Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Beautiful Idea: from blank to brilliant (okay, well, acceptable) papers

By this time of year, most of my students are doing very, very well. The raggedy papers I collected in the beginning of the year bear little resemblance to the beautiful work I routinely pick up now.

I should say a word about these papers. My primary responsibility with regard to writing is to teach students to write responses to prompts about a reading selection. Papers are evaluated for organization, inclusion of relevant supporting evidence from the text, and clear discussion/explanation of the issue raised by the prompt. I use the rubric from our state’s high-stakes test to assess student work.

For the most part, these are the papers that must be completed well.

In the beginning, I collect an alarming number of unacceptable papers. Students scratch a few lines and consider their work done. Students offer an opinion on the title, without reading the text. Students copy large (often irrelevant) passages, without discussion or comment. Students read and summarize the text, without regard to the prompt. Students leave the paper blank.

I offer lots of support. I will post “sentence starters” on the board for students to refer to in creating their own work. I will lead the class in writing an exemplar response and leave it in the room for struggling students to use as a model. In AR or AD, I will read the selection aloud with the student, pausing to highlight and make margin notes for use in writing the paper. I offer my most intimidated students scaffolded response papers, where the first lines are completed, the central point is partially done, and the final point is left for the student to complete on his/her own. You get the idea.

Is this too much? I don’t think so. Even if I am sharing the burden of reading, s/he is reading. Even though I am holding the student’s hand as s/he writes, s/he is writing. Even if I am doing half the work, s/he is doing half the work as well.

One benefit is simply the building of motor skill stamina – they become accustomed to writing papers of respectable length. Another benefit comes from the repetition. After writing a number of these papers, even the most reluctant student has begun to internalize the organization of the responses and the rhythm of the writing. The most important benefit is self-confidence. After a dozen or more such experiences I can remind a student s/he has written many successful papers during the year, and therefore can do it again. There is no argument; s/he believes me … and in her/himself.

What of all the support? I reduce what I offer as the year progresses. I tell them, “The training wheels are off now, kiddos; you can do it!” And they can.

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