Sunday, August 21, 2016

Teaching Adolescent Writers

When I went off to teach in Hawaii, I brought along a trunk full of math teaching materials: lesson ideas, manipulatives, games. I used some of them and made up more. While I was reading Kelly Gallagher's book, Teaching Adolescent Writers, I thought about that trunk. He speaks about having mini lesson ideas gathered to cover the various things he will teach in his high school English classes. From his descriptions, this must be an impressive, well-organized collection.

This books, like the others I have read by Kelly, was a delight to read- jam packed with ideas that I know I will want to reference at some point. One of my favorite was on his description of how to develop a rubric with a class in order to evaluate writing. This is certainly an idea that I have encountered before- have the class help develop it so they have ownership and understand it. (Not usually evaluating material, this is not something I have had the opportunity to do.) He describes how to have students develop this rubric. He presents a meets standards and an exceeds standards sample of the targeted skill. He has students identify the better piece. Then students identify features the meets the standards demonstrates and then how the exceeds standards one is different. He provides clarification as necessary. These samples provide the guidelines students can follow when revising their work.

He proposes creating a five category rubric for a writing piece. The first three to relate to topics that have been targeted as whole class instruction. In his example he addresses effective introductions, level of analysis and sentence branching. Other options abound such as effective conclusions or theses, effectively addressing audience or purpose, or using STAR (substitutions, take things out, adding or rearranging) to revise writing. The final two categories he reserves for individual categories. He reads rough drafts and identifies two areas for each paper that need improvement. This may not be the only areas that the need to be addressed, but students can only address so many things. Those two things are the areas that each individual will be assessed on, thus each rubric is unique. Usually he picks one content and one editing focus. During revision time in class, he holds mini lessons to address individual issues. For example, students who need to work on transitions are called together for a small group mini-lesson, then the next group- perhaps working on using strong verbs- to have a lesson. This way the students get targeted instruction and evaluation based on individualized learning. Students who have success with the skill area are not subjected to instruction they do not need.

We have all experienced students that receive a graded paper, look at the grade and then never look at the notations that teachers made. Teachers spend lots of time on assessing papers. We need to make that time well spent. One of Gallagher's strategies for dealing with this problem is described in the book. On the final draft he identifies six sentences that need improvement- no more than six- with a focus on those related to the personal evaluation goals set during rubric creation. Each student is required to copy each sentence onto a sentence correction page, use references, peers or the teacher to write a corrected view of the sentence and identify the problem that was corrected. Students who fail to do so lose a letter grade from their essay score. This approach allows students to work on individual areas of need and to really work on learning from the feedback provided. This approach to evaluation addresses many of the problems that students and teachers encounter on a routine basis.

One of the common themes of Gallagher's is that we need to concentrate on good teaching and motivation before we focus on standards. In order to be successful adults, our students need to be successful writers. This means we need to willingly engage them in meaningful writing. If the only writing they do in English class is the literary essay they will not be motivated to learn to write better. We need to begin with motivation and then move to other assignments. We need to weave motivating activities within the assignments that are more standard. Then we can develop better writers.

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