EdTech / Google / Pedagogy

The Writing Process Revisited

Last month, I wrote about a writing process I began to develop with my students, using the internet as a sociological/ideological framework around which I couched our writing. We’ve been at the process for a month, so I thought I would revisit it and write an update on the progress.

The students were each shared a Google doc through Doctopus, which has allowed me to keep track of when they’ve edited the piece, as well as the specific feedback I’ve been giving them on a Google spreadsheet. (Quick plug: if you haven’t tried Doctopus, FormMule, Autocrat or any of the other great scripts created by Andrew Stillman, you’re missing out. There’s a small learning curve, but they’re utterly invaluable to the process of managing student work.)

We built the framework around the idea that students need to understand that there is an audience for everything they read, and rarely is that audience made up of someone who reads the work like their teacher reads it. As research has shown, students actually show the least amount of gain when writing for their teacher versus an authentic audience. So throughout the last three weeks, I’ve asked students to write numerous versions of their essay, each time asking that they have three readers:

1. A person in the class
2. A student in the school, but not in the class
3. A person outside of both the school and the class

Furthermore, I asked them to have these readers look at the students’ work cold. The reader could neither offer suggestions for improvement or edits. They simply were to read the piece and explain to the student (a) what they felt they understood about the topic based upon the essay, and (b) what they thought was the main argument of the essay. This, I told the students, was how most people read persuasive pieces. They’re not copywriters or editors–they’re information consumers. And students will get a much better sense of whether or not they’re making a valid, clear argument if they simply ask their readers to give them honest responses to the arguments contained within the writing. Students found that they got good (not great) feedback from this process. I feel like, if I were to do this again, I’d have done more reflective work on their response to their readers.

We then went on to the final drafting process. My grading process, I explained to the students, was simple. I call it “Honest Grading, Unlimited Revisions”:

“100 percent is perfection: something that would be publishable in the New Yorker. Spotless, perfect. Extraordinarily hard to achieve. Your grade will be the percentage of perfection you’ve achieved, giving you a sense of how far you need to go in order to achieve perfection. Turn in your first version when you believe it’s ready to be graded–no earlier. You can rewrite the paper as many times as you want, but I do not guarantee that the paper will increase in score dramatically.”

The average grade of the first versions of the essay was 40/100.

This concept was probably the most successful of all the ideas I’ve tried during this process. What I found from this is that  (a) students were given a safe space to “fail,” while simultaneously having a chance to immediately get back up and work towards improvement, (b) I had to give timely, relevant and actionable feedback, and (c) because I gave the students the responsibility to turn it in when it was “ready,” it actually eased my nightly grading burden so that instead of getting a class’ worth of essays on one day, I got 2-3 per day over the course of a week and a half. This kept me on track with the students and allowed me to write more feedback. Most important, however, this destroyed the notion held by many in the class that subjective assessments, provided they’re completed, are rarely given a grade lower than a C (which is something that’s always been a pet peeve of mine).

Students shared in their collective failure on the first version of this, but immediately got back to me and asked to have a second, third, and fourth version looked at. Currently, the grades range from 96/100-55/100, with more drafts coming in each day. I have set up some automatic emails that go out to students if they do not edit their revisions after a week.

So far, I have to say that I’m very happy with the process so far. It hasn’t been perfect, but it seems to have given me a framework from which I’ll build most of my writing assignments in the future.

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