Had the pleasure of visiting a couple of really good schools in the midst of “bringing students back” over the past couple of weeks. By “bringing kids back” I mean rebuilding intellectual habits and striving to maximize quality of learning given how much kids have lost in the disrupted previous year(s).
One of the clear themes is writing. The quality of the ideas students get down on paper is always a challenge in school but it’s double challenging now as students mostly didn’t write much during disrupted remote instruction, certainly not pen to paper, and their attentional skills are fragmented. And writing demands attention.
One of the key ideas the TLAC team has discussed with schools is making sure that writing during class promotes rigorous thinking. Writing is powerful as a learning tool in part because it requires a higher level of thought than speaking. You have to attend more intentionally to exact phrases and words. If we can get students to concentrate on getting ideas down well it will help shape thinking. But if they write poorly and with unfocused attention… if they write an idea hastily, capture only part of it and leave things that way, then they won’t benefit as much.
So a lot of our conversations with schools have been about writing less in terms of quantity, but with greater attention and more revision. The techniques Regular Revision and Show Call are critical to this. So below I’ve excerpted some sections from TLAC 3.0 that are especially relevant in addressing the challenge of maximizing the benefits of writing.
Excerpts from Technique 42: Regular Revision (w Technique 13: Show Call embedded)
Most of us submit our own writing to the revision process frequently and, for some of us, constantly. We revise even an informal email to a colleague perhaps, or scratch out and use a different word three times when texting an explanation to a friend about running late. Revision is an everyday thing in the real world but too often a special event in the classroom—a formal activity applied mostly with compositions and longer pieces. It’s often encoded in what some teachers call the writing process, which can take a week to complete, with each step (drafting, revising, editing) getting its own day. Over the course of the year there are perhaps three or four “revision days.”
I’d argue that to make students’ writing powerful and also to allow writing to cause writers to think most deeply—to boost the Think Ratio, that is—revision should always be a part of writing. In some ways the less distinguishable as a “separate step,” the better.
The technique Regular Revision pursues the simple idea that we can make student writing better by making revision an everyday act, often done in short simple doses, and by making it a habit to regularly revise all manner of writing, not only formal pieces.
I find this observation of Bruce Saddler’s profound: “Sentences represent vehicles of communication that are literally miniature compositions,” he writes. We could apply the drafting and revision process reserved for longer compositions more frequently, and probably more successfully, to smaller writing exercises just by thinking of them as compositions, too. Sentence-length developmental writing exercises, for example, are perfect vehicles for revising. Small and focused, they are perfect for successful, deliberate practice.12
Skills are mastered when practiced regularly, even if practiced in smaller chunks. You might call that the Yo-Yo Ma Effect. As a child, the great cellist’s father taught him to play in short, frequent, and intense doses. He played better, and with more attention, because he played shorter. The frequency of practice and the level of focus and attention involved are often more important than the duration in shaping outcomes.13 Five minutes of practice a day for ten days, done with focus and attention, will probably get you farther than an hour of practice on one occasion, even though the number of minutes applied is greater in the second instance. Doubly so if your level of attention starts to tail off at the end of the hour.
Revising smaller pieces of writing more frequently allows for focus and energy. It also allows us to have a single very specific goal for every round of practice—something the cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson points out as being critical to accelerating learning in practice. If there’s one thing to focus on and improve, it’s easy to see—and then to support people as they apply that particular idea. Let’s add an active verb here. Let’s figure out why this syntax doesn’t work. See the difference between those focused prompts and a more general “revise your paragraph?” There’s a clear task to start with, so students know what to look for and to change; the task then ends with visible progress, giving students the sense of success that we discussed earlier. This will make them want to continue in the endeavor.
If you are going to take class time to practice revision, then you need to make sure that both the original student author and the rest of the class (now in the role of “assistant-revisers”) are able to derive meaning from the exercise. Therefore, we need to keep the writing we are talking about in students’ working memory—it must remain visible to them. Show Call does that, enabling a teacher to ask for precise, actionable analysis. If I project Martina’s writing, I can say, “I like Martina’s thesis sentence, especially her use of a strong verb like ‘devour,’” and then use the projected image to point it out for everyone. Or “I like Martina’s thesis sentence, but it would be even better if she put it in the active voice. Who can show us how to do that?” This way, when we talk about what’s good about a particular piece of writing, or how it can be improved, people are not just following along, but are able to actively think about the revision task. Since most of the information we take into our brains comes to us visually, students will now understand and remember the revision you are talking about far better.
Making a problem visible also allows you to ask perception-based questions. Asking a student, “Do you see any verbs we could improve on?” is far better than saying, “Amari has used a so-so verb here, let’s see if we can improve it.” The former question causes students not simply to exercise the skill of improving verbs but to recognize—and practice recognizing—places where it needs doing, where writing could benefit from improvement. Without the critical step of perceiving opportunities for revision on their own, they won’t learn to write independently.
Finally, after leveraging the minds of all the students in the class and eliciting thoughts from several of them on the revision at hand, you can then create an opportunity for all students to apply the learning they’ve just done. “Great, now let’s all go through our sentences, check the ones that are in the active voice, and revise any that are in the passive voice.” Through the use of Show Call, the Think Ratio and Participation Ratio on the revision task has just increased exponentially.