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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Adventures with gallery critique

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In last weekend’s post, I argued that there might be more efficient and meaningful ways of providing feedback than standard book-marking. As such, I have been experimenting with ‘gallery critique’, an idea gleaned from Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence and David Didau’s excellent post on the strategy.

In truth, I have always been dubious of the claims made of peer-assessment, especially in essentially qualitative subjects such as English. However well – or badly – I train students to critique one-another, two nagging doubts have never ceased to plague me. First, a student is always always dependent on the ability and commitment of the person they are paired with – some children will receive poorer feedback than others. Second, students naturally place more trust in teacher-feedback than peer-feedback – and why shouldn’t they? My hunch has always been that the process of both reading each other’s work and getting down-and-dirty with success criteria is more useful than the feedback received from the process.

Gallery critique, however, is a much more seductive option because students receive feedback from a range of others. Once over, the useful feedback ‘wheat’ can be separated from the useless feedback ‘chaff’.

I am aware that many bloggers have written coherently about how they have used the strategy, but I thought I would share how I have been doing it as my early trials have been remarkably fruitful. This week I have tried the following structure with a top-set Y11 class on a Monday morning and a mixed-ability Y9 set on Tuesday afternoon.

Admittedly, I am a control freak in the classroom and mine is a very iron-fisted version…

1. In recent lessons, both classes had produced extended writing pieces: the Y9s a persuasive speech, the Y11s an answer to AQA English Language question 6. Before writing the pieces, I gave them a gentle heads-up that their work would be included in a critique. There was a noticeable sense of care in the products they were producing (see my post on taking pride in written work).

2. The students laid their work out at their tables. (My classroom is divided into six tables of four to six students.) The Y11s blu-tacked their work, the Y9s left open their books. A pile of post-its was made available.

3. Before we began, we talked through Berger’s mantra: kind, helpful, specific. I decided that I was going to give them sentence stems to help so that I could help guide their thinking. Having to think ‘what to say’ when trying to process what you have read, as well as keeping the success criteria in mind, is quite a challenge to the young working-memory. (Hence the stems.)

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4. I took an exemplar paragraph from one student’s work, photographed it and modelled how to give feedback according to Berger’s mantra. We discussed why this kind of well-written, detailed feedback might be more subtle and successful than listing success criteria under the headings ‘what went well’ and ‘even better if’. The Y9 one – which needs a bit of work! – is below.

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5. We recapped the success criteria and I ensured that these were printed out on each desk

6. I insisted on silence for the gallery critique itself. Both classes were extremely compliant and engaged in reading each other’s work – without a peep, in fact. They spent five minutes at each table, reading just one piece of work and writing their feedback on post-its. At the end of the session, each student had spent time reading five pieces.

7. The final task was to return back to their own work, to read the feedback and then filter it down to the most useful (which they did with a highlighter).

So how successful was it?

• Students received more feedback than I could ever give them through marking – and in more detail too.

• Students seemed intrinsically motivated in both classes. They clearly enjoyed it, even those who were reticent to start with. I had no complaints, even from the very weak handful in my Y9 group.

• In the best cases students gave very specific feedback – have a look below. In the worst cases it seemed too general – ‘sort out your spelling’ or ‘improve vocabulary’ were stock phrases.

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• My classes clearly need more training in the language of critique. Modelling and sentence scaffolds helped direct thought, but many will need more practice if they are to make incisive comments.

• The most useful feedback was given by more-able students, yet the flip-side was the feedback they received themselves was less useful. In a mixed-ability class, I wonder if one of the teacher’s roles might be to ensure that they stick a few post-its themselves on the very best work so as to ensure that everyone receives something useful.

• The big question: does it match up to teacher feedback? Not quite at this stage, but it has the potential to. In my classroom, training students to trust one another’s judgements as much as a teacher’s will be part of the solution. How to identify good and bad feedback is another.

• The structure I am using is probably not as organic as the ‘art gallery’ style I imagine is used elsewhere; it is, however, very useful for creating the right conditions for reading and critiquing extended writing. I am quite excited about how this could be developed: as students carousel from table to table, I could ask them to hone in on certain areas of whple-class weakness.  This time I want you to look at how they have used sentence structures. This time concentrate on the effectiveness of endings…

I am excited about ways we might successfully bring feedback on extended writing more meaningfully into the classroom. Gallery critique, and the countless variations it offers, provides an intiguing option. Any strategy that might enhance student learning and simultaneously save me time is a strategy worth pursuing.

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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Multiple models and the journey to freedom

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To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion…”

Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

In recent months, I have been considering the importance of modelling writing – I’ve even written a couple of blog posts about it (here and here). Yet despite my fervour for modelling, in the back of my mind a nagging doubt has continued to haunt me. Could my use of models be denying students a chance to become free writers, to find their own voices, to find their own way? In the words of the inimitable Miss Jean Brodie, is my modelling an unnecessary ‘intrusion’ when I should be ‘leading out’ the latent creativity of my students?

Whether true, pure creativity exists is a philosophical question this pragmatic teacher would like to avoid for today. It is certainly true that many English teachers, myself included, have been inspired by the idea that reading and writing can set us on the path to self-expression; for a teacher to constrain this freedom is  tantamount to tyranny, we might argue. Room for thinking has been paramount to my own development as a writer – why deny it to others?

Unfortunately, however, the blunt reality presented by the literacy capabilities of many of my students has dulled some of this idealism. It has been further dented by my reading of Hattie and Yates’ Visible Learning and the Science of how we learn, with its persuasive emphasis on the importance of modelling and the use of worked-examples.

You see, the purposeful and explicit use of models in the classroom, whether through exemplars or ‘live’ writing, is absolutely vital, especially when our students have had deficient literacy input at home. Models provide the opportunity for our students to see how tone, structure, grammar and ideas can become knitted together in a cohesive whole beyond the sum of the parts. How can you ‘lead out’ something when these seeds have yet to be sewn?

Be that as it may, all is not lost. I believe that creativity is not inspired by sticking our heads in the sand and hoping; it can be taught, and the way to do this is simple. We model more frequently, not less, and, like Ron Berger, we immerse our students in a multiplicity of exemplars. There are three obvious types: the teacher model, the student model and the outside expert model (written by the professional writer from past or present). All should be treated with equal importance.

Before I share some ideas, let me tell you the wonderful tale of how, with a gap of several years, I witnessed one student’s writing inspire another’s. Five years ago, I taught Lucy, an incredibly gifted writer. She wrote a wonderful piece from the perspective of an aged Beatrix Potter whose thoughts and imaginings, now blighted by dementia, had become consumed by the nostalgic memories of her literary creations. Three years later, I read and discussed this piece with another class. One boy, Simon, significantly less talented than Lucy, produced a remarkable echo of her work. It told the tale of a parish vicar looking back over his life and, word by word, renouncing his faith in God. Simon had been brought up in a strictly Christian family. Writing this remarkably restrained piece, inspired in tone, content and structure by a girl he had never met, was of profound importance to a young man who may have been questioning his own faith.

So how can we use written models in the classroom in such a manner that teaches our students the technicalities of writing, yet does not unduly constrain?

Use more than one model. Time and resourcing constraints mean that, more often than not, our students are introduced to only one exemplar. This can be dogmatic. Instead, we need to show them that there are many possible paths to successful writing. Providing three or more very good but very different exemplars (perhaps just as paragraphs), and asking students to select their favourite can lead to a rich discussion that triggers inspiration in different ways.

Use teacher models in conjunction with student models as often as possible. Only two weeks ago I asked my mixed-ability Y9 class to write a letter from Much Ado About Nothings Benedick to an agony aunt. I figured that the task would be tough and so they needed to see an example first a letter I wrote from an agony aunt, this time from Beatrice. This was great for the weaker students, who captured the tone and style better than I could have imagined in their Benedick letters. Unfortunately, a few too many strong writers took the safe option by parroting my model. Luckily, not all of them did, and when I repeat the task I have a number of interesting and better – exemplars to share and critique alongside mine.

Benedick letter Jack Manger

Make sure we are constantly sniffing out new models. Like Ron Berger with his portfolios of excellence, I know I must now adopt a consistent strategy for identifying and storing models. Every time I mark a set of books, my aim is to scan at least two pieces of good quality work using the CamScanner app on my iPhone, which is then send to my Dropbox folders. Too often in the past, I have not done this and great work has been lost. If I leave it until the end of the year to collate, it never happens.  My aim now is to extend this approach across my department; as teachers we can gain fresh insights from regularly reading the great work of our colleagues’ students and, more importantly, so can our classes.

Consider the sequencing of models. The order we present models to our classes can lead to constraint or freedom. Even though we must seek to create a common conception of excellence, it is important to avoid creating a power structure where the teachers ideas are made to seem more valid than others. I find that more freedom is created when my teacher model a precise teaching tool often designed around the key grammatical concepts I am trying to introduce or key weaknesses that need to be addressed is shared before student models. Implicit in this sequence is the idea that my expectation can be achieved in a variety of ways

Use anthologies of student examples creatively. Each year in my English department we create an anthology of the best KS3 writing, which leads to a presentation evening. I keep sets of these anthologies as a teaching resource that can be used in a multitude of ways both in class and as homework before students complete their own writing.

Create degrees of separation between the model and the students’ work.Take a great example (established author/teacher/student) and then ask students to ‘plan backwards’ – write the plan we imagine the original writer designed. After this, students plan their own piece of work. This creates a greater degree of separation from the original exemplar, giving students more room to move.

Build in different entry points in mixed-ability classes. Modelling for freedom can be tricky with a mixed-ability class. In general, the more able the writer, the less we want to constrain. Heres one simple strategy for using a  model that works well.

1.    Share a first paragraph (preferably ‘live’ with the help of the class).

2.    As a whole-class shared exercise, structure a plan for the next few paragraphs (maybe six in length.)

3.    Ask stronger writers to write their own plans – using the shared one as a model – and let weaker writers (if they need to) copy out the shared plan as their own.

4.    If necessary, the very weak (or very uninspired) can copy out the first paragraph and carry on from there. All others will use their own plans – either the class plan or their own.

Model a chain of influence. Demonstrate how good writers are inspired by one another by showing how one student has taken the flavour of anothers writing and made it their own – like Lucy and Simon. Both pieces of work are shown side-by-side so that the class can consider the workings of influence and inspiration.

Plan before models are introduced. This way students can own their ideas and structures, but we can have more say over the technicalities and grammatical constructs they employ.

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As the father of a two year old boy, I am now in a front row seat as his language bursts forth. It has taken time, patience, and plenty of modelling from many people to get to this stage. Over time, over years, over key stages, is it wishful thinking to imagine that a multiplicity of models might encourage written language, in all its freedom, to burst forth in our classrooms?

Related posts:

Tom Sherrington – Defining the Butterfly: Knowing the Standards to set the Standards

David Fawcett – Can I be a little better at knowing what high quality work looks like

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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My butterfly: the sentence escalator

This week’s post is my response to two excellent blog posts I read last week: Alex Quigley’s – here – and Tom Sherrington’s – here. Both posts discussed Ron Berger’s ‘ethic of excellence‘, pointing out the incredible potential of Berger’s approach to redrafting, feedback and resilience. Both posts also urged readers to watch the ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ video which exemplifies Berger’s approach:

‘Austin’s Butterfly’ was a revelation to me, the equivalent of a teaching epiphany. The gauntlet had been thrown down – I knew I had to respond right away in my own classroom. Much of my thinking at the moment revolves around two interrelated areas: how to guide my students towards making conscious decisions about sentence structure choices, but also how to help my students develop an academic register during verbal feedback.

So this week I have invented and developed what I am going to dub ‘The Sentence Escalator’, a way of transforming unstructured verbal feedback into lovingly and diligently crafted sentences. The chart below shows how it works, from bottom up (you will probably need to click on it):

 sentence escalator

The initial verbal comment is moulded into shape, extended-upon – or both – in a way that involves the whole class. The teacher’s language expertise is also important: at times a sentence must be scrapped or completely reorganised. “A sentence is never finished,” has become my new mantra (in fact, this week I have also banned the word ‘finished’ from my classroom). Ultimately, the long-term aim of this task is to ‘close the gap’ between the original verbal comment and the final written sentence, which is why it is important to reflect on the process for next time.

Here is how my year 9s ‘escalated’ a sentence when writing from the perspective of a WW2 soldier:

1. Verbal comment from Student A: “He’s drinking alcohol to calm his nerves.”
2. Verbal sentence from Student B (written up on the board): “I am drinking an alcoholic beverage to calm my nerves and desperation to stay alive.”
3. Written improvement (after extensive class critique) from Student C: Trembling in fear, I picked up a bottle of whiskey, my hand shaking like a boat.
4. After more editing on the board: Trembling, I grasp a bottle of whiskey, my hand shaking like the boat we stand in.

Here is how my year 11s extended an idea when analysing the effectiveness of language in an extract from Jessica Ennis’ autobiography:

1. “The word ‘pluck’ is like she’s lucky.”
2. “The word ‘pluck’ could have connotations of luck.”
3. The verb ‘pluck’ could have connotations of luck because she has been chosen out of many, yet also could have connotations of talent because she has been specifically chosen.
4. In a student’s book: The verb ‘plucked’ could have connotations of luck, perhaps suggesting to the reader that Ennis is very fortunate to be in the situation she is in; however, this is actually very much contradictory with the truth about athletes (concerning how much effort and hard work they put in to achieve their goals). This illustrates Ennis’ intention to make herself seem like any other girl her age in an effort to appear modest, which links into her description of herself as being ‘ordinary’.

Aside from its beautiful simplicity, I see a number of advantages of this strategy:

• It begins to instil Dweck’s ‘Growth Mindset’ – the perfect sentence must remain elusive and as a result we can all write a bit better (teacher included).
• It allows for the seamless integration of language skills and knowledge. As basic concepts are built-upon, so the sentence (or sentences) are extended or scrapped in favour of more complex alternatives. Imagine a lesson, or series of lessons, where a simple sentence containing a simple concept was gradually built upon. It certainly has a cross-curricular appeal.
• It allows for swift and immediate teacher-facilitated feedback on writing skills.
• It encourages the teacher to hone the language skills required for their subject. If the teacher is unable to model the academic ‘genre’ of their subject, how can students – especially those who are not exposed to such language at home – be expected to write well in this genre?

So, there you go. My mini-butterfly has taken wing…

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My friend Gav McCusker has been utilising a similar strategy called layered writing when helping students to elaborate on their ideas.