Friday, September 19, 2014

Breaking Writing Down

It is that time of year again.  This week, the thermometer finally settled at a livable temperature, crispy yellow leaves began to fall from the cherry trees in our school plaza, parents gathered for our annual "Back-to-School Day", and the 11th graders set to work on their first major essay of the year.

In the past, I viewed essays as a largely independent endeavor: naturally, the students should be responsible for starting and making progress on their own time!  If I were merely teaching content, this might be true.  However, as I considered the skills I would be assessing this time (in particular, thesis and direction), I realized that I needed to give the students ample opportunity to practice.  After all, most of the students had not written a thesis statement, or an essay, for that matter, since their major 10th Grade "Who Am I" paper in the Spring.  What's more, students new to CAJ might never have written a thesis statement before, in which case this opportunity to learn is crucial!

With this in mind, I had my students engage in a thesis writing exercise in the 2nd week of school, following our discussion of labels, and how stories help us move beyond such assumptions.  Using an intuitive journalling tool on Moodle (the program we use for online classes), I had the students choose a prompt and write only an introductory paragraph, including a thesis.  Making my life easier, this particular Moodle function has a box for feedback under each student's submission.  I spent an hour reading through and commenting on each student's introduction.

Fast-forward to this week.  The rough draft of the first essay is due next week and remembering the panicked questions and emails that I would typically receive the day before an essay was due in past years, I decided to make use of the Moodle journal tool yet again.

Yesterday, I had my students write the introductory paragraph to their unit essay.  I found myself giving higher-level feedback than I had the first time around, and seeing (overall) a trend of improvement. For example, rather than finding myself needing to remind the students what a thesis was countless times (as has happened in previous years), I gave suggestions for how to make the main points develop more logically, or how to rephrase an idea to make it stronger.  Today, I asked the students to use their thesis to write up a brief outline of their body paragraphs, and to begin filling in possible support for each point.  While each student ended in a slightly different place, I no longer have to deal with the sneaking fear that students are putting off work for a big assignment in my class, as I put off work for so many of my own teachers' classes when I was in school.

For the first time ever, I caught myself thinking, "If only I'd had a teacher like me when I was in school!"  I mean this to be neither arrogant on my own part nor unduly disparaging to the English teachers I did have.  I just don't have any recollection that any of my English teachers ever walked us through writing as a process.  I'd find out only upon receiving a final grade that my thesis was either poor or completely absent, as though I should have been magically able to conjure up something I hadn't received direct, timely feedback on.  I cannot judge my teachers too harshly for this; after all, I failed to provide this kind of feedback to several years' worth of my own students.  On Tuesday, I will have my students workshop one of their body paragraphs in class, and then the essay itself is due on Wednesday.  I am excited--if these rough draft essays are the product of feedback and several days of effort, they will be leagues ahead of the rough draft essays I have received in the past, many of which were the product of a frenzied last-minute rush and quite likely a lot of caffeine.  I will have a clearer picture of what my students learned; what they are capable of; and what I can challenge them to work on for the final draft.

Grading is usually one of my least favorite parts of teaching, but this time, I genuinely cannot wait to sit down and read what the students come up with!

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