Many thanks to Teri Holbrook for the invitation to talk with her and Franki Sibberson about teaching digital reading and writing in this podcast from NCTE’s Language Arts “Conversation Currents.” The transcript of the interview will appear in the January 2015 issue.
In interest of full disclosure, I was provided an advanced copy of the book by Stenhouse, though I have long been an admirer of Jeff’s work to effectively integrate grammar instruction into the writing workshop and Deborah’s work on genre study and best practices in writing. More importantly, even though I got one for free, you can win a copy, too… read on!
So, it was my pleasure to read their book and converse with them about some related topics.
First, a quick overview of the book from the perspective of an English teacher who was always reluctant to “teach grammar.” I tried to integrate grammar instruction into my mini-lessons and conferences with students, but very rarely could I get beyond the idea of simply introducing my middle schoolers to using commas in a series or, if I was really lucky, to add an appositive phrase. Jeff and Deborah have provided teachers with a road map for how to make grammar instruction, through an alternative form of sentence combining, much more effective than simply winging it during those teachable moments and hoping that something would stick. Indeed, Revision Decisions provides us with the theoretical and practical glue to make grammar lessons meaningful and memorable.
Jeff and Deborah remind us that “Writing is a series of attempts that is often messy — drafting, revising. Many things are tried; some will be fixed, some discarded, and others memorialized in print, making it the best it can be — for now” (17). They encourage us to teach students how to play with language, to make words and phrases move on the page, to help our ideas take shape, reform, and then take shape again. Teaching in this manner is not necessarily easy, because we need to be willing to take risks with our students, playing with language while inviting them, too, to engage in the process. It is important that we provide ample wait time as students explore, remembering that “[t]he most important part of these activities is letting the students discover as much as they can” (44). Jeff and Deborah show us exactly how to do this by offering their DRAFT heuristic (18):
Delete unnecessary and repeated words
Rearrange sentence parts/chunks
Form new verb endings
Talk it out
Then, in the second half of the book, our co-authors walk us through a number of “lesson sets” which explain these revision decisions in more detail. All in all — and not just because I am a big fan of their previous work — I can say that Revision Decisions will guide my teaching practice as I continue to think about how sentence combining (and, as Jeff and Deborah show, “uncombining”) can be a great teaching strategy.
Second, and equally as interesting, I was able to interview both Jeff and Deborah via email. They provided me with some compelling answers to burning questions that I have about the teaching of grammar. I share my original questions and their responses here:
Question 1: First, as we consider the many ways in which students knowledge of grammar could be assessed, part of our reality is that the new common core tests, as well as other high-stakes tests such as the ACT, are asking students to identify grammatical structures and problems and then reply to a multiple-choice question. How do you balance teaching “revision decisions” with authentic pieces of student work against these constraining types of test questions? In what way are we able to have students transfer their knowledge of grammar from their “revision decisions” into the reality of test prep?
The cool thing about the concrete acts modeled and experimented with in Revision Decisions is that they are based in a sound research-based instructional methods and help prepare kids for test. Sure, it will work best for critical thinking, revision, and sentence combining questions that students are sure to encounter. It’s not so much about editing; however, since we only use grammatically correct sentences to play with and combine, they are getting exposure to correct texts as they reformulate and revise.
Thinkers. That is what we want our students to be in our classroom, in the world, and even on tests. Thinkers. Thinkers evaluate what best communicates and idea, analyzing, testing it. This is all built into the lesson cycle or progression in Revision Decisions. Based in the Writing Next research on sentence combining, study of models, and collaboration, students will think. Thought requires flexibility, risks, and options. We demonstrate options, we allow students to tinker with and combine sentences, all in the name of making beautiful, rhythmic sense. The concrete doable actions of the DRAFT mnemonic let young revisers in on the concrete things they can do (options) to create effective prose: Deleting, Rearranging, Adding connectors, Forming new verb endings, and the essential piece of Talking it out. Luckily higher standard tests won’t ask students to identify a part of speech or structure, but the applied knowledge they’ll get from sentence combining and revising will set them on a path for success.
One of the ways I would say the work we present in the book helps prepare students for testing is that Revision Decision work is consistently putting options about writing in front of students and asking them to consider the effects of the different choices, much as the test does. As students and teachers work with making writing choices (revision decisions!), they consider effects, to be sure, but they also consider issues of clarity and, in some cases, correctness—issues the tests focus on. All of these are elements of the decisions writers make. In our classroom talk about choices and effects, a certain amount of talk about correctness is sure to come up: it is, after all, something readers might expect in some writing situations and it is possible for writers to violate expectations for grammar when they are playing around with parts of sentences. Therefore, correctness (or lack of it) also creates an effect that writers need to consider in revision. There is room in this practice for helping students get ready for tests; it is just woven into the talk and decision-making about sentences. Long answer put short: although we don’t focus on correctness directly, it will certainly come up in discussions of choices and their differing communicative effects.
Question 2: Second, just as the Writing Next report indicates that isolated and grammar instruction has a neutral to negative effect on students writing, it also notes that word processing has a positive effect. How could a teacher transfer some of the ideas that you both have shared in your book to a technology–infused lesson? What might you suggest for teachers as they help students use word processing for smarter revisions?
Ack. This one is hard for me. I have lost many a good idea by revising on a word processor program. I do think it’s handy for small stuff, but I have lost things too. I almost always print my writing out at some point, open a new file, copy and paste the section in need of revising. When and if it works, I paste it into my doc. So I guess, sharing my process isn’t a bad way to do that. Wait, I am sharing my own process discovery. That’s writing process, by jove. Also considered a huge plus in the Writing Next research report.
It certainly seems to me that the practice we present in the book works with students who are word processing as well as, if not better than, for those who are writing out their sentences. In fact, one of the challenges of this work is that when students are handwriting, they sometimes don’t like to make multiple versions, “writing the same words over and over.” Some of my students acted as though the physical act of writing was almost painful in these instances. For those students, being able to copy and paste to move sections of sentences around would be a great benefit, allowing them to create more ways to frame the ideas of a sentence with relative ease.
An additional benefit that is available for handwriting but that may be a little less noticeable is the way that copying and pasting helps students to see how ideas group themselves into grammatical structures for movement. It is easier, I think, for them to see a prepositional phrase or verb phrase as a unit if they are moving chunks with a word processor.
Question 3: Finally, though I’m sure it is difficult to pick only one, what grammatical structure do you think most students could learn to use in order to add power and voice to their writing? What is it about that particular grammatical structure that you find so useful? Do you have an example of how an author has used that grammatical structure in a book, essay, or poem?
For me (but Debbie has a love affair with this structure itself. I am surprised we didn’t dedicate the book to right-branching sentences), it is the idea of the right-branching sentences. So primary to both of us that it is Lesson Set 1 in Revision Decisions. Whether a writer adds an appositive to the right of the main sentence or clause or a participial phrase to the right. This is manageable and replicable for both fiction and nonfiction writing. In the book, we reference a sentence by Albert Marrin from Rats!:
A rat can collapse its skeleton, allowing it to wriggle through a hole as narrow as three-quarters of an inch.
The main clause is really expanded by the right-branching modification. This is true in appositives or participial phrases or any other appropriate structure.
I don’t know for sure how to write the sound I just made.
It’s a little like asking which is my favorite child. Impossible to answer.
But, okay. I don’t know what Jeff would say, but I would go to participial phrases, I guess. (As soon as I say that I think of dozens of others—should I say appositives????) Why do I find them useful? They allow me to add details; in fact, if I’m thinking about using them, I usually add details I might otherwise leave out, adding those details in concise ways, without duplicating words or making placeholders necessary.
I always remember a passage of Where the Red Fern Grows that we use on pages 103 and 104 in the book. It’s a passage that shows how powerful participles can be (and so does the example on page 105 from Sheinkin’s Bomb). Participles and participial phrases are useful in so many places and in so many texts. We have lots of examples in the book of them—I guess both Jeff and I really are drawn to them.
I thank both Jeff and Deborah for their responses! And, now for the fun part. GIVEAWAY INFORMATION:
For a chance to win this copy of Revision Decisions, please leave a comment on this post by Monday, November 17th at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winner, who will be contacted via email.
Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you if you win. Stenhouse will be shipping the book to you, so I will share your mailing address with them.
Thanks to Jeff and Deborah for their timely, useful, and fun approach to teaching revision!
Earlier this evening, I participated in a wonderful closing discussion as part of the sixth and final webinar in KQED’s TeachDoNow series. The archived video as well as a summary of my tweets with links from the conversation are below. Broadly, our conversation centered on this big question: How do you manage learners, tasks, resources, and assessment in a connected learning environment?
This is a great video that @joelmalley put together about his digital writing workshop https://t.co/U311u6IwIf #teachdonow
@AramKabodian discusses his class wiki as a tool for teaching and bringing in authentic audience: http://t.co/oigMxruwJx #teachdonow
A great guide from @cosn: “Rethinking Acceptable Use Policies to Enable Digital Learning” http://t.co/1Q08oI22lK #teachdonow
Today, I enjoyed a conversation with a number of colleagues about the “The Digital Influence on Looking Closely at Student Work.” Definitely worth a listen, and be prepared to write down lots of ideas about how to engage deeply with students’ work as a tool for assessment and professional development.
Andrew Sliwinski – Co-Founder of DIY.org; designer and engineer focused on improving how we play and learn
Kylie Peppler – Assistant Professor in the Learning Sciences Program at Indiana University; Director at Creativity Labs
Tina Blythe – Co-author of “Looking Together at Student Work”; Learning Group Leader at Project Zero
Last night, I had a Skype conversation with students of my friend and colleague, Carl Young, who are taking a course on teaching composition and reading The Digital Writing Workshop. It was a robust conversation, and they had really smart questions.
I have, with permission, simply copied and pasted the text from their original wiki page with questions and pasted it here as a resource, without much editing. Hopefully their questions — and my answers — are useful for you, as well as the links.
As a culminating experience to our reading of The Digital Writing Workshop, please add your questions below for Troy.
How do you reconcile the differences of technique in professional writing and the typical writing seen in digital channels? (i.e., professional vs. entertainment blogs, etc.) – Elisha
As with all kinds of writing, I think that this is a good opportunity to talk about audience, purpose, and situation. Clearly, a paparazzi report on a celebrity from TMZ has a different purpose than would an interview on NPR. So, I think that it is valuable to see what digital texts are produced by different individuals and organizations, then prompt students to think critically and carefully about what the writing is and why it was composed in the manner that it was.
In a recent chapter I co-authored, we distinguished some of this as a difference between “focused writing” and “writing-by-the-way.” If you are interested in hearing more about this, I can share the chapter with you.
What are some tips you have to teach students that good digital writing is similar to that of a well researched paper or report? – Elisha
All of us can agree that writing is a process, whether a traditional research paper or a web page or a digital story. So, helping students become aware of their processes — as well as strengths and weaknesses in these processes — is crucial.
Which would you recommend for an upper elementary teacher to use for digital writing a wiki or blogs? – Amy
Honestly, it depends on what task you are hoping to have your students accomplish. I’ve seen teachers and kids do great work in both spaces, and we can talk about the advantages and disadvantages of both. For blogs, you might want to look at Kidblogs as a tool and for wikis I am a Wikispaces fan.
How can we use digital writing workshop in mixed classrooms where tiered or scaffolded instruction is necessitated without creating numerous lesson plans? What pedagogical value does it add? Lee
In a very real sense, writing workshop is all about differentiation. You are teaching mini-lessons that are responsive to the general needs of the class and then conferring with individuals or small groups of writers. Layering in the digital writing component opens up additional choices for students in terms of producing and publishing their work.
One way to do this work without going overboard would be to, quite literally, have students help you find resources based on the tool they are learning. There are, for instance, there are at least 15 tutorials for using Kidblog that show up in a search on YouTube. As you work with your students through various digital writing projects, I would ask them to help curate a list of high quality resources, and then organize one wiki page with links to all of them.
Does digital writing technology appeal to various individual’s natural or habitual pattern of acquiring and processing information, allowing students to augment knowledge and information, not just utilize digital writing, and how can we predetermine if it will fit a classes learning abilities? Lee
If I am understanding your question here, basically you are asking if we can figure out ways to engage students in authentic work and not simply using technology for technology’s sake, right? I would encourage you to watch Joel Malley’s video about how he teaches in a digital writing workshop. It is highly adaptive, yet he still has clear objectives for what he wants students to accomplish.
In your book you reference particular web sites that help support Digital Writing Workshops. Given how quickly technology changes, are there any new sites that you would recommend which were not available when the book was published? (Guen)
How do you manage a digital portfolio for your students? Since we do expect students to type and compose using computers now, is there a system that is best to track changes and keep all of a student’s writing in one place? (Shannon W)
Personally, I am a huge fan of Google Apps for Ed, and students can produce a portfolio using Google Sites. If you are looking for a tool to specifically track changes in writing, Google Docs has a “track changes” plugin now. In a broader sense, I would encourage you to think about how students could reflect on their writing by using screencasting to give you a virtual “tour” of their digital portfolios, reflecting on their growth.
How do you assess your students? Rubrics? Final product or during the process or both? (Shannon W)
If I had it my way, I would only assess process, and only in formative ways. But, I don’t, and grades have to be earned eventually. So, I do try to use lots of feedback while in process, very little at the end. I work with students to develop criteria for writing projects and, yes, those often turn into rubrics. Still, I do try to balance out the final product grade that I assign with a students’ own reflection and, sometimes, self-evaluation.
Do you advocate a balance between digital writing and traditional print writing, or do you feel they require the same process? (Jen H)
If anything, I am pragmatic. Sometimes, it is simply easier to have students pull out pen and paper to write me a quick note in class rather than have them turn to the computer and send me an email, if it means that they need to get logged in, boot up a web browser, etc. However, if they are already online, then sending an email or sharing a Google Doc could be easier. So, I generally lean digital, but I am pragmatic, too.
In terms of the debates about whether we should still teach handwriting/cursive, and the effects that has on the brain as compared to word processing, well… I will leave that for the neuroscientists to decide.
How much time should a teacher spend teaching the technology aspect of digital workshops? (Jen H)
Just like any other element of craft, I think that you teach the technology in small bursts, as mini-lessons. Or, again, look to the resources that exist online, especially screencast tutorials, and help students figure out their own tech support questions. While you have time with them in class, you want to talk with them about crafting their writing in effective ways, which may include some technical components, but you don’t want to get hung up on tech support.
Not all students have access to technology at home. Do you feel this puts them at a disadvantage in a writing workshop since others have time in class as well as at home to work on their writing? (Jen H)
Yes, of course, there are varying levels of privilege in our classrooms. Still, when looking at the most recent reports from Pew Internet, the vast majority of people are online, and I feel that the responsibility we have to teach digital literacy is significant. As I have heard many times before, it is terrible that we have a society where some kids don’t come to school with breakfast, or proper clothes, or other needs (like internet) met. But, we still have a responsibility to teach the masses, and being digitally literate is a huge part of that.
In our study of teaching writing, we have used Twitter as a tool for connecting with a community of writers and writing teachers. What other digital tools do you use to stay connected to the community of writing teachers? (Shannan K.)
So glad to know that you are using Twitter! I really enjoy using Flipboard as a tool for reading and sharing all kinds of news, especially related to education. I am pretty fond of a few key “hubs” for educators, too, including Edutopia, BAM Radio, and TeachThought. I try to stay on top of the ideas discussed in these spaces, and follow links to educators that they recommend. Also, watch for “events” that happen, whether a regular Twitter chat, a face-to-face EdCamp, or some online happening like the Slice of Life Challenge. Get involved with other educators online and they will reciprocate.
What criteria do you use to evaluate the effectiveness and usefulness of a digital tool as a teacher and as a writer? (Shannan K.)
The tool has to fit into my teaching/writing life in a seamless and useful manner. Seamless and useful doesn’t mean that there won’t be a learning curve, because there always is, no matter what the tool. The cut that the tool has to make for me is whether or not it will fit into my workflow and, ultimately, make my digital life more productive and useful. If it is just something gimmicky, then I generally steer clear. I can talk more about some of the tools that I use in both teaching and writing.