This post is by Colleen Green, 11th grade Humanities Teacher, High Tech High International.
As a writer, I value the opportunity for feedback from colleagues because it helps me clarify my thinking and understand how the reader will engage with my writing. Truth be told, without this, I find writing can be lonely and isolating. As a teacher, I recognized that despite ample peer critique sessions, the act of writing was an isolating process for my students. If I wanted students to get excited about writing, I knew I had to do something differently.
I wanted students deeply engaged in their writing in a way that I had not seen before. I wanted them to take time to brainstorm, critique, revisit, and publish creative writing that they would be proud of--and I wanted them to do all that in an atmosphere of collaboration. To reach this goal, I realized that I had to build a community around writing. Time was a key element. Without dedicated time, it would be impossible to develop a safe place for all students to share their writing, which I knew was crucial. I needed to provide time for students to share, start over, and learn from one another. I realized that even though my Humanities class was not a "writing class," if I wanted to build a community of writers, I needed to connect everything we studied to the appreciation and craft of writing. And so we began a science fiction writing project, with plans to publish a book together.
I used a college Writers' Workshop model, focused on reading exemplars. We looked at figurative language, structure, dialogue, and character development. We honored the published work, but found places to critique it as well. We connected philosophical ideas with ideas in American literature and Transcendentalism, allowing me to check off some common core content. Using these texts as our guide, I provided instruction on literary devices and grammar and engaged students in close, analytical reading.
Students engaged with one another regularly to make connections to the texts and to the world. I ensured that the time for discussion, invention, and inquiry remained sacred, and avoided bogging the students down with long writing assignments. Instead, we spent time on quick writes and pair shares, learning to really focus our thoughts. This became the groundwork for their own short stories--drawing on biological and ecological issues in our world--and the groundwork with which we approached our conversations about their own writing.
The Writing Workshop groups included students of various writing levels. We reminded ourselves of the feedback we had been giving the exemplars; becoming experts of critiquing professional writing had set us up for being able to critique our own writing. We spent time workshopping a short story I wrote as a model. We discussed Higher and Lower Order revisions, how to word feedback, how to identify areas that were strong and articulate what made those areas of writing work. We did not shy away from cool or critical feedback; it was, after all, my first draft and it was filled with as many errors as areas of potential. We modeled, together, how we would word suggestions.
Over the next several weeks, they exclusively sat together with their Writers' Workshop groups, becoming intimately aware of each other's writing and how it was changing over time. Moments of intense silence, with only the clicking of the keyboard keys, filled the two-hour block of my classroom, broken only intermittently when a student would ask someone at their table, "can you read this and see if it sounds all right?" or, "what's another way I can say this, it doesn't sound good?" The Writers' Workshop model meant that they could ask each other questions without having to re-explain aspects of their story. Each week, I joined in as we looked, together, at each group member's story and participated in a shared, verbal critique.
I provided students with specific "target" rubrics, as well as an overall short story rubric. Each target rubric focused the writer on a targeted aspect of their writing: conventions, word choice, sentence fluency and organization, specifically aligned to the common core competencies, but more importantly, providing clear stepping stones toward mastery. Students with stronger writing abilities were able to move through the target rubric review quickly. Others could use these targeted rubrics to focus their attention before moving on to deeper revisions.
It's going to be hard to believe, but for the entire semester I did not have one student complain about the writing process. Nor did I have anyone complain, ever, about having a fifth, sixth, or tenth draft of their story "due." Each student was engaged, excited even, on a daily basis--not only for the work they were creating, but for the work they saw being created around them. They were genuinely interested in what their peers were writing and they wanted feedback. We had student editors from each class who worked with members of the workshop groups to identify when a story was ready for "Editorial Review." We were publishing our stories, and the student editors took the lead in the last of the feedback, making final editing or formatting changes. When we received the proof copies of the book, every student was excited to go through their stories one final time to ensure theirs was perfect.
I have been teaching for twenty years. Never have I seen a group of students come together to engage in, and honor, the writing process in the way I saw these students do. When I asked them what was different for them, their answers varied--some liked knowing that they had peer support, others liked being student editors, others just loved the idea that they were writing science fiction. But, the vast majority of them noted the value of knowing their own writing and their group's writing so well by the end, and feeling like in those groups they had a created a safe place to share and grow their stories.
Photos by Colleen Green