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11.14.17 Developmental Writing: Especially Useful w Short Assignments & Fast Revision

Yesterday I wrote about three types of writing—how they are all important but possibly out of balance, and how the third type of writing, Developmental Writing, is critically important and often sorely overlooked.

Today I want to say a bit more about Developmental Writing and the role of revision.

First I want to point out that revision is incredibly important—and that Developmental Writing should, if not always at least very frequently, include revision.  I really believe that writing is best learned through Deliberate Practice—try a specific focused skill; get feedback; improve it; repeat.

Revising is critical to Deliberate Practice—it’s the feedback portion—but we usually apply it to major compositions. This is challenging. It usually means it takes forever to get students feedback because it takes so long to read long compositions. And there’s a disincentive to assign a lot of compositions because the workload implications are so daunting. And the feedback is hard to apply right away and to see the difference with—it’s not specific and actionable within a few minutes and that’s kind of the idea behind feedback—it works better when it happens right after the event we are trying to shape. Accountability can be a problem too. We write a lot on those compositions; do students do anything with what we say?

But the message of revision-is-for-essays is wrong too. You and I in our everyday lives are revising as soon as the words are formed . We use revision in our emails and notes to self as much as in formal compositions. So revising the everyday work students do is at least as important as revising longer compositions.

And quite possibly it’s more valuable. Bruce Saddler has this amazing phrase—Every sentence is quite literally a miniature composition. And this reminds us that sentences are not only worth revising but are perfect vehicles for revising because they are small and focused and perfect for intentional practice.

Revising very small pieces of writing allows us to be much more focused—Let’s add an active verb here. Let’s figure out why this syntax doesn’t work. There’s one thing to focus on and improve at and it’s easy to see—and hold people accountable for—the progress. There’s a goal for every round of edits—something Anders Ericsson points out in Peak is critical to effective deliberate practice.

But even better it reduces the amount of teacher workload implicit in the important task of revisions.  If everyone in my class writes a single thoughtfully crafted sentence, I can help them improve their writing without having to read 30 five paragraph compositions. I have to read less and students don’t have to wait as long. I can give feedback to the group—let’s all try to do x—or if I want I can individualize feedback but in a sustainable way. Reading 30 compositions and individualizing feedback is a killer.  So perhaps I do what I discussed in this post and give group feedback on longer compositions and individual feedback on shorter, one-sentence exercises.

Here’s an example of what sentence like revisions might look like

We are reading the final chapters of The Giver. I give my students this sentence stem:

Jonas took the baby Gabriel and left.

I ask them to expand the sentence three different ways using one of Judith Hochman’s sentence expansion activities. Say,  But, Because, So…

Perhaps a typical student writes something like:

  • Jonas took the baby Gabriel and left but it was not clear where they were going or if they would survive.
  • Jonas took the baby Gabriel and left because he realized Gabriel was going to be released.
  • Jonas took the baby Gabriel and left so they were forced to travel through unknown territory without a clear destination.

Then perhaps I’d ask students to revise. Students who’d made syntactic errors would fix them.  Those who didn’t would get a challenge: Choose one of your sentences and add an introductory prepositional phrase.

  • In desperation, Jonas took the baby Gabriel and left but it was not clear where they were going or if they would survive.

Or I say: the word “left” is fine there… but let’s see if we can improve it. HOW did Jonas leave? Let’s find an even better word.

  • Jonas took the baby Gabriel and escaped but it was not clear where they were going or if they would survive.

Or I say… Out of curiosity, let’s see if we like the sentence better in the present tense.  Everyone re-write your third sentence:

  • Jonas takes the baby Gabriel and leaves and they are forced to travel through unknown territory without a clear destination.

Focused exercises and focused feedback build Syntactic Control.

A point of clarification though: Just because you are revising does not mean the writing is developmental. You of course can revise Formative and Summative Writing.  I am merely trying to describe here the particularly critical role of feedback n Developmental Writing and the opportunity created when we do Developmental Writing in small units.

A final thought: A lot of schools are rethinking homework—After years of not-much intentionality about homework: what’s it’s purpose? What’s good homework? How much should we give?—we are recognizing that the result has often been of low educational value. Many schools in fact are eliminating it altogether.

I think this is a mistake.  The cure for decades of low value homework is high value homework, not no homework. High value homework to me is both intentional and efficient. It creates a lot of values at low cost in time. It’s never busy work.

Sentence Craft—the term I use for Developmental Writing embedded in curriculum and done in very small units of analysis—is in my mind the perfect for homework.

Here is a table of data from the Science lesson today. Describe it in the best single sentence that you can. We will share exemplars and revise in class.

Here is a sentence describing a scene from the novel we read. Expand it with But Because So. Choose your best sentence and add an appositive phrase. That kind of thing.

High value at low cost. Content embedded. Consistent and easy to design.  #JustSayin

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