I will never forget the first major writing assignment I gave back to my 7th grade history students. It was late September, and we were mid-way through a unit on the local election for the new mayor of Boston. Students had drafted a letter to the new mayor presenting their concerns for their communities. They had spent several days typing letters full of passionate ideas and suggestions for the new mayor. I burned the midnight oil to return their drafts promptly so we wouldn’t lose momentum in our unit. I wrote all over their papers in brilliant fuschia, mint, teal, and tangerine hues, thinking these colors would evoke more positivity than the dreaded red markups I remembered receiving from teachers when I was their age. I underlined persuasive phrases and wrote encouraging comments like “Wow! This suggestion is so innovative!” and “What an awesome insight into your community!” I also looked for places where students could elaborate on a need in their community and inserted questions to prompt further explanation.
Sleep deprived from staying up so late providing written feedback, but excited to give them my thoughtful suggestions, I stood at the door, smiling, and enthusiastically welcomed my students into class. What transpired next could not have gone more differently than what I had envisioned. I handed back my students’ work, and even before I could utter how proud I was of them for producing their first draft of the year with as much creativity and passion as they had, one of my students threw her paper on the floor, pushed back her chair, and with a large “humph” sound, buried her head on her desk under her arms. This young lady’s response to receiving her work knocked the wind out of me for a moment. And she wasn’t the only one! Looking around the room, I saw many faces fall, a few students began to well up with tears, and some students tore their papers into confetti sized pieces, scattering them across the floor in their haste to get rid of the revisions. In hindsight, handing back student work without prefacing my takeaways, process for providing feedback, and introducing what we would do with the feedback, was a “rookie” mistake.
I was confused by their reactions, given that much of what I had written on their papers was positive acknowledgements of what they had done well as writers. When had their relationship with writing gone wrong? Was this developmental? Did they take feedback as a sign that they were poor writers? Did they know how to respond to or implement feedback? Was this my fault? All of these thoughts ran through my mind, as I quickly strategized to salvage the block of time and also their fractured scholarly egos in that moment. I told the students to put their papers in their desks for a moment, asked each of them to look at me, and told them how proud I was of them. I also told them that we all need at least a second set of eyes when we are publishing work. I said something like, “We want the Mayor to respect our voices when he receives our letters and thus, we need to make sure that our voices are as professional and polished as possible.” I told them that we would spend the next day working on revising our work. I told them to read my comments and circle three comments of praise they agreed with and two revision suggestions where they were going to further their work.
Once the majority of the room was focusedon the task I had given, I was able to work on soothing the few students who were still visibly upset. In talking to the young lady who physically shut down when she received her work, I realized that she had been unaware there would be more than one draft of the writing assignment. She had panicked when she saw all the writing on her paper because she thought it meant she had done lots of things wrong. She couldn’t remember ever writing more than one draft of a piece of writing. As a side note, it should be acknowledged that this cohort of students experienced a lot of schooling disruptions during their 6th grade year. I know from cross-grade collaboration with herprevious teachers however, that she and her peers had experienced the steps of the writing process in earlier grades. The more students I talked to, the more a trend began to emerge. Although students had completed steps of the writing process in previous grades, the majority had not internalized or engaged in metacognitive thinking about the steps in the process enough to implement them with independence and confidence.
Over the course of the remainder of the year, I tried different peer and teacher feedback protocols. I tried a 3, 2, 1 peer revision protocol where students use the rubric to choose three things their peer writer did well, two copy edits, and one suggestion to add or delete a piece of their writing. I used different types of rubrics, both teacher generated, and student created through examination of mentor texts and class discussion. I ended the year with one major question: How could I build a classroom culture where students had confidence in, internalized, and were able to apply the steps of the writing process to a myriad of content related writing tasks? Experiencing moments of frustration, confusion, and struggle are essential for student growth, academic confidence building, and transference of skills. I wanted to ascertain how to provide the conditions for productive struggle, not defeat.
This article is the first in a series of articles that will address facilitating the writing process in early career teaching.