Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Revision Decisions

I have read other Jeff Anderson books and still shoot myself for not seeing him when my boss proposed I drive the 50 miles to a workshop he was presenting. When Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond rose to the top of my pile, I eagerly dug in. Once again I was captivated by the readability and practicality that Jeff and his coauthor Deborah Dean imbued throughout the work.

This book targets middle school but could certainly play up or down grade levels. The book is arranged in two sections: the basics and the lesson sets. In the basics he presents his revision mnemonic DRAFT as a way to teach students how to revise. This is not editing- making the sentences grammatically correct- although he uses grammatical instruction to help students organize their revisions. DRAFT represents the decisions writers make:
     D- Delete unnecessary and repeated words
     R- Rearrange words, phrases or clauses
     A- Add connectors
     F- Form new verb endings
     T- Talk it out
I particularly like the first two as it applies to summarizing. Teaching deletion and rearranging gives you extra bang for your buck as it were. The lesson sets demonstrate how to apply the strategy with examples and grammatically information.

The major technique that the authors propose is sentence combining and discussion. This is an evidence based practice that improves writing but largely is unused in classrooms today. Christopher Paul Curtis's book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham-- 1963, includes a sentence that can be deconstructed and rewritten as:
     He was smiling.
     He put his arms around my shoulder.
     We walked.
Students can be shown how to combine these sentences using elements of  DRAFT, talk about how their version differs from the author's, the effect of each version and then work through other sets. You might get
  • We walked together; he was smiling as he put his arm around my shoulder.
  • He smiled as he put his arm around my shoulder while we walked.
  • Putting his arm around my shoulder, he smiled as we walked.
While the author wrote:
  • He was smiling and even put his arm around my shoulder as we walked.
What is the effect of starting with smiling and ending with walking as opposed to starting with walking and moving on to body posture? Students can discuss the differences and come to conclusions about which they like best and why. Arrangement of phrases and clauses versus the main sentence stem impact emphasis and anticipation.  Discussion about the effect of the arrangement is what lets students begin to have these discussions with themselves as they carefully select how to write their sentences.  After a modeled example and small group collaboration, students are set free to search through their writer's notebook, find a place where the day's lesson can be applied and do so.

It is important to note that all the steps are not worked on at once. A particular skill is taught. You might start with reviewing how to write and punctuate a series or list and then move to how to delete words and create a new sentence with remaining material. You might have a unit on using transitions and start with how to use prepositions or FANBOYS (coordinating conjunctions- for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).  Focusing on one element at a time is essential if students are to learn each element well.

Clearly the authors have written in the era of Common Core- text examples all come from nonfiction works of varying levels of complexity and from different content areas. These examples showcase how you can integrate the skill of combining sentences with nonfiction works. Appendixes in the text include both deconstructed sentences from these works and the author's original words. One point the authors emphasize is when comparing the key is not to replicate the author's words but to combine the sentences in a way that makes sense.

The major criticism that I have of the DRAFT revision strategy is that it omits content. Many students fail to answer a prompt and so never get the credit they deserve. Students need to be taught to dissect prompts and check to be sure they have completely responded. They need to be taught how to organize their thoughts so they make sense, how to not make logical fallacies, how to use rhetoric and how to thoroughly explain their thinking. These revision steps are essential to good writing as well. While students will become better writers if they are taught how to combine sentences in interesting ways, they need to move beyond that as well.