After 12 Years of Teaching Writing…an Epiphany!

I’ve been teaching students how to write for 12 years, but this week I had a realization that made me question the purpose of writing in school.

When I was in high school and later in college, my English classes focused primarily on reading novels and writing papers to demonstrate a strong understanding of the literature we had read, annotated and discussed as a class. The purpose of writing was assessment. Did we understand what we read? Were we able to identify strong textual evidence and analyze it? Did we demonstrate higher-order thinking in our writing?

I took this same philosophy and applied it to my own work with students. Like so many teachers, my own practice is, in many ways, grounded in my past experiences as a student. Even though I strive to continually grow, learn and improve as an educator, I sometimes don’t think to question the assumptions that are at the heart of my craft.

Two years ago I began flipping my writing instruction. I created short videos to replace the “mini-lessons” I had traditionally presented in class. I saw value in allowing students the opportunity to control the pace of their learning. As a teacher, I love having a resource I can point a student to if they are continuing to struggle with the structure of an argument body paragraph or how to write a thesis statement. In the past, I had to repeatedly explain these concepts. Flipping my writing instruction also creates more time in the classroom to actually write.

Last year, I wrote a blog about synchronous editing. I described a class period when I took my students to the computer lab part way through their essays to provide them with formative feedback. I opened every document and left extensive comments. In that blog, I commented on how miraculous it is that technology has given me a vehicle to collaborate in real time, meet students where they are at, and provide support during their writing. I’ve continued to provide synchronous edits in the computer lab at least once each time students write a process paper. 

So what changed?

This week my students finished writing an essay on Shakespeare’s play, Othello. It is one of the most challenging pieces of reading we do all year. I knew my students would need support during the writing process. I planned time in class for them to write, so I could answer questions and lend support. Then I reserved the computer lab three days in a row and had students working on their papers as I synchronously edited them. I edited most of my studentsGoogle documents 2 or 3 times before they actually “submitted” their essays.

As I walked away from the last round of edits exhausted but satisfied with both my effort and theirs, it hit me. My 9th and 10th grade students are still learning how to write. Many of my students come into my class without a strong foundation in writing. Most don’t have the skills they need to tackle the meaty essay prompts I present without serious support. So, why am I so focused on the product when I should be focusing on the process? The time I spend helping my students to edit and refine their writing as they write is exponentially more valuable for them than the final comments I leave on their essays.

My big realization is that writing shouldn’t be used as simply an assessment tool. Assigning an essay to be completed at home and collected to grade is a missed opportunity for everyone. The student misses out on valuable feedback and support as they write, and teachers collect enormous stacks of paper that must be graded outside of the school day. This old model can be a frustrating and exhausting experience for everyone involved. 

Why not move writing back into the classroom? Doesn’t it make more sense to spend our time and energy providing feedback as students write, instead of waiting until papers are collected to spend hours editing them? We are fortunate enough to teach in a time when technology is making it easier than ever to collaborate on documents and provide instant feedback, so we can embrace the process!

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28 Responses to After 12 Years of Teaching Writing…an Epiphany!

  1. Karen Goepen-Wee says:

    Great blog, Catlin. My colleagues and I often team teach and provide realtime narrative feedback using Google Docs. We too are realizing how vital the “process” is. The students are initially reluctant to have to edit and revise again and again, but eventually, they see the benefit.

  2. Fred Nelson says:

    Great! For a long time (well into my college education) I conceived writing as a product, not a process. A focus on the power of revision based on feedback is transformative!

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  4. Lexy Tamony says:

    Catlin – I LOVE this! I teach math and I do the same thing when my students to GROUP project in Google Presentation and on GROUP assignments. That is easy to manage when there are 7-9 projects to look at during a period. HOW do you manage 30-35? Do they all share them with you and you put them in a folder and then go in some sort of order? Can you share your process. I will be a tech integration specialist for my district next year for all subjects and I am trying to gather as many ideas as possible! Your blog is AWESOME!!!!!

    • Thank you, Lexy!

      I wrote a blog about the various Google document workflows an educator can choose from, because it is a challenge to keep track of it all. I either have students share their documents with me and set up my Gmail filters to sort them automatically into my class labels (the first strategy on my blog) or I have students complete a Google Form (the third strategy on my blog). I keep going back and forth because I am not sure which one I like best yet.

      Thank you for the kind words! I enjoy writing my blog and am always thrilled to hear other educators enjoy reading it.

      Take care.
      Catlin

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  6. Diane Gallentine says:

    I tried doing this but it took so long I could only get some of the class edited and then the rest I had to do at home. Everything basically got off cycle and I felt like I didn’t control the process very well. I guess what I’m saying is that in theory I think the idea is great but I found it hard to implement. How did you get everyone done at the same time?

    • Hi Diane,

      I have the luxury of being on a 90 minute block schedule. We teach an A and B day and see each class every other day for 90 minutes. If I was on a traditional class schedule, I am not sure how I would give every single student feedback in real time. I would definitely have to take work home or provide half the class with feedback on one day and the other half on the second day. Either way, it is not ideal.

      When I’ve done synchronous editing, I have also explained to students that even though we are in a physical space together, I will not be coming around the room. If they have a question, they send me an instant message to my email. That way I can field questions more efficiently as I edit.

      Catlin

  7. I completely agree. I moved writing back into the classroom and my students literally holler to me from across the room “Ms. I can’t get past this sentence!” I open up their document in google drive that they had shared with me and we work together to move forward. Students have expressed such joy in working with me and with each other to complete their writing instead of working so hard and getting back a paper destroyed with edits.
    Students automatically share their work with students who have mastered the skill. These students freely edit papers and offer suggestions.
    It’s a miracle of technology. :)

    • Hi Kristen,

      I love the idea of connecting students who have mastered a skill and those who still need support. It would be really interesting to allow strong students to take on the role of a tutor to lend support to their peers. Do you have a method for connecting your students?

      My mind is spinning trying to figure out how to make this work! Thank you for posting a comment and getting me thinking about this.

      Take care.

      Catlin

  8. Beth Holland says:

    Hi Caitlin.

    Great post! I wish you’d joined us last week for #TeachWriting. We discussed process vs product as the topic. Here’s more info – http://teachwritingchat.org

    I’d be really interested in learning more from you as I’ve been exploring this concept for a while. Here are slides I used a few weeks ago at the Massachusetts Reading Association conference – tinyurl.com/ett-mra. Feedback would be great.

    Thanks,
    Beth

    • Hi Beth,

      Thank you for the links. Your presentation is fantastic! I love the examples with the various iPad apps. Your ideas about using technology to support prewriting is extremely interesting as that is not an area I have explored much (yet!). I appreciate you sharing that with me. I only wish I could have been in your session!

      Catlin

  9. Dr. Deborah Brennan says:

    Great insight…focus on the process rather than the product solely. We must teach what we expect to see from our students!

  10. Ken Fermoyle says:

    This blog made me realize that I have been playing the roles of both “student” and “teacher” for decades in my own writing. I have been a professional writer, editor, journalist & author for nearly 67 years (still active) and habitually edit, rewrite and edit some more during my writing projects. I’ve acquired the ability—and confidence—to play this double role as a result of long experience. I just wish I’d had a teacher (& technology tools) in high school willing and able to do what Ms. Tucker is doing today. Point of full disclosure: Catlin is my granddaughter. :)

  11. Judy Arzt says:

    Hello Caitlin, I use Google Docs in a similar way. It has made a big difference in student writing at all levels, including the graduate students I have in an educational research course and those I have in first-year composition. Best of all, by the time you, the teacher, are reading the final draft not only do you see the improvement, but it is also a breeze to whip through the papers and to respond because by then you know the work intimately. I don’t think I will ever go back to collecting papers in print form regardless of whether it is for response before the final draft or the final draft.

    Another feature that I like about the Google Doc method is the ability to have a live chat with the student. This has helped to clear up on-the-spot questions students have, and students seem to enjoy the give-and-take and to see us in a more informal way.

    • Hi Judy,

      I, too, love the instant chat feature. I have students, who rarely ask for help in class, send me instant chat questions. It gives those students who may be shy another avenue to get the support they need in real time.

      I am also a huge fan of the revision history. It is so nice to be able to review their progress on a document any time.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences.

      Catlin

  12. Dutch Driver says:

    Catlin,
    I’d like to challenge the notion that the purpose of writing is for assessment. I believe that is a tangent. The purpose of writing is to communicate from one mind to another. Instead of editing perhaps students need to explain more through expository. I mention this because that is how brainstorming works….plethora of ideas followed by priority and conciseness. It is the process not the outcome of the content that is transferable to their futures, where Othello has little impact on a business plan, request for proposal or quarterly report.

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  15. Mark Rathjen says:

    Catlin,
    Once again, thanks for a great idea! Just wondering if you require completed first drafts before you start your synchronous editing, or do you provide feedback on the draft regardless of it’s stage of completion?

    Thanks!
    Mark

    • Hi Mark,

      Ideally, I do my first synchronous edit when my students have written their introduction and first body paragraph. This gives me a chance to catch problems with their hooks and thesis statements. I can also catch problems in their first body paragraphs before they replicate them in the following body paragraphs.

      It’s nice to do it at various stages of their writing process, instead of waiting until they have a completed draft.

      Catlin

  16. AJ says:

    “….where they are at.”

  17. Jack West says:

    Hi Catlin,
    Thanks for sharing your process. It is a gift that you give us a window into your reflective process. Truly a priceless resource for teachers of all levels of professional development.

    The Hapara team is reading the Visible Learning books by John Hattie this month and one thing that struck me in this comprehensive meta-analysis of all educational research is how much kids hate teacher feedback. They really do not want to see it. Paradoxically (as with most things adolescent) they will acknowledge the need to grow, improve, correct mistakes, etc. They just do not want to hear it as judgment of their work. Your interaction with them is a great way to shape their work in process and your reflection here sounds like an excellent way to improve upon that. I wonder if there were a way to bottle the critique on a given piece of work and then unleash it as personal objectives for the next similar undertaking?

    Best,
    Jack

    • Hi Jack,

      I’ll have to check out John Hattie’s book. It surprises me to hear that kids “hate” teacher feedback. Throughout the years, I have had many students return to thank me for spending so much time editing their work. Maybe they appreciate it more in retrospect ;)

      As a student I always felt thoroughly cheated if I worked hard on a piece of writing (or any assignment really) and only received surface comments or simply a grade at the top of the page. I didn’t always love the constructive criticism, but I did appreciate the time those teachers spent assessing the assignments they had assigned. When there is very little feedback, it made me feel the assignment could not have been that important.

      I hope that approaching writing in this way will be more rewarding for me and my students.

      Thank you for the comment!
      Catlin

    • Jack,

      I agree with your comment about students “hating” to see teacher feedback only somewhat. I think it’s more of the initial shock when they receive a paper back from a teacher who writes a lot of comments (There are so many who don’t). That’s been my experience. Once they read my actual comments, they realize I don’t just focus on the negative. They see that an A paper has just as many comments as a D paper. The majority of my students actually love reading my comments, and many of them remember that and comment on it years later.

      Catlin,
      Thanks so much for posting the info. about grading the paperless way. Our school is going 1:1 next year, so I will have many opportunities to lessen my load of papers going home, and I cannot wait. My school too, has 80 minute periods, so this synchronous editing will take place more easily. I’m looking forward to trying more of this.

      Amy Laukhuf-Fitch

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  19. Great post! After 30 years of teaching writing, 20 of which have been blessed by participation as a Writing Project Fellow, I encourage you to find a local Writing Project — best source of collaborating with colleagues, finding ways to enjoy teaching writing as a process (something we’ve been doing for many years and yes, it is the joy of teaching writing) :) Here’s a reflection of my own on teaching writing: http://lessonsofpassion.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/teaching-writing-is-wrong/

    Enjoy your years of teaching and the process all along the way :)

    • Hi Laurie,

      I’ve heard so many people rave about their experiences with The Writing Project. Thank you for sharing yours. The biggest hurdle is finding time in the summer to do it!

      Take care.
      Catlin

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