by Keith Hefner, publisher and executive director of Youth Communication
When students revise their writing—an important Common Core skill—they get the chance to reflect further on their topics and sharpen their ideas. However, even eager writers can balk at rewriting a piece after they are “done.”
At the Youth Communication after-school writing and publishing program, many of our students have low writing skills. They also face other challenges, like being in foster care. They are volunteers and we work with them in small groups, so our setting is not comparable to a classroom. However, our students are no more eager to revise than other students. We have learned that motivating students to do the hard work of revision is about relationships: their relationship to the text, the teacher, and an audience. Here’s how we foster those relationships and help students learn the skills they need to revise their work.
Find the meaningful story or angle. Students will invest much more effort in revision if the topic is personally meaningful to them. To pinpoint students’ concerns, we include questionnaires at the beginning of the year that probe their interests and experiences. We also pay close attention during class conversations, and sometimes we talk with colleagues or counselors to learn more about our students. When students sense that we notice what interests them and who they are as people, they are motivated to pay closer attention to our questions and suggestions for revision.
Having students write personal essays is one way to insure that they have an important personal connection to a story. But you may be surprised at how often you can help a student find a personal connection to persuasive or expository essay topics. For example, in a history class, the student who is wondering about sex roles may put more effort into a paper that focuses on women’s contributions in a particular era. A student upset by the Trayvon Martin verdict may be more motivated if you suggest he compare it to the killing of Emmett Till during the civil rights era.
Find a meaningful audience. In our program, teens ultimately publish their stories for peers, but you can create a meaningful audience without publication. By showing genuine interest in students’ lives and the content of their work, you can become an important first audience. If you ask questions about each draft that show you really notice and care about their ideas, students will begin to see you not just as a giver of grades, but also as a collaborator who helps them express their ideas.
Block out time for revision, and focus on content first. Mix short, one-class writing assignments with other assignments spread over several weeks that involve multiple revisions. This allows students time to gain perspective on their writing. It also allows the instructor some breathing space to focus on big picture issues and respond to the content first, without overwhelming or discouraging students with grammar and usage corrections.
For instance, if you require three drafts, you can use the first draft to respond to the main idea of the piece, basic organization, and any big picture concerns (e.g., is the main point unclear or buried, is there sufficient evidence to demonstrate it, etc.). In the second draft, help students expand on their “telling” statements with “showing.” For example, ask them to include scenes and dialogue (in a personal essay), or help them integrate quotes from original sources in a persuasive or expository essay. In any essay, help them learn to cut unnecessary information and add concise summaries or paraphrases. Resist a close focus on grammar and spelling until the final draft. Once students feel you are invested in helping them express what they want to say, they will be less likely to shut down in the face of “corrections.”
Finally, acknowledge and celebrate your students’ persistence and writing achievements. For example, create a checklist of the major changes students typically make between first and final drafts. Then ask them to compare their first and final drafts. Ask students to take a few moments to reflect on the revision process in a freewrite or group discussion. From time to time, give students detailed positive feedback about one revision technique they used to improve their stories. They will be thrilled that you noticed. Students will also recognize the satisfaction they feel from clearly expressing ideas that are important to them—and from the relationships that grow as they respond to feedback. That will prime them for the next revision activity.
P.S. This blog entry went through
four five revisions.
You can read stories by teens from the Youth Communication writing program in several Free Spirit titles, including Rage, Vicious, and Pressure.
Keith Hefner is executive director of Youth Communication, a New York-based nonprofit organization that teaches writing, journalism, and leadership skills to inner-city teens. He is also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship for his work in youth development. Hefner is the coauthor of A Leader’s Guide to The Struggle to Be Strong: How to Foster Resilience in Teens.
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