Since September, I have been hiding a shameful secret from the other teachers in my department: I have not read a student’s essay all year. Ok – so that might be a slight exaggeration. I have read parts of students’ essays, but I have not lugged home shopping bags full of papers, emptied multiple pens writing in the margins, or opened Google Classroom in my living room. I have not spent prep periods providing written suggestions for students to improve their work; I have not taken a deep breath, looked at the clock, and pushed myself to get through just one more before the next class. And yet – my students are learning how to write. In fact, they are producing better work than my students have in previous years. How is that possible?
The answer is ownership. Put simply, when I don’t comment on their work, my students learn that they are writing for themselves – not for external approval from me or my gradebook. I want my students to understand that writing is a really a series of decisions that create rhetorical effect (Kolln, 2012). Once they have a basic understanding of proper grammatical structures, there is no “right” or “wrong,” and no way to “fix” their writing. There are simply decisions and effects.
What I have learned this year is that reading and commenting on an entire essay is counterproductive. I used to spend hours upon hours reading and commenting on student work. The result was usually students coming to me and asking what they could do to “fix” their writing. They were seeing writing as a set of rules they did not know: right and wrong ways to write that could be “fixed.” They were writing and revising based on my comments so that I would be happy with their work. In other words: I owned their product. It was for me, not for them.
It does not matter that the teachers know what good writing is, and that we are qualified to make judgment calls and give guidance to make student work “better.” The vast majority of students get bogged down in what each teacher “likes” to see in their writing – and they get different messages from different teachers. When they no longer feel like they are writing for the teacher, students can make tremendous strides in their writing. When they own it, they want it to be better.
SPECIFIC DESIRED OUTCOMES
The teacher’s job in today’s educational environment is to guide students to explore very specific ways they can improve their skills or deepen their understanding. The best way to do that is to give students as much ownership of their work as possible. So how do we balance student ownership with accountability and progress? First, you have to hold a constructivist view of education. That is, students can learn from experience, each other, and from the vast array of resources available on their laptops and smartphones. That means identifying specific desired outcomes, clearly articulating them, and explicitly teaching them.
For example, in the Early College Experience First Year Writing course, our curriculum includes teaching students seven “writing moves” laid out in Joseph Harris’ Rewriting: How to Do Things With Texts. For two weeks, each class period focuses on one of those moves. The first move we teach is called Illustrating. The definition is very simple. Illustrating is using examples from sources to support an original claim. In one class period, we make sure everyone understands the definition, show students examples from professional works, maybe an example from our own writing, and then give them time to try that move on their own.
SPACE TO PRACTICE
They might have a specific assignment, or they might simply have time to try the move in any way they want. The important thing is that they have a low-pressure, assessment-free space to practice. When learning Illustrating, for example, students might have an assignment to find and use information from two sources to support a claim about a novel they are reading. Most of the time, the won’t even submit this first attempt in any way. Keeping the first effort private does two important things: it takes the pressure off, and it shifts ownership of the work to the student. They have so much ownership of the work that they don’t have to show it to anyone if they don’t want to.
In order to keep them accountable, though, students are always working on a major essay. We expect to see examples of Illustrating and the other writing moves in that essay, so once students have practiced the move, they can transfer their knowledge by finding a place to include it in the major essay. Since those moves are what I’m teaching in the unit that culminates in that essay, those moves are what I need to assess – and all I need to assess – on the finished product. That’s why I don’t have to read the whole essay.
The concept can be modified for foundational skills, as well. If I have taught students how to use a semicolon properly, then they can draw my attention to a couple of examples. I don’t have to read the whole essay and comment on every semicolon to know if the student understands how to use them. Seeing a few examples will be enough for me to get a good idea of how the student is performing.
Because students and teachers know exactly what they are practicing and mastering during the unit, students can identify and evaluate those elements in their own work. Selecting examples to show the teacher not only gives the student an additional level of ownership, it also reinforces the student’s role as active participant – not passive recipient – in his learning. In the unit focused on the seven moves from the Harris text, students write two major essays. That gives them a lot of time to practice and transfer the moves in a few different contexts.
After the first essay is complete, students conference with me. I ask them to come to the conference with examples of one of the seven moves they think they are doing well, and one that they aren’t sure about but attempted.
In the conference, I still don’t look at their writing – at first. The students come to me with a specific move they want to show me, and they explain how they executed it. I ask follow-up questions until I have a good idea of what they think that moment in their writing does, and then I tell them what I expect to read. For example, if a student says that she Illustrated by referencing an interview with a peer and an example from an article to support her claim that high school causes a dangerous amount of stress, I would tell her that I expect the paragraph to begin with the claim, give a few sentences describing the experience of the peer, another few sentences describing the example from the article, and then a transition sentence that brings it all together and hints towards the next paragraph.
When the student has truly mastered the skill, she will say “yes,” and only then will I read the paragraph – and only that paragraph – to confirm. Often, especially early in the unit, the student will realize that she didn’t actually execute the move the way she meant to. When I explain what I expect to see on paper based on her description, she realizes that what she wrote doesn’t match what she said. That method of feedback is critical. Without me giving her any advice about how to “fix” her writing, she has articulated out loud what she meant to write on paper. She can easily revise what she wrote to more closely match what she said out loud. I do not give any advice; I just restate what the student said, and she decides whether what is on paper matches. Once again, the student’s active participation reinforces her ownership of her work.
In just a few minutes per conference, I am able to assess a student’s performance in two of the seven skills they are supposed to be learning in the unit. Later on, we will repeat the process, so I will have a good idea of how they are doing with four of them. At the end of the unit, they will come to me with evidence of all seven moves, two essays and a presentation project, and I will give them a grade – not on the essays or the project – but on the mastery of those seven writing moves that they demonstrate at the end of the unit.
Next term, I will be teaching students to write coherent and well-developed essays. My plan is to have them describe how they organized their essays, and then read with them the introduction, transitions, one body paragraph, and conclusion. That way I will get a good idea how coherent and well-developed the essay is without spending hours at home reading each essay.
We live in an cultural moment in which being overworked and stressed out is a badge of honor. Doing anything that takes less time can feel like a lazy cop-out. However, the more we can step away and let students own their work, the better their learning experiences will be. A lot of research supports the value of student ownership, yet a lot of what we traditionally do as teachers has the effect of transferring ownership to us. By only reading the parts of their writing that my students point me to, I am giving them as much control and ownership of their learning and assessment as I possibly can while also keeping them accountable. Based on the results I have seen in this short experiment so far, I believe the value of student ownership outweighs the desire for accountability that drives English teachers to pull all-nighters grading and putting written feedback on every piece of writing our students do.
What do you think? Have I gone too far? Am I missing some value by not reading everything my students write? Do students need at least some written feedback in order to reach their potential? Would my students grow enough to justify time invested in writing those comments?
Harris, J. (2017). Rewriting: How to do things with texts Utah State University Press.
Kolln, M., & Gray, L. (2012). Rhetorical grammar: Grammatical choices, rhetorical effects.