Making Students Better Writers

Before analyzing this week’s readings, I would like to share an anecdote from my classroom. One of my goals in my 8th grade French level 1 course this year is to improve my students’ written skills. Currently, they write very simple sentences that they have memorized. I am encouraging my classes to be more creative and truly express their ideas, even if it means making grammar mistakes or having to look up words in the dictionary. On Thursday, we worked through an example of interesting writing. First, I took a typical sentence that they would write. Then, my students helped me to transform it into a more complex paragraph. Finally, I asked them to write their own examples. A hand went up. “Madame, how many sentences?” Argh! This question went against everything I was trying to achieve. As soon as she asked that question, I immediately thought about our Writing Theory class discussions. Here is a real-life instance of a student writing only to appease the teacher without thinking about her own purpose or her own learning. She was certainly frustrated when I told her to give me good writing and not worry about counting sentences. Hopefully, we can change the mindset in our education system, one teacher and one student at a time.

This notion that (some) teachers do not give students an intrinsic reason to write is also evident in our first reading for this week. While interesting, Nancy Sommers’ article Responding to Student Writing did not present ideas that we have not already discussed in class through other readings. Sommers argues that teachers’ comments on students work rarely provide students with the motivation to revise. Instead, teachers focus too much on editing and provide vague comments that students struggle to understand. As a result, students do what the teacher wants and do not know how to better communicate their ideas.

I believe that there are two issues preventing teachers from giving more constructive feedback, both of which Sommers discusses in her article. First, time. As Sommers points out, “Most teachers estimate that it takes them at least 20 to 40 minutes to comment on an individual student paper, and those 20 to 40 minutes times 20 students per class” (148). Teachers spend their day teaching. The planning and grading all occur outside of the school day. A lack of time certainly prevents teachers from giving more detailed comments. However, teachers could use those 20 to 40 minutes more wisely. They could choose to write more effective comments instead of vague, generalized ones. Second, teachers are not trained in providing feedback. I have a teaching certificate, a master's degree and seven years of teaching experience. I do not recall ever discussing how to provide students with feedback until this course. Luckily, both of these problems are correctable if teachers are willing to change.

Although I am working on improving my students written skills in French, I do not teach about voice. Therefore, I did not personally connect with Peter Elbow’s Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries. As a teacher, I want clear answers for what is considered best practice. Elbow’s thesis of embracing a both/and thinking about voice was confusing to me. Should I teach and encourage voice or not? A contradictory stance is not only difficult for a teacher to instruct but also hard for students to understand. I look forward to decompacting this article more through our class discussion on Monday. 

Finally, what do these readings mean for my Genius Hour project? My goal of my passion project is to directly connect our class readings and discussions to improve my students’ writing skills. As a final project for this course, I would like to create lesson plans with materials that will instruct my students in ways to become better writers. The anecdote that I started this blog with is one example of how this course is positively impacting my instruction. Through my passion project, I hope to create more learning experiences for my students that will give them an opportunity to hone their writing skills in French. I have decided to focus on my 8th grade students instead of my 7th grade courses. My 8th graders are at a proficiency level where they can begin to create with the language. I want to push them even further to expand their abilities. I am excited to embark on my first experience with Genius Hour. I hope that my project is not only successful but also that I learn how to implement a Genius Hour into my own classroom.