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How to Keep Rewriting Alive in the Classroom

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In the era of high-stakes testing, teachers break conventional revision rules by insisting that children conceive, draft, and publish a piece of writing in one sitting. This philosophy necessitates that our students immediately commit to a viewpoint, write silently and alone, fall back on formulaic structures, and ignore non-negotiables like spelling, capitalizing proper nouns, and punctuating the ends of sentences. More than this, high-stakes, timed writing assessments fundamentally change our approach to the teaching of writing in the days and months leading up to test day.

In great contrast to this test-day approach, the late author Roald Dahl argued that “Good writing is essentially rewriting.” As adults, we know this because we live it. By the time we present a PowerPoint at a meeting, we’ve reorganized the slides, culled a few unnecessary ones, and run the presentation by a coworker to make sure we’re clearly and succinctly making our point. We follow the same process on any important final product, whether it is our income taxes, a birthday party invitation, or an annual report at work.

It’s true that our brainstorming might have taken place as we went for a run in the morning; our drafts might never be corrected in red pen; and our peer conferences need not involve a formal protocol or checklist. But we are living the writing process every time we draft, revise, discuss, and revisit whatever the work may be.

High-stakes testing must be the exception when it comes to writing in the classroom, not the rule. As teachers, we know we are preparing our students for the lifelong, everyday skill of writing. Each time we run a writing workshop with our class, encourage children to share their writing with a friend, or offer students editing checklists and teacher conference times, we must insist that revision is as essential to the craft of writing as words on a page. We should acknowledge that good writing is rewriting.

By the time students graduate, we should have helped them internalize the writing process. They should know, as we adults do, that in most circumstances they will have a chance to reread, rethink, revise, and perfect before they present. They should be confident in the knowledge that the first words they put on paper are not the last. They will not be immediately graded on an incomplete thought. The pages will not be photocopied—spelling errors and all—and presented to their parents at the next conference. They should be secure in the knowledge that a first draft is a first draft: a dipping of their toes in the lake that is their final product.

Here are three ways to set the tone in your classroom and keep revision and rewriting alive:

1. Bring in a block of clay and demonstrate that without taking the time to work the clay in your hands and warm it up, you can’t make art. Alternately, pass the clay out to students, put half of the class on a two-minute timer, and give the rest of the class unlimited time. Ask them: Who produces a better product? Why?

2. Clarify that time alone does not produce strong writing. To do this, take a cue from elementary school classrooms and illustrate steps or stages in the writing process, which typically involve prewriting or brainstorming, drafting, revising, peer conferencing, editing, the creation of a final draft, and publishing. Point out that the stages are flexible and cyclical, but writing is rarely a one-shot deal.

3. Pull out the clay again, but approach the project by modeling the stages of the writing process. Explain to students that you brainstorm, plan, and research before you even touch the clay. Next, you work it in your hands to soften it and make a basic shape. Revise this shape as needed, then ask yourself: Is your intent clear? Are you on the right track? After you receive, consider, and potentially implement feedback, you’re ready for edits, which will involve sculpting the finer parts of your project. Your final product may or may not be museum-worthy, but, then, that’s not the point. The point is that you’ve illustrated and normalized the creative process—which is so often all but invisible to us.

When we teach children writing, we are duty-bound to grant them the same space we as adults occupy—to attempt, rethink, and revise. We must teach children that writing is clay. On the first attempts to mold clay, we don’t get a perfect sculpture. We might make a basic form, confident with the knowledge that we can revisit the detail work.

In my classroom, we illuminate this concept by inviting students to move a clothespin version of themselves through each stage of the writing process. Both as a former 5th grade teacher and in my current work with 1st graders, I ask students to travel from the "peaks of prewriting" to the "drafting drop-off" and into the "revision lagoon" before trekking up the "volcano of editing" and into the "precipice of publishing." Sometimes we include a final stop, such as "free write fields," which allows early finishers to begin playing with new ideas through less-structured journal writing before breaking ground with a new piece.

By emphasizing process over product, students' writing improves dramatically. Moreover, when these students graduate from our classrooms, they do so with greater confidence and, perhaps, a love of writing.

Photo provided by author.

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