The Solution to 90% of our Writing Concerns

July 2, 2018

They loved the book. Loved it. They were proud of Scout, cried for Lennie, cheered on Montag. They could apply the author’s themes to their own lives and describe how much they learned about themselves from the plight of the characters, but the joy is over. Now they get to write an essay.


The way we teach writing means students have hours of homework, we have hours of grading, and we ruin their love for the book we so wanted them to take in.


Why? If one of our greatest goals as ELA teachers is to foster a love of reading, why do we do this?


I would argue (and will argue in a future post) about our need to shift our writing instruction away from novels and return to writing literary analysis after students repeatedly practice analyzing a novel verbally and master certain writing skills. But this post isn’t about when to teach literary analysis writing; it’s about making the writing process better for everyone. More effective, more efficient, for students and for us.


Students will admit to writing whatever is required for class the night before and with little concern for quality. (Please note: “students” never means all students, but ask them about this and they’ll tell you.) They come to class with what is due, the quantity completed. During class, we may show an example, review the rubric expectations, or we have some peer editing sessions which have become “classmate, please circle the vague words you see in this list” and the student-author then replaces those words. They edit their get-it-done draft rather than actually revising. The growth is minimal and the valuable class time is spent. Repeat this process for a few days and students submit their essays.


The same time:quality ratio goes for the teacher; tons of time spent with little to show for it. Here comes the essay math we all do.


 As secondary teachers, most of us have just under 200 students. Multiply this by 3 pages in an average essay and that’s 600 pages to more-than-read, after school, after planning, after emails and calls. The essay math which really hurts is the grading time. 200 students x 10 minutes per essay equals 2000 minutes, or roughly 33 hours. That’s an extra work week for every essay we assign. (I have never done the math to figure out how many hours that equates to in my career. I don’t want to know.) After avoiding the inevitable for one weekend, I say goodbye to my husband and kids, head to the first of a few coffee shops, and start.


An extra work week of grading makes it reasonable to take 4 weeks to return essays to students, who by then, aren’t super concerned about your feedback. No wonder many non-ELA teachers are hesitant about teaching writing.


I tried to combat the “feedback?-no-lady-what’s-my-grade?” attitude and the lack of learning which goes with it... by adding more work? I’ve tried having students annotate my annotations on their essay. I’ve tried having students revise a paragraph. I’ve tried having students chart their weaknesses and successes to use them for goal-setting. I’ve tried waiting to give students their feedback until just before their next essay so they can apply it to their next assignment. I’ve tried end-of-semester grade conferences which allow students to revise any assignment, especially essays. Some improvement, yes, but still not as much as I’d like for the time we all spent.


This May, I discussed these frustrations experiences with a fantastic teacher candidate, Ginny (who was rightfully hired three days ago by a very lucky district!). “We love teaching novels,” I said, “to see students follow the characters, anticipate the plot, apply the themes to their lives. Teaching writing is hard because writing is hard and many students don’t think they’re good writers. And there’s the grading time for you, future-teacher Ginny.”


Then? Catlin Tucker’s post about stations magically appeared on Twitter. I sent future-teacher Ginny the link and a text, “oh, if this works, my teacher-life is saved!”


We read it, discussed it, decided to try it. There was a lot of discussion about logistics and a couple hours of preparation. The hours spent preparing saved many.


(See our first attempt at our logistical solutions, station activities, and reflections here. You’ll want to learn about how we use ProKeys in this post, Increase Efficiency: The Latest Tip from a Pro-Time Educator, which is in this video tutorial, too. Thanks to Robert Allen and George Porter!)


A typical essay takes about 2 weeks from prompt to submission. This took the same, but we changed how we spent our time and saw the results change, too.


The results for students:

  • Nearly every word was written in class

  • They received feedback three times and could use the class time to apply it

  • Students knew their pre-score for each category to determine where they should put their revision effort

  • Writing quality improved because, according to students, “we were here and had the time, so we figured we might as well make it the best we could”

  • Students actually used the provided support materials

  • Students were proud of their essays; some felt it was their best of the year

  • Decreased stress because writing was not “hanging over their heads” outside of class

  • One of the two highest ranked “You Have to Keep This” items from our end-of-the-year course survey and socratic seminar


The results for us, their teachers:

  • Increased accountability because students knew they would meet with a teacher and wanted the feedback (of all the meetings, only three students didn’t have the right portion ready for feedback)

  • 1:1 face time with each student three times before the essay’s due date

  • Pre-scores helped make grading the final draft much easier

  • Less need to provide very specific feedback after essays submitted (less time spent grading!)

  • Students used the feedback provided, which means more learning and improved writing samples, showing their true ability

  • Increased community, improved learning partnership between teacher and students


Our first attempt was at the very end of the year, and as such, we could not do the two classes of final conferences with the students. If we did, this would mean a final 4th meeting to discuss their growth from the pre-score/feedback meetings. It would also mean zero hours of at-home grading.


I have only a few subject-related goals for my students and one of them is to make writing easier so they can express their ideas clearly. According to the students, and to me, this process could be the solution to 90% of everyone’s writing concerns.

A broader view? Please, when something isn’t working for us, students or teachers (and especially when it’s students and teachers), we need to rethink how we use our time. Our time may be limited, but how we use it is not.  


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