and comments on voicethread.

Thinking about how we could structure peer review time led us to read up on how other teachers conduct writing workshops with their high school classes. Two resources we’ve been consulting extensively are Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them and Jen Roberts’ website. I really like the idea of peer writing groups, reading aloud each other’s papers and giving immediate feedback, but I have a hard time with each kid bringing 6 copies of their paper – I guess if we are working on short pieces initially that might work. I also like the idea of me going around the room, conferring quickly with 7-9 writers per period, but I wonder how realistic it is that I’ll be able to offer solid feedback in 5 minutes per student.

Additionally, we’ve been trying to figure out how we’re going to make this work with limited lab access. Here’s what we’ve tentatively decided on for the first two weeks:

Day 1: overview of boot camp – explain importance of writing well in their college classes, and our goals for them as writers and peer reviewers; explain how we want them to label and organize their google docs.

Day 2: provide an example of narrative writing – explain what differentiates this from inform-explain and argument, review CCSS standard, explain the rubric, and do some preliminary writing in their comp books; HW – read their initial draft aloud, jot notes for revision/improvement, type revised draft in google doc and share with teacher.

Day 3: prompt 2 given in class – preliminary writing in comp book; teacher begins conferring with students on prompt 1in google docs; students are writing, or when finished, reading; HW -- read their initial draft aloud, jot notes for revision/improvement, type revised draft in google doc and share with teacher.

Day 4: peer conferences – students bring in two copies of papers – peer reviewer reads paper aloud and comments as she is reading while writer listens and jots down feedback on draft; ideally, each student will have one-two students read her paper aloud and give feedback; HW – revise drafts of prompts 1 & 2. We will have to model how we expect the peer conferences to go.

Day 5: prompt 3 given in class– preliminary writing in comp book; teacher continues conferring with students on prompt 1& 2 in google docs; students are writing, or when finished, reading; HW -- read their initial draft aloud, jot notes for revision/improvement, type revised draft in google doc and share with teacher.

Day 6: prompt 4 – same as above.

Day 7: prompt 5 – same as above.

Day 8: peer conferences (same as day 4)

Day 9: revising & conferring – hopefully in lab all period.

Day 10: all 5 prompts have been revised; update independent reading in comp book

Our plan is to require students to meet with us twice, once during class time and once before or after class. We will probably only be able to give students 5 minutes of feedback during class if we want to meet with each student (on day 3, 5, 6, 7, 9), so requiring them to come by outside of class on any of those days, plus the two peer conferences days will give us additional time to provide feedback.

We will set up a discussion thread on our class ning to showcase examples of narrative writing for student reference. I’m thinking we could also use this area to make general comments about what we’re seeing in student drafts.

During the entire boot camp, students will have free choice in what they are reading. Our expectation is that they will read every day, respond to what they are reading in their comp books at least once a week, and give a quick book talk on something they’ve read that they want others to know about.

We’re anticipating that there will be some students who fail to bring hard copies on the peer conference days. If we are able to use the labs on those days, students can simply bring up their google doc, but if we are in the classroom, those students will have to sit out and read instead, and then at home with their parent read the paper aloud, self-assess as they read, and hopefully get some feedback from their parent as well.

We’re still working through how to record all of this in the gradebook. Right now, I’m leaning toward two grades in the gradebook: participation and mastery. The participation grade would be based strictly on the completion of the requirements for the unit – the written responses to the five prompts, participating in the two peer conferences and the two teacher conferences, and keeping the comp book up-to-date with the preliminary writing for each prompt and the reading responses. The mastery grade would be based on the teacher reviewing the drafts with the student, rubric in hand, and deciding together the student’s progress toward mastering the standard. This will then clearly identify goals for the student in the next unit.

We don’t have it all figured out yet, and we’re trying to anticipate problems, but I think we’re nervously excited to try something new and focus on an area that definitely needs more attention from us.

~Jen P


Well, that we're five days deep into our "writing boot camp" it feels like a good time to stop and reflect for a minute.

I was able to stick to the plan above for days 1-5; however, it felt like a pretty ambitious pace and I suspect some revision for next week may be in order. Organizing what went well and what was challenging may help in trying to decide where to revise, goes:

What I liked/what went well:
1. Classes went by FAST
2. Kids were engaged--they like to write (at least they like to write narratives)
3. I felt our directions were clear--they were all successful in sharing/naming folders and documents (almost all on day one, definitely all by end of week)
4. I like the singular focus on one type of genre, really honing-in with mentor texts as well as written emulation/practice
5. Having College & Career Readiness class be a support for the first week was good
6. Having all students' work in the computer organized in folders is GREAT
7. I think the peer review groups are going to be really awesome...I did a model group fishbowl on day 4 and it went pretty well. Students then got into their own groups and practiced with at least one or two students reading their chosen narrative to the rest of their group for feedback.

Challenges/concerns that need to be thought-through some more:
1. Checking in with 7-8 students per class to give feedback was a challenge. I did get to that many students one day, but not the other. Also, not sure I was able in the time I had to give "valuable" feedback, though I think there's some value in simply singling out students to talk to individually when I might otherwise just be on a computer myself. Need to think about this more.
2. Becoming more comfortable with the possibilities within Google docs, and simply becoming more proficient and confident within the system logistics will be ongoing.
3. Scheduling and meeting with students to confer and rubric-assess their writing will be a next big step. I'm thinking for now of having kids sign up on paper in the classroom, then putting all kids' appointment times into my Google calendar to share with them...possibly then setting up email reminders to be sent to them. I am also thinking that before they come to their conference I'd like them to have done some work in advance: assessing their own writing (using my rubric) and citing specific examples of elements of the rubric from their writing. For example, if one element on the narrative rubric is "Uses sensory imagery" I would ask that student (on a Google form) to give themselves a rating and also to specifically pull a quote from their paper showing evidence of sensory imagery. The point being that if they having written it can't find the evidence, why should I be able to?
4. So far we've had access each day to a computer lab, allowing students to begin their work directly within Google docs. When we do not have full access to a lab will the process within the classroom--beginning with the writing process in comp books--work as well?
5. I am torn about what I'm thinking is a challenge but might not really be one. The kids are writing at such a  pace that keeping up with reading their work is a huge challenge, but I think I just need to remind myself that this is part of the point...we can't read everything. And if we could then they probably wouldn't be doing enough writing. I just don't want the kids to lose momentum, thinking that no one is reading their work. But I hope through random comments I can occasionally insert, as well as feedback from their peer groups, that this won't be a problem. We shall see.

This is my initial reflection after getting through week one. I'm encouraged by what went well and I have confidence that we can think through solutions to the challenges. Overall, liking what we've begun...hoping you're feeling the same.

:-) jen b.

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