Having students develop checklists and similar easy to prepare, easy to follow aids for monitoring and improving their own writing behavior works far better than giving them rubrics, charts, matrices, and posters that I, or some other teacher made.
For a student who hasn’t gotten past D-level writing, a rubric that distinguishes between A-level and B-level writing might as well be in Greek for all the meaning it conveys to that student.
The student whose writing is D-level needs something that will help him or her write C-level work. For a student used to getting Ds, a C is a stretch, but it’s not so far from a D that it feels totally out of reach.
Writers’ own lists of action statements
The best way to get students to systematically work toward the higher grade, is for each student to make his or her own short checklist of items:
the student understands how to do
can do without assistance
will help raise the student’s writing up to the next higher grade level.
The checklist becomes useful only if each student phrases the checklist items in his/her own words as action statements telling what the student does, not what the student hopes the outcome will be.
If you’re teaching writing strategically, some items can be derived from strategies. For example, if you teach students to prepare a writing skeleton™, the D-writing student’s checklist might say:
I wrote a working thesis statement.
I made a writing skeleton from my working thesis statement.
Other items on the checklist might be pulled from the student’s own Individual Mastery Plan. For example, a student whose work is usually riddled with comma splices, might want to get rid of those comma splices. To accomplish that, the student might set out his action statement:
I checked every comma to make sure it wasn’t being used to splice together two separate sentences.
Teachers have to monitor students’ preparation of written aids to make sure students target actions that will prove useful and to make sure their plans aren’t overly ambitious. Beyond that, however, it’s useful to let students manage their own improvement. That’s what they’ll have to do once they leave school.
Individualized learning isn’t the next best thing.
stop flagging errors when you’ve found enough to cap that person’s grade.
If I say four instances of any errors from a person’s IMP are too many for a student to get a grade higher than a C on that particular paper, there’s no value in continuing to flag after the first four. Marking 37 errors rather than four will only discourage a student, and it won’t add a penny to my paycheck.
Stress positive behaviors.
I also recommend you confine yourself to writing no more than two comments on other aspects of writing:
one comment on something the student did well or did right;
one comment about something other than IMP issues that would boost the student’s grade.
If need be, you can praise students for such things as turning in work on time or persevering when it doesn’t look like hard work is paying off. Such acts are really important: We notice if students don’t do them, so why not notice that they do?
When possible, suggest something a student can do to boost a grade within a relatively short period of time. Following directions, for example, will probably pay off on the next assignment. Using linking devices will probably not produce improvement until the student has done it deliberately a few times.
Don’t scare students.
Please, don’t write, “See me.”
If something in a student’s paper totally bewilders you, I suggest you talk to the student about it rather than writing a comment.
You might try asking the student if she/he has a couple of minutes after class to explain something you weren’t sure you understood. Students are normally happy to explain things that their teachers don’t understand.
When you ask a question face-to-face, you position yourself as a reader rather than as a grader. A two-minute conversation can do wonders for students’ mental image of themselves as writers whose ideas matter.
Preparing formal writing prompts may not require more effort from you than preparing informal ones, but responding to them requires a greater investment of time by students. For that reason, you ought to make sure your formal prompts are on some of the most significant topics in your curriculum.
If Susie is going to need to spend five hours on an essay, it ought to concern a topic that’s worth five hours of study.
What’s worth five hours of study? Probably it is a topic to which you devote at least a week of class time.
In all likelihood, a topic that’s worth a week of study in your English class in 2017 will also be worth a week of study in your English class in 2018.
It makes sense, then, to prepare formal writing prompts that you could, at least in theory, use year after year.
You won’t want to use all the same prompts year after year. Besides the risk that students will recycle work by those in previous years, there’s the more serious danger of boring yourself.
Bored students are bad enough.
Bored teachers are stultifying.
The solution is to prepare writing prompts that have a high degree of likelihood of fitting into your course next year as well as this year.
After you have a full year’s worth of formal prompts, begin creating replacements for a certain number of those prompts every year.
Tip: Don’t discard a prompt unless it was a total disaster: Tweak prompts that produced disappointing results their first time out, preferably right after you read students’ responses to the prompt.
If you have 25 formal prompts for a year and create replacements for five of those a year, by your sixth year of teaching you would have 50 formal prompts on major topics in your curriculum. Having all those choices will help keep boredom at bay.
Even more importantly, you’ll have developed skill at writing formal prompts and at spotting current events hooks to use with them.
Those skills will help prevent burnout and boredom in later years.
No matter how clearly you phrase information, no matter how carefully you choose your illustrations, no matter how well you prepare, you are not going to get through to every student on your first attempt.
Instead of getting yourself tied in knots over your failure—which may have nothing whatsoever to do with you—prepare in advance for failures.
When you prepare writing prompts, include in writing stripped-down directions about how to do the main task(s) the writing entails. You can also put the directions in some other formats (audio clips or video), but always put it in writing.
If you include in each writing prompt written information that teaches students how to do one writing task, by the time students have had a dozen writing prompts, they should have a miniature handbook on writing embedded in the prompts.
Encourage students to treat your writing prompts as instructional materials by referring students to directions you included in prior prompts.
Of course, not all students will read the prompts carefully or keep them after turning in the assignment, but if your prompts include genuinely helpful tips, many will hang on to the prompts to use again.
To make wise use of your time — and your students’ time — craft writing prompts that do more than make students write.
Prepare writing prompts that teach students something about how to write rather than just directing them to write.
Have students write about course content or about topics related to course content.
(Please, if you teach English, don’t limit yourself to literary topics. Many students find language topics more relevant.)
If you’re really a creative teacher, you can not only make your prompts
teach something about writing, and
teach or apply some non-writing course content,
but also politely force students to seek connections between the writing topic and something that matters to them.
I strongly recommend developing writing prompts that are, in effect, self-contained writing lessons complete with help getting started on the assignment and resources to consult if students get stuck.
It’s much more efficient for students to use their own material as they learn how to do a writing task than to do exercises isolated from their own writing.
To learn more about crafting formal writing prompts, visit the formal writing prompts section of my new website, PenPrompts.com. If you sign up for the PenPrompts newsletter, you get a copy of my formal writing prompts template free.
Best practices work for students and their teachers. The best practices for teaching writing focus on teaching essentials thoroughly. If your lesson content isn’t essential, why are you wasting time on it? Teaching the essentials thoroughly usually means teaching a few lessons multiple times in multiple ways over a period of months. When your goal is developing writing skill, you must teach the essential concepts, patterns, and skills until students write competently. Competence takes time. Students need time to try out what they understood you to say to see how it works in their writing—which is vastly different from seeing how a concept works on publisher-created materials. If students don’t learn to write competently, you may have presented but you didn’t teach.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about best teaching practices.
As I’ve tried to sort research on teaching writing into logical categories, I keep getting the feeling that best practices are not so much a teacher’s actions but are primarily descriptions of the teacher’s attitudes toward learning, knowledge and students.
For example, we know from research as well as experience that repetition aids in learning a skill. Applying that best practice requires certain teacher attitudes. The teacher must:
Be patient as the inept struggle to become competent.
Observe closely to see what may be keeping a student from learning.
Be willing to try different approaches with different students.
Focus on the goal.
Put up with the boredom of teaching basics over and over and over.
It has also occurred to me that best teaching practices can be applied to poor goals — or even to bad ones. We can prepare students for careers as farriers, but if there are no horses to be shod, what have we accomplished?