Revise at a Deeper Level

Earlier this week, like the picture above, I posed a similar question (biggest challenge teaching students to revise their writing). The comments didn’t make it to that post, and then I decided to put the picture on my Facebook timeline, where I received some really insightful answers there!

Here are some of the stand-out phrases from the responses there:

  • It’s hard to be strategic
  • Providing feedback on another’s writing is daunting
  • Superficial changes
  • They need to actually reread their work
  • If they understand it, they think there is nothing to revise

As a teacher of writing, I am no stranger to any of those thoughts. Forget teaching for a second. Revising one’s writing is a complex process with many different levels. Sometimes a surface-level revision (i.e. replacing a mediocre word with an apt one) can lead to significant change. While at other times, making a deep-level revision (i.e. changing the order of paragraphs or adding an illustrative anecdote) might not make a significant impact on the piece. Bringing it back to the classroom, when teaching revision, it seems most of the time that it is more art than science.

At this point, it is going to appear that I am moving away from the topic, but walk with me a little. In my first couple of years teaching English, I heard Kelly Gallagher speak at a conference and I was hooked. What I took away from the keynote address he gave that day were two things: (1) I need to have my students write a lot more (like a lot more) & (2) the best place to host all that extra writing was in the Writer’s Notebook. When I got back to the classroom, I made my students go out and buy a composition book, we set it all up, and we were off and running . . . for about a month. Then it started to fade to the background. Then it passed out of use. I hadn’t even realized it was missing for another month! 

At the time, my diagnosis was that I did not start the year with it. Yes, that was it. If only I had started the year with the Writer’s Notebook, then I could have made it last all year. So, that’s what I did to start the following school year. Again, it only lasted a short time–Maybe seven or eight weeks this time. What was wrong with me!? I tried to revive it . . . and that failed too.

If you can believe it, I inflicted this process on my students one more time, and the same thing happened again. At that point, I chalked it up to Gallagher reaching some sort of next-level celestial English Language Arts plane of teaching existence. He was enlightened; I was not. I put those composition books away and didn’t look back.

Years went by. The composition books did not return. Then I attended a conference. And that same English-teacher-demigod, Kelly Gallagher, was back to present to the mere mortals yet another message of how he stole the heart of literacy itself from the gods and was bringing it to the people (forgive me, my children have been watching Moana on repeat, hence the analogy). I was ready to be confounded by some new trick, tip, or teaching. But there he was, holding up that notebook again, saying students need to write more.

I’m not even sure I remember what his main point was that day, but I thought, “This Writer’s Notebook does not take some sort of hidden genius. I can do this!” And when the next school year started up, I came to my campus with a mission. I was committed to making the Writer’s Notebook work! All. Year. Long. And I did it!

Here is where I will reconnect with the original topic. I was being faithful to implementing the Writer’s Notebook. Students were writing a lot more. It was filling up, but it was growing stale. Students were losing motivation. And right at that point in the school year when the Writer’s Notebook had gone completely stagnant, and I was ready to let it recede into obscurity (by choice this time, not by accident), I remembered my commitment. I was going to finish. I. was. determined. I told myself that I just needed to think around the problem. Let me tell you what I came up with.

I noticed that the students had a lot of entries just sitting in their writer’s notebook. They weren’t doing anything. They were just languishing there in the pages. Then I thought, “Hey! What if I have them revise those old entries?” Just like that, the Writer’s Notebook transitioned into a Writer’s Workshop.

Let me tell you, it was messy. I didn’t know quite what to do at first. But then I taught them my go-to revision tool, RADaR (from Kelly Gallagher and Jeff Anderson) and I started working in sentence-craft lessons. I started doing this week after week and I could see the students getting better and better. It was getting easier to pinpoint what they were missing in their writing development. And they were starting to see it too. They were really going back and looking at their writing. A couple of my students took it upon themselves to go to the literacy center on campus, on their own, and see how they could make their notebook entries better.

I came up with ways to hold them accountable that were meaningful and motivating to them. And it was encouraging for them to see improvement week over week, like getting better at writing was somehow possible in a way they had never experienced before.

What is my #1 single biggest challenge in getting my students to revise writing at a deeper level? In a word, I used to say it was motivation. Now I would say it’s getting them to see the value earlier in the year. When I put the examples of how their classmates are growing in front of them with a publishing process, they can see how it’s possible for things to change. When they see that it’s possible, it causes them to move forward. They need to believe. And for most of them they need to see it to believe.

This year, I will get my students their earlier. They will see. They will believe.

What about you? What is your #1 single biggest challenge in getting your students to revise writing at a deeper level? What from my story resonates with you? If this post gave you even a hint of hope, then please share in the comment section below. Share the post with someone else who needs to hear this.

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