So, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and what students struggle to do when they write.
With my new class this year (a section of senior English) I can now say that I have taught Language Arts or English to students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 12. When I first made the move from 5th grade to Upper School and started teaching a section of 9th grade English, I was expecting a big difference in the writing. And to some extent there was a big jump. The sentences were better; the ideas the students were wrestling with were more sophisticated. Yet, in many ways what separated the more and less successful papers was familiar. The more successful essays were about an idea, not the book. They moved easily and built an argument. The less successful essays had too much summary and ended up being more about what happened in the book than the student’s thoughts on an idea. These essays were more awkward and did not flow.
Now, I realize there are a number of theories on what is most important in paper grading. How much should the grade be based on content or form? I fall quite heavily on the content side myself, but even for me, content girl, there is a form threshold below which I find the entire enterprise to be pretty well doomed. Having read the first set of papers in my section of senior English, I am finding many of the old, familiar distinctions between the successful and not successful essays. Certainly, the question I asked my seniors to consider was much more sophisticated than the questions I used to ask my 5th graders. And, the book with which they were considering the question was more complex. Again, as I saw between 5th and 9th, the sentences the seniors wrote generally in better shape than those the 9th graders wrote. In this batch of papers I’m not sure I saw a fragment, maybe few coma splices or run-ons. At the sentence level, most students were in decent shape. The form issues centered around organization, order, and specificity. It came down to having an idea (that answers the prompt) and making a point.
With this in mind, I think I can hone in on some editing shorthand. (I have written about looking for the appropriate feedback to give students several times.) I plan to borrow heavily from Danny Lawrence, the veteran North Carolina teacher who led one of the summer writing sessions I attended. He had 3 comments he used when doing quick, holistic grading:
- AP–address the prompt
- BS–be specific
- So What –need to make a point
While I have a small class and will give some additional feedback as well, I think these three biggies will be my updated version of my 5th grade wavy line (meaning this sentence needs to be rethought) and * (meaning add more detail/specifics here or keep going).
If you have taught at a number of grade levels, what has been your experience with student writing? Have any magic tricks for helping students move away from retelling?