A second bite at the cherry: thoughts on redrafting writing

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Since Christmas, I have adapted my English teaching by introducing a culture of redrafting into my lessons. It is impossible to ask students to redraft every single written offering – time constraints do not allow – but it is relatively straightforward, especially if you bring homework into the mix, to make it a regular part of the learning cycle. When you consider that a professional writer – or even a layperson such as an educational blogger! – will edit and redraft rigourously and automatically, it is quite an embarrassment that eight years into my career the teaching of the process is still relatively new to me.

My reading of US teacher Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence inspired me to move towards this approach. Berger presents an idealistic image of students working as craftsmen, critiquing one another’s work and producing multiple redrafts – with excellent work the eventual result.

Although Berger’s vision is very laudable, there are a number of questions I am still grappling with. What follows are my reflections.

First off, redrafting motivates students. You might expect to hear moans of, “I’ve finished, why have I got to do it again?” ad-nauseum. In truth, I have asked over one-hundred students to redraft at least two pieces of work in the past three months, and only once have I had a complaint. It’s difficult to pin down a reason for this positivity, but I have a number of hunches: all are given more than one shot at success, all have an opportunity to feel pride and satisfaction, high expectations are made crystal clear and, let’s be honest, it is usually easier to write the second draft than the first.

Although motivation is desirable, I think students should learn from the process too. The first and second draft of a piece of writing require different kinds of thinking. To help explain my thinking, I am going to use cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham’s simple diagram of the human ‘working memory’ (taken from Why Don’t Students Like School).

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The ‘working memory’ holds the things we are thinking about at any given time. ‘Long-term memory’, on the other hand, is the ‘vast storehouse’ in which we house our knowledge of the world. Imagine my students are completing an essay on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. During the first draft, the students will be using information from the environment (see diagram): this might be the play text itself, their notes, an essay plan, a model example, task directions, written targets from their previous writing task, etc. In their long-term memories, ideally, will be factual knowledge (from the language, plot and themes of the play right down to how to spell ‘Capulet’) and procedural knowledge (how to structure a sentence, a paragraph, an essay, etc.). Unfortunately, working memory has limited space – our mind is said to be able to hold between 5 – 9 items at one time, known as ‘cognitive load’. As students are writing their first drafts, pressure will inevitably be put on the working memory. If you struggle to spell ‘Capulet’ – i.e. it is not stored in your long-term memory – you will either have to plough-on, guessing how to spell it, or focus attention on this and other spellings. Perhaps, as a result, you will not have enough room in your working memory to also clearly explain Shakespeare’s use of metaphoric language. It’s difficult to think of multiple things at once. Either way, the first draft will be lacking, especially for the weaker writer with less stored in long-term memory.

The great advantage of writing a second draft is that as the bulk of the essay is now written, it becomes available in the immediate environment, and thus lessens the strain on the working memory. Some of the problems with cognitive load are now circumvented.  It is, therefore, much easier for a student to make telling improvements while editing and redrafting because they do not have to hold so much information at one time and can now isolate their attention.

I am aware that the above is an over-simplification of the complex role of the working-memory. There is still much we do not understand about the human brain. However, I think it usefully represents how hard it is for students to make meaningful improvements to writing skill when they are knee-deep in difficult content.

Of course, as part of the redrafting process it is essential that time is built in for individual reflection, editing and proofreading before the second draft is started. It is important that students do write out a second draft from beginning to end. As well as the thrill of seeing your once-scrawled efforts becoming something more refined, the repetition itself might also be crucial to long-term learning. I have just finished reading Graham Nuthall’s brilliant The Hidden Lives of Learners. Nuthall’s fascinating research found that to learn and remember a concept, students must encounter it in its entirety ‘on at least three different occasions’. This is intriguing. Could the redrafting process become integral to learning by providing students with a further opportunity to revisit the key concepts they have studied?

One of the problems I have faced is that some students equate redrafting with ‘writing it up in best’. We can all very easily copy or type out our own writing tidily without engaging with its content. For a handful of students with weak literacy skills, this kind of handwriting and spelling practice is probably very useful. For the majority, it is unlikely that they will engage usefully with the key concepts again through this approach. I have had many a bright student return me, with a sheepish grin, a carbon-copy of the original draft.

So how will I combat this problem in future? Well, one idea is that students should be made accountable for their improvements. By stipulating that they must make regular improvements, and that these improvements must be highlighted, there is no hiding place. By simply asking students to make one change per sentence, or another arbitrary requirement, there becomes no option but to engage with meaning. On top of this, they could note not just where they have responded to teacher feedback, but where they have made autonomous changes of their own too. Of course, this also makes marking easy – I will need only look at the highlighted sections, not the piece in its entirety. In some cases, where the first draft is of a high quality, students might bypass the redraft completely and transfer their knowledge to a completely different extension task.

Redrafting brings with it marking implications. The idea that we might have to wade through two drafts rather than one is more than off-putting. My solution has been ‘rolling live feedback’. As students are writing, I call them up to my desk one-by-one to read through their drafts. Taking into account that feedback can be useful at any point in the drafting process and that kids tend to work at different speeds, I have found this a very successful strategy. It is a useful differentiation tool too: quantity, timing and style of feedback can be tailored accordingly.  In fact, it leads to less after-lesson marking, not more. I also find that it is important to make them aware that I have deliberately left errors for them to find. That way I avoid students coming to the assumption that everything left unmarked is correct and in no need of change!

Another problem I have encountered is the flippant ‘it’s only a first draft; it doesn’t matter if I make mistakes’ mentality. This, however, has a flip side. Students are more likely to take risks if they know that they can have a second bite of the cherry.

The ‘depth-versus-breadth’ conundrum is still a concern, and will be more so with the tougher, content-rich GCSEs due to be implemented from 2015. From an anecdotal standpoint, I am convinced that depth is of greater importance than breadth; however, I am not convinced that Ron Berger’s ‘minimum of four drafts’ and ‘it’s only finished when it’s an A’ are always a wise use of time. Be that as it may, I have seen higher quality work across the ability range in the last three months than I have seen in the previous eight years. For that reason I am going to continue with my strategy.

In summary, suggestions going forward are as follows:

1. Ensure students understand redrafting in terms of the ‘ethic of excellence’ AND possible advantages to memory/learning.

2. Make sure students are made accountable for both self-instigated and teacher-instigated improvements.

3. Consider alternatives to redrafting for very able students by considering how they can transfer their knowledge to another task.

4. Keep up a constant dialogue about, and modelling of, the practicalities and meta-cognitive processes involved in editing and redrafting.

5. Consider whether there might be benefits to memory from spacing out the redrafts.

6. Ensure that I help students cope with the fact that excellence is often elusive.

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Pride in the product: how much do we value our students’ work?

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During a lunch break last week, three male English teachers in our thirties huddled together in the corridor to admire the writing of a thirteen year-old girl. As Ed and I marvelled and cooed at the craft and accuracy of her descriptive sentences, Gavin – her teacher – raised her open book on his fingertips with all the awe and nervous tenderness of a father presenting his new-born child to visiting grandparents. Gavin talked with pride about her work and about how he had guided her to this standard.

It was a lovely moment. Here was the work of a student who clearly values the act of writing and exerts a huge effort to produce such a final product. Equally, her teacher’s pride in her work makes his challenging job all the more worthwhile.

And now for the dampener. Unfortunately, too many students do not value the act of writing like this. Too much written work in secondary school is scrappy, chock-full of thoughtless errors that have been repeated to the point of automaticity. It is expedient to shift the blame: ‘it should have been taught at primary school’ or ‘that child is bone idle’ or ‘he’s just not clever enough to write properly’.

My question is this: if we do not give all students the opportunity to find value in their written work, is it not a surprise that so much of it is littered with preventable mistakes?

Hattie and Yates in Visible Learning and the Science of how we Learn have summarised some very interesting research into how we value the product of our labours. There is considerable research into what is known as the IKEA effect – that we place huge value on those products that we have had a role in producing, especially if this has been challenging and we have had to exert a large amount of effort. Plenty of research validates this finding. One study that caught my eye involved the construction of LEGO models. The participants whose LEGO models were immediately dissembled after production valued their products less than those who were allowed to keep their products intact. Other studies corroborate the finding that we only value products that we have fully completed.

Hattie and Yates sum up with this food for thought:

“Such findings confirm a simple truth: that people will value their labour, and what it produces remarkably strongly, and this goal overpowers other considerations. Try asking yourself: would you enjoy going to work if everything you did, or made, was not valued, was rendered meaningless, discarded, or even destroyed, as soon as it was completed? Just how strongly would you exert effort if this was the case? What implications can you see for valuing student work, and for encouraging students to genuinely exert themselves?”

All of this points clearly in one direction. To demonstrate that we fully value the products they create, we must give students kind and careful feedback, as well as the time, patience and opportunity to reflect on and redraft their work based on our feedback.

But is this enough?  What happens to the work after this? Can we get our students to value their work to an even greater extent? The simple answer is that we find more opportunities to celebrate the final product. I do not think we do this well in the secondary sector and I think this has become engrained over the decades. I left secondary school eighteen years ago and I do not remember one piece of work that I completed in those years (except for one which I will come to in a minute). I do, however, remember a few treasures from my primary years.

This is not to say that there is no celebration of student work at secondary. The problem is that the majority of students go through secondary without having any public recognition of the products they are producing day-by-day. In my English department, we invite the crème-de-la-crème of KS3 writers to a lovely presentation evening every July. This amounts to about twenty students whose work achieves very public recognition – or, if we are cynically-minded, 740 students whose work is overlooked. Of course, it is vital we recognise the talent in our midst, yet I cannot help feeling that most kids are institutionally undervalued, simply because they are exceptional at nothing.

Ron Berger provides a tantalising solution to this problem. In his book An Ethic of Excellence Berger discusses his approach to excellence through redrafting and critique. Yet there is another crucial aspect to his approach: the product of every student’s labours is celebrated. They exhibit their products, take part in gallery critiques, invite in experts in the field of study to critique the work, and the work itself is anchored in real-life contexts. A culture of value pervades everything; students, whatever their ability, are given the sense that the quality of their work is of great importance, not just to the teacher, but to everybody. Students are not just working to such inspiring goals as ‘this term’s assessment’ or ‘moving from a level 5 to a level 6’, they are working to a deadline when their work will be publically shared. Concrete goals are intrinsic to Berger’s vision.

Berger’s rural Massachusetts elementary school context is, of course, very different to mine. However, if I am to value student work more than I do now there are many simple strategies I could easily employ. These strategies must conform to three  features: 1) every student’s work must be valued with no opt-out option; 2) they must not add to workload otherwise they will be unsustainable; 3) students must be made aware they are leading up to this point of public recognition from as early as possible.

Here are some I am looking to embed more regularly, with at least one a half-term.

  • Creating benchmarks of brilliance. Every student attaches a piece of great work to their book/folder as a signature of what they can do in the subject. (See here.)
  • Class anthologies. Creating an anthology which includes something from every student and is then distributed to all and/or published online. The only piece of work I remember from high school is a poem published in a class anthology my Y9 teacher produced.
  • Blogging student work. I do not have the ICT facilities available to do this regularly, but it would certainly be manageable once an academic year.
  • Producing a piece to present to parents on parents evening. This would be a great way to involve parents in the process.
  • Regular use of gallery critique in lessons. David Didau has written a lovely blog post about this here.
  • Having classes present their work to another class. There are countless ways this can be done, but the knowledge an outsider will read your work is hugely motivating.

I am sure there are plenty of other ways to do it – feel free to leave any ideas in the comments box.

We often wonder why our students forget so much of what we hoped they would learn. Might this be because we never give them a chance to value their work? And finally: if we don’t value their work, why should they?

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A benchmark of brilliance

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When our students arrive with us in Y7 – or Y8 if you teach in my town – they embark upon a series of tests known as ‘baseline assessments’. Invariably in English, this is some kind of writing task with little or no preparation. More often than not, students flunk it – nerves, lack of practice, uncertainty about expectations probably all play a part.

Take this example paragraph from a baseline written by one of my weaker Y8s in September:

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Scorched indelibly between his eyebrows, the sharp sizzle of a level 4′ brand is all but audible. And so serial underachievement begins…

A couple of months ago this rather simple idea came to me. Why don’t we ask students, fresh in the honeymoon glow of a move to secondary school, to do something remarkable when they arrive? Why don’t we get them to look ahead, rather than look back? Why don’t we get them to create a ‘benchmark of brilliance’?

In fact, they can do this at any time, not just at the start of the year. The idea is that in every subject they will undertake a task, complete a procedure, interrogate an idea or create a product that takes them far beyond the shackles of what they think they are capable of. The rationale is, from the outset, to create confidence and to engender pride and belief.

Better late than never and inspired by Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence, I decided that my Y8 students would set their benchmarks at the start of 2014. Two questions seemed pertinent before I began:

    How will I plan a scheme that helps me to bleed the absolute best out of my students?

    How will I get them to invest in the task so that they really do care about the final product?

And so I planned the following scheme:

1.    First off, we read the first three chapters of White Fang by Jack London. These provide a self-contained short-story involving two men, six huskies, a pack of emancipated, blood-thirsty wolves and a mysterious ‘she-wolf’. It’s gripping stuff, yet the main reason for reading it was as a ‘mentor text’, an idea I have gleaned from Mark Miller’s blog – here. I wanted my students to be inspired by Londons tone, style, sentence structures, themes and storyline in their own writing.

2.    Once read, we deconstructed a paragraph, looking at how London had used verbs and adjectives to personify nature, but more importantly how he had created wonderful sentences. We looked at Londons, built some together and they had a go themselves, using the principles of the sentence escalator I have written about before. Here’s how I modelled how London might have built up one of his sentences:

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3.    However, great sentences alone are not enough. Fluency comes from how these sentences are linked. I selected a range of sentence starters from across the three chapters. These, along with examples of how London used these stems and five generic sentence types, formed the scaffolding (see below). To create more challenge, I set a simple rule: no sentence must start with the same word.

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4.    Before we started writing I showed them Ron Bergers Austin’s Butterfly video see here. We discussed how it would influence our approach. I insisted that I would give them time to write and gave them a simple three paragraph structure: describe the landscape; describe a sled with huskies; describe a night-time camp fire. I explained that the final draft would provide a benchmark piece to be stuck on their folders a measure of a level of quality to continually aim for and, one day, to surpass.

5.    From time to time as they were writing, I photographed work and we critiqued it together. I would have liked more peer-critique, but I felt time was running out.

6.    When the first draft was complete, I gave formative feedback. See picture:

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7.    They edited this before slowly and carefully writing up the final draft.

Heres the benchmark piece from the ‘level 4’ student I mentioned at the start of the post:

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Modest, yes, but with so much more sentence control than the original baseline (even if the description of snow is a little unconventional!).  Some of the class’ work is exceptional, the best I’ve seen from Y8s. I have included a number of examples at the end of the post. Almost all worked slowly, diligently and, in many cases, with the care and attention of artists.

This task has taught me an awful lot, more than I can write about here. One important point, though, is that at no stage did I mention levels. This was not a deliberate strategy; it just turned out that way. The only success criteria I gave them were, in effect, task instructions:

      1.    Start every sentence with a new word.

2.    Aim to write lovingly and carefully constructed sentences.

3.    Take your time and aim for your very best.

Of course, the next challenge is how I get my students to replicate the quality you will see below with less scaffold. Without White Fang, without the sentence stems and without the time to write slowly and redraft, I am sure the results would have been very different. There is also a question to be raised about creativity to what extent did this task limit freedom of thought and expression? Each students work was individually crafted, but the ultimate if slightly unrealistic aim of this English teacher is to help my students find their own writing voices.

Anyhow, thats a question for another day. The demise of levels has left us with a great opportunity to focus on genuine quality. How we manoeuvre in the wake of levels so as to avoid the hulking shadow of the accountability leviathan will be absolutely crucial. Baselines have their uses, but I can’t help wondering whether genuine success lies in how we, and our students, imagine and design the future.

Here are some other example paragraphs from my Y8s. Please take the time to have a read.

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Check out the editing on this one!

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