The pre-assessment prompt for our first unit of writing reads, “Please keep in mind that you’ll have 45 minutes to complete this, so you will need to plan, draft, revise, and edit in one sitting.”
A single session for the entire writing process is a tall order, even for eighth graders. As a result, when reading through my students’ papers, I got excited about the number of students who included evidence of planning in the form of lists, graphic organizers, and makeshift outlines. I also noticed more than the occasional erasing or crossing out to correct a misspelling. I celebrated student ownership of planning and editing processes. However, what really struck me was that I could not find a single piece of evidence that any student had engaged in revising.
In fact, I had seen students finish writing before time was up, turn in their papers without taking a second look, and move on to independent reading. Why isn’t it natural for students to finish drafting and dig right into revising? I began to wonder if students might see the act of drafting as synonymous with writing. I began to wonder if students might not see revising as synonymous with writing. I began to worry that students might see revising as synonymous with something I do because my teacher makes me.
I decided I had to illustrate the value of revising as part of the act of writing a piece.
How Writers Revise
I began by sharing the story of meeting author Jack Gantos at the Illinois Reading Council Conference years ago. While Gantos spoke, he projected a hand-drawn map of his childhood neighborhood. He had placed Xs and dots to mark places that triggered stories he remembered. If you know Gantos’s work, you may recognize the house of the Pagoda brothers, the multiple grave markers labeled “Bo Bo,” or the houses of the “grumpy old people.” The stories of his childhood triggered by this map have made their way into many of his books.
Next, I shared the inside of the cover of Ralph Fletcher’s Marshfield Dreams: When I Was a Kid, where you can find a drawing of a map of his childhood stomping grounds. The stories in the book are inspired by the places on this map.
Naturally, I concluded, if these authors use maps to generate ideas, we might be able to come up with some ideas of our own by drawing maps. So, students engaged in the work of mapping out places where they had lived. I encouraged them to mark at least three Xs to represent stories triggered by the map.
After they drew maps, I had students share stories with one another orally. This served as a sort of rehearsal before putting words down on paper.
Next, I invited students to select a single story they were willing to write down. Finally, they started drafting their mini-stories, inspired by their maps. The buzz of excitement in the room from sharing stories quickly died down, replaced by silent writers hard at work.
After about 10 minutes, every student had a draft of at least a long paragraph.
I passed out a copy of Ralph Fletcher’s very short memoir moment, “River Heart,” from Mentor Author, Mentor Texts: Short Texts, Craft Notes, and Practical Classroom Uses. I reminded students of the idea of a mentor text. We read Fletcher’s words like writers, sifting through ink to find nuggets of gold.
a metaphor in the comparison of the jug of cider to the heart of a river.
imagery in lines like “The trees have veins like my grandma’s legs, hiding us under huge hushed skirts.”
alliteration in “silver snake caressed by the sun.”
a conclusion that connects directly to the lead.
words that convey mood: dark, still, tired, and old.
personification in “caressed by the sun.”
the power of three in the line “It curves, and hisses, and glistens.”
a meaningful title that is not just a topic.
Students selected at least one thing Fletcher did as a writer and applied it to their own pieces of writing. They engaged in the act of revising.
Finally, I asked students to recap the steps we had gone through as writers: generating ideas, selecting an idea, drafting, analyzing a mentor text, and revising. I asked them which of the steps took the longest time. Students wavered between generating ideas and using the mentor text as a guide to revisions. When I asked on which step students spent the least amount of time, there was a resounding, collective shout of “DRAFTING!”
Having lived the process themselves, students were ready to hear that most of our class time would be spent on the work writers do before and after drafting.
I am already looking forward to reading those post-assessment pieces of writing, because I am confident I will be reading them post-revision.