Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Reinforcing the Writing Process

A frequent topic of conversation at my department meetings has been our mutual lamentation of the demise of writing skills amongst our students. While many of us once thought that the expansion of the Internet would make kids more literate, it is apparent that the opposite has happened as kids have created their own shorthand and frequently ignore all the accepted rules of punctuation. I believe that with a little effort on the part of teachers, we can use the Internet to strengthen the writing skills our students are so busy "texting" away.

As a kid I was the master of the "one draft and done" essay. I didn't even bother to reread what I had written (after all hadn't I read it as I was writing it?). My challenge as a teacher has been to get a kid like me to reread, proofread, and edit. In other words, get students to complete the writing process. This past year I found that using a wiki for students to collaborate on a written assignment was a great way to expose students to all the stages of the writing process and to get them to use it. (For more on Wiki's here is one of our earlier posts.)

The project started with the students assigned to write an essay. Obviously this is something we all do throughout the year in our classrooms. The only difference this time was that I required the students to post their essays on a page that I created for them on our class wiki. The students had one week to write the essay. This was the same time frame as all the other essays I had assigned throughout the year. I did tell them that their would be a wrinkle to this assignment and that it would be in their best interest to complete it on time.

At the end of the week I read the completed essays and using red text I added questions about their essays. The students then had one week to answer and then re-post their essays on the wiki. The "reward" for the students who posted their essays on time was that they had the full week to make the necessary changes. The students who posted their essays late, only got a handful of days dependent upon when they posted their essay and when I was able to read their essay. We then repeated the process this time adding blue questions that the students had one week to answer before submitting their final copy for grading on the wiki.

By crafting the assignment this way it forced the students to go back and reread and revise their essays based on the questions that were asked. I think it was important to ask questions as opposed to just adding comments, as I find that high school age kids don't always A) read the comments, and B) they don't always know how to respond to comments. I think that when one compares the first draft of the essay to the final draft of the essay it's abundantly clear how much the quality has improved. The challenge now is how to get the student to take these steps even when they're not being forced to follow this framework. That is where steps two and three of this project come in.

Step two of the project was similar to step one except that this time the students were groups in teams of three and they had to post the first round of questions on each others' essays. Therefore the students are forced to read and question each others' work. I chose to group the students in teams of three. If one of the students did not participate, then the responsible students would still be able to proceed with the questions of the other partner. Preceding this part of the assignment I had assigned my students to ask me a "how" or a "why" question as a part of every reading assignment throughout the school year so the students had been "trained" to ask a meaningful question. Another advantage of having the students question each other is that another student can often be the best judge of whether or not an essay makes sense. After reading student "A"'s essay if student "B" is unable to explain what he read, student "A" probably needs to revise his or her essay.

After reading the questions of his/her classmates, the essay writer then had one week to answer the questions of his or her classmates at which point I would post a second set of questions for the student to respond to. The student then had one week to make the necessary corrections and post a final draft of the essay.

Step three of the project was similar to steps one and two, except this time I took myself out of the process entirely. For phase three the students were responsible to ask the necessary questions for both rounds of the process. I also reduced the amount of time the students had between rounds of the assignment. The students still had one week to write their initial draft. But this time they were given one day to question each others' essays and then one day to respond and revise before the next set of questions were posted. With the shortened window some of the phases got mixed together (as happened with the example posted) however the end result was that the students (over the course of three essays) improved their writing skills and more importantly they were forced to reread their own work and actually make changes. For many this was the first time they had actually gone beyond the first step of the write-reread-revise process that we all preach to make our students competent writers.

Step by Step instructions:
This project requires a fair amount of time to set up. I learned a lot from running it and I won't set it up the same way again, so I'd advise that you follow these instructions as opposed to trying to mirror the format on the sample pages. I use wetpaint.com as my wiki provider for many reasons. You could set this project up on other wiki sites but the instructions below make heavy use of the custom template feature that wetpaint offers. Be sure that whatever wiki service you choose has this option as it will make creating a project like this much easier.

Step One: You'll need to set up a wiki page with a class list. Every student in your class will need to have their own section of the wiki. Notice I only used first names and a last initial (it is imperative that you do everything possible to protect the identity of your students online, even on a password-protected private site). As a special tip for wetpaint users, I learned the hard way, DO NOT PUT THE PERIOD AFTER THE LAST INITIAL - trust me you'll thank me later.

Step Two: Every student will need their own subpage. Use the students first name and the first initial of their last name (w/o the period) as the name of the page. This will allow wetpaint's "suggest link" feature to easily find all of the necessary pages. For this you'll want to create a page with a table listing the essays that the students will need to write. I placed a table on the page and then wrote the essay question in each field for each stage of the project. Once you create the first page SAVE IT AS A TEMPLATE. This will make life much easier as you add it on other pages.

Step Three: Create the individual essay pages. These are the pages where the students will actually write their essays. Each of these pages will need to be named. I would suggest using a consistnet naming protocol to avoid confusion later on (example Steve Smith from first period should have his 3 pages named SSP1E1, SSP1E2 and SSP1E3 -if you have two students in the same period with the same initials you can call Steve Smith StS and Sam Stein SaS. Use whatever works for you, just remember each page name needs to be unique and that consistency will make your like easier as we go forward). Again once you have created the page save it as a template so that you can easily add it on the other students pages.

Step Three A: Repeat step three for each of your students, howver instead of creating a new page each time you can instead just pick the template that you created in step three.

Step Four (optional): Once you create the pages for each of the essays for each student you will can link them individually to each student's subpage. You will notice that all three pages will show up in the sidebar on the left so the students will be able to access the pages even if you do not do this, however by taking the time to link each page individually you better the odds that the students will click into the correct essay. This is tedious and time consuming and it is up to you if you want to take the time to complete this step.

Step Five: Give the students clear instructions, start the project and enjoy the fruits of your labor (or in actuality enjoy all the essay grading you have just created for yourself!)

This is a labor intensive project. It will take you at least an hour if not more for the initial setup (setup time depends upon the number of students you teach and your level of profeciency with your wiki site). As I am sure you realize there will be quite a bit of grading that will go along with this project. However, in the end hopefully you will create better writers among your students and society will thank you.

The most commonly asked question: How do you make sure all of your students do their part? The answer is that I don't. This is a project where the kids have their "aha!" moment by experiencing the success over the course of the project. I have students who do not complete the project the same way we all have students who do not turn in all of their assignments. The one thing I do attempt to do is to keep the "slackers" for bringing down the diligent students. I assign this project at the end of the year, so by this point I know who my students are and when assigning the groups I try to match students based, not on their ability level but based upon their frequency in turning in assignments. I also make sure that if a student drops the ball and doesn't post questions on a classmates essay, I will give the diligent student an extension and I will post a set of questions for that student. As they say you can lead a horse to water...

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