Monday, March 23, 2020

Thinking about Revision

With this gift of time as we are sequestered away in our separate homes, I've been dipping back into my writing, rereading cringe-worthy drafts of poems and half-finished stories. Whew! I need to spend some time revising!

Writing is never finished. Walt Whitman rewrote Leaves of Grass five times. Former poet laureate Galway Kinnell never seemed to deliver his published poems the same way twice, omitting and adding lines even after the poems were bound in a book.  I’ve heard both author James McBride and poet Naomi Shihab Nye talk about writing as rewriting. Naomi Shihab Nye said: “If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. I didn’t realize the teacher was saying, ‘Make it shine. It’s worth it.’ Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope. It’s a new vision of something. It means you don’t have to be perfect the first time. What a relief!”

In thinking about how I go about revising my own writing and how I teach revision to my high school students, I notice a divide. And actually, in rereading some of my posts on this space, this divide is something that I have been struggling to bridge for a large portion of my teaching career. How do I help students invest more time in their revision process? This is going to sound weird, but our current break from traditional school as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has actually provided me some insight into revision. Let me explain.

My youngest son, Lukas, is nine years old.  This past week was our first week home together as schools shut down in Michigan as a result of the spread of the novel coronavirus. On Monday and Wednesday, his teachers posted links to math worksheets and online resources for his class to access.  He was assigned reading homework, encouraged to complete a creative book report, and asked by his teacher to complete and send back work that he had missed due to a recent orthodontist appointment.  But what did Lukas want to do?  He wanted to grab the Chromebook every chance he could so that he could add to the collaborative story that he and his buddy were writing titled "Where the Dragons Dwell."

You need to understand that when I ask Lukas about writing, he tells me that he hates it. "I hate my writer's notebook!" he complains each Wednesday night.  His weekly writing pages are typically due on Thursday morning, and of course, as an English teacher, hearing him say this each week breaks my heart. But here's the thing, I know why he's saying this. I love that his teacher has students writing in notebooks each week.  I also know that my son doesn't actually hate writing.  He, in fact, continues to write more than he is assigned when he is given free choice on what to write.  What he hates is that the feedback he has received is that he needs to fill the page and not slant his writing so that his last few lines on the page only cover 1/3 of the available space on the page. He dislikes the feedback that is focused on what his writing looks like and not on what he elects to write about. This is not feedback on the content of his writing. He enjoys writing, writing so quickly that it is a bit difficult to decipher at times, but he doesn't like when feedback interrupts his work or when it is not connected to the work. In cases when he's received feedback that he needs to write more because he doesn't "fully fill the page," he protests.  He claims he hates writing and doesn't understand why he has to do it. This is also what he said when I asked him to grab a notebook so that we could write at home together this past Monday.  However, later that same afternoon when his buddy shared a Google doc with the start of a story, Lukas didn't want to put down his writing.

Over the course of this past week, Lukas has added to the story, read the story aloud to his older brother a few times to get some advice, talked through most of our meal times about the progression of the story, always focused on how to make the story better.  This is what revision should look like. What it doesn't look like is a worksheet or a series of required comments left on a partner's draft. What it doesn't look like is everyone working on the same "step" of writing at the same time. So when we do return to school, I have some ideas about how engage students in the revision process differently.  It starts even before we begin drafting.

If writing is rewriting as McBride and Nye suggest, then conversations with students about revision strategies need to begin at the introduction of each new writing assignment.  Very few published writers complete a full draft before making a tweak here or there. We revise as we go, so we cannot leave a peer-revision workshop as the last step before our students turn in a writing assignment. We must teach students to engage in revision as we go, at each step of the writing process.  Moving forward in my own classroom, this will look more like the writing workshop model with students working in small groups to draft, craft, and revise. No more revision checklists or peer revision worksheets.  Instead, revision needs to look and feel more organic, like my son's process of crafting the collaborative story with his friend.  They use the online document to add to the writing, comments to make suggestions or ask questions of one another, and the chat to talk about where they are headed in the story.  Late this past week, my son hopped on a virtual chat with his friend, and I listened in as the two talked about the upcoming chapters they wanted to write together.  This conferencing got both boys engaged in the writing and revision process. 

I use writing conferences in my high school English classes now, but typically they are conversations between the student writer and the teacher and are left toward the end of the writing process. Using my son's writing process as a model, I see that I need to help students establish similar collaborative writing relationships much earlier in the drafting process.  Connecting my students writers and giving them space to organically talk about their writing and their struggles will do more to help them grow in their confidence as writers. Moving forward, I need to help my students establish trusted writing partners, peers that they can rely on throughout their writing practice, much like my Lukas relies on his writing buddy. 

I'll rely on the work of educators like Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher to guide me as I think about how to reframe writing assignments in my classes.  Having the opportunity to hear them talk about their work and book 180 Days last spring at the Michigan Reading Association conference was powerful.  And I would love to hear from other educators about your successes when in comes to engaging students in the revision process. 

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