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From Isolation to Conversation
By Laura Gellin, Upper School English Teacher

How PT English Teachers Make a Long-Term Investment in Their Student-Writers

“You’re getting your papers back today.”

Their muscles tense.

“Let’s first start by rereading the prompt.”

Their hopeful anticipation and quiet dread begin to swell as they try to recall what they wrote two weeks ago. Time and thought are paralyzed until they hold those stapled sheets in their hands.

Not my paper.  Not mine yet. Yes, the moment is finally here! Prepare for doom or relief.  Flip, flip past her scribbles next to the Times New Roman font.  She drew lines on page 3, but keep going to the last page. Flip, flip, stop. 

Long, slightly illegible sentences sit lonely at the bottom of the final page.  

Wait, she forgot my grade. Where’s my grade?!?

*                      *                      *

Many students look at grades on writing assignments as an end: an end to those ideas, an end to that unit, an end to thinking about writing until the next paper is assigned and the clean slate begins again with the snowy white of a fresh Google Doc.

They also tend to treat the grade as the end, the goal, the finish line; the teacher’s written feedback is relevant only to revision, and that’s about it, or so their thinking seems to go.

Sixth grade teacher Jennifer Palmer and I are actively trying to change those assumptions this year. We are experimenting with the means to link one writing experience to the next; we want our students to understand that they are the ends we invest in, not the perfecting of a particular writing assignment.

Our most effective practice so far is using a 45-minute class period to conference with every student when returning their writing assignments. Instead of trying to rush through individual conversations at a three-minute pace, we meet students in small groups; we group students based on the new writing goal he or she should focus on moving forward. For example, these four students need to focus on analyzing instead of summarizing, whereas those three students need to focus on forging connections between ideas.

The conferences are dialogic and collaborative among the learning ecologies of student-to-teacher and student-to-student. For example, the group of students whose writing goal is to stop summarizing and start analyzing has a group conference that begins like this:

So we are the group who ended up summarizing in our responses rather than analyzing. Let’s first make sure we’re comfortable understanding the difference between summary and analysis. How do you think about the difference between summary and analysis? What does summary sound like? What does analysis sound like?

A small group of 6th graders work together on improving their writing

Students learn from each other in this low-risk environment, and teachers can build on the knowledge students already have. We can also help clarify misunderstandings, provide a mini-lesson, or address the social-emotional anxiety that sometimes surrounds students when they are asked to write. We can respond to the needs of the four students in front of us, in real time together, and the students know they are not alone; their friends are also trying to improve as writers.

While groups are formed based on the past writing assignment, conferences are future-oriented. We give advice that teaches metacognitive control as well as the practical, corresponding writing signals to use moving forward. Once the distinction between summary and analysis is crystal clear, the “feedforward” sounds like this:

When we summarize, we tend to answer the questions “What? Who? When? Where?” We re-tell the story or say in our own words what the author has already told us directly. But when we analyze, we try to answer the questions “Why?” and “How?” Why is this scene important to the author’s development of a theme? How does the author develop the protagonist? These types of questions help us think about what the author is indirectly telling us.

When you write, be careful with words like “next,” “then,” “after this happened,” and other sequential words and phrases that signal time. They don’t always signal summary, but if you’re using them a lot in the same paragraph, then you’re probably summarizing. Instead, try to use words that signal you’re answering the “Why?” and the “How?” So next time, after you contextualize and give a quotation, use phrases like "the author suggests,” “the author implies,” or “the author indicates.” Remember to ask yourself, “What does the author hint at but not say outright? What is the author indirectly telling the reader?” These questions and phrases will help make sure you’re making meaning of the text instead of recounting a list of events next time.

As we continue to experiment with this and other practices that increase metacognitive control, foster self-regulation, and develop writing skills, we are thrilled to see how this practice has already begun to transform our student-writers. We have observed that our students are:

  • Increasing their self-reliance and taking ownership over their writing,
  • Increasing their awareness of their own thinking,
  • Increasing their ability to accurately self-assess their work,
  • Increasing audience awareness in their writing, and
  • Increasing their focus on the process over the product.

By moving the writing - feedback - “feedforward” cycle from isolation to conversation, PT English teachers make a long-term investment in our student-writers by helping them link one writing experience to the next.