Student-Led Writing: How & Why I Let Students Lead The Writing Process
by Jane Healey, Ph. D
Recently, I threw out old curriculum for the book, Frankenstein, and I designed a unit based on strategies gleaned from articles and posts about flipping classrooms, encouraging students to own their learning, and inquiry-based education. A totally new approach to an old book.
I’m also a writing teacher with background knowledge about effective methods for de-stressing the tortuous drafting process. So I merged the goals of current innovative ideas and successful writing instruction and taught Frankenstein to sophomores in high school. They did the work, and every student handed in an essay—in the correct format!
The most surprising comment students made about the tasks in the curriculum were how easy the work was. They expected to dislike the book and hate writing the essay; instead, they believed they had learned about Romanticism and Gothic literature, comprehended the story, and written solid papers. They felt fine and were ready to move on to MacBeth.
I was astonished and convinced. From now on, I will continue to experiment with the steps below and thoroughly enjoy walking into a room full of eager learners.
1. Creating Questions.
Before beginning the book, the students generate questions they might answer. The Question Formation Technique is one method that walks students through the process of defining the ideas they are interested in based on phrases the teacher selects. For Frankenstein, I used “monster,” and the students came up with, “Are all monsters bad?”, “Who defines a monster?”, and three others.
2. Keeping Questions Alive.
At intervals during the unit, the students review the questions and take a moment to jot notes or free write on them. They follow one question throughout the unit or they experiment, figuring out which one they like best. Frankenstein took four weeks, so once a week the class took 15 minutes to view the questions on a screen and write quietly based on their most recent discussions.
3. Marshaling Evidence.
Throughout the unit students share significant passages or other forms of support for claims and others need to figure out the reasons those were selected. After awhile, students eagerly share quotations for the questions they developed. After the first fifty pages of Frankenstein I gave teams of students a quotation and page number and they explained the significance to their peers. The next time the teams selected passages and shared them with the class. And so on.
Students start drafting in class with the teacher present and work until they have body paragraphs laid out. The teacher circulates the room, making sure to work one-on-one at least once with every student. With Frankenstein we worked for four days, focusing on structure, and I helped each student design their argument with a variety of writing aids like bubble maps, charts, quick paragraph outlines, and more.
5. Revising a Draft.
The students come to class with a hard copy of a draft that they believe is complete and ready to turn in. The teacher starts identifying specific tasks that the students check for in their essays, and they make changes in class with peers so they can work together. Frankenstein was the first essay of the year, so I named many format issues like spacing, font size, header and more.
6. Submitting a Clean Draft.
While students often have electronic submission methods, they tend to be more reliant with hard copies when they must look a teacher in the eye to make excuses. Additionally, when all students have turned in their essays together, they feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment and are primed to debrief the previous five steps. An open, brief conversation brings the metacognitive to the fore.
7. Creating a Rubric.
The teacher displays the structure of a traditional rubric, but it’s empty. The students discuss the features they want the teacher to assess, and if appropriate, they determine priority and point system. With the Frankenstein essays, two classes created rubrics of their own that centered on answering the question, providing evidence, organization and format. The classes differed in language (“fluff” vs. “babble”), the order of importance, and the point distribution based on the culture and conversations in each section.
Every student left the classroom telling me that the system was fair. Even when I returned essays with comments and marks, the students still said the system was fair. And when I laid out butcher paper with new phrases—murder, bloody, thrones, and ambition—the students grabbed markers and wanted to begin the unit for MacBeth. Eager students make a satisfied teacher.
Image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad & woodleywonderworks