Encouraging Revision


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Some of the most important work in writing comes in revision.  As I work on my own novel, I know this now more than ever.  Why, then, have I historically taken students’ first drafts for a grade?

I’m rethinking how I teach writing, and I want to develop a culture of revision in my classroom.  That isn’t easy.  As a middle and high school student, I almost always turned in my first draft as my final draft.  Okay, I’ll be truthful; even in college, that’s what I did.  And my first drafts got A’s.  So I didn’t really learn to revise for a very long time.

It wasn’t until my senior honors thesis that I was really asked to rework what I’d written.  And boy, did I hate it.  I loathed the revision process.  It was so much more work than I’d ever done.  And then I went on to graduate school, and guess what?  First drafts were getting A’s all over again, so serious revision went out the window.

This novel I’m writing is what is really teaching me about the importance and the power of revision.

Most of my students aren’t the least bit interested in revising.  They want to slap their ideas (or often, my ideas) down on the screen and hit submit as soon as it’s done.  There’s no proofreading, even.  There are sentences that, if students would just read over them one time, would be obvious errors and the students could fix them.  But they don’t want to.

A lot of my students care far less about becoming good at something.  They’d rather just be done with it.

Still, I have some who at least want a better grade.  So this year, for every major writing assignment, I’ve started offering the opportunity for students to revise.  After I grade the work, they have one week to review my comments and improve the writing.  They can earn back up to half the points they missed.  (Why not all the points?  Simply because I think a lot of kids would turn in garbage the first time, just so I will tell them exactly what to do, and then do it for the next grade.  I want them to put in true effort even in the first draft.)

But I want to do more.  I’m constantly scanning Pinterest for suggestions on how I can make revision a bigger part of my classroom.  This post gave me ideas on how to get students to read feedback. (Short summary: make the kids look at the feedback before you tell them the grade, and make them respond to the feedback.)  This post gives me things to think about in order to keep my workload from overwhelming me. (Short summary: assess only one skill at a time in a writing assignment.)  This last one is really hard for me because when I look at an essay, I want to look at it ALL.  I don’t want to ignore the lack of support just because I’m assessing a strong introduction, you know?  But I’m thinking about it.

I have a strong desire to make writing a much bigger part of my classes, and to make revision a much bigger part of writing instruction.

And that’s one thing I’ll be working on over winter break!

Do you have suggestions on how to create a culture of revision?  Hit me up in the comments.


Grammar in Middle School


Often, when I’m on an interview committee at my school to hire an English teacher, I hear the candidate say, “Oh, I teach grammar through writing.”  To me, that says, “I don’t really teach grammar.”  At least at the middle school level, I think you have to be more didactic about teaching grammar.

Admittedly, grammar is always a challenge to teach.  Although I love grammar – the logic!  The puzzle pieces that all fit together to make a sentence!  The diagramming! – a lot of kids don’t.  Not only is it hard to make grammar exciting, but it’s also a challenge to manage all the grading that often comes with repetitive worksheet practice.  Not only that, but grammar is intuitive for me.  I know what is correct or incorrect simply because I know.  So teaching others how to see what comes naturally to me sometimes stumps me.

This year, I decided to try something different.  I started with a plan that every Monday, we would begin with grammar.  We’d review on Tuesday and kids would do practice.  I’d look over what they did, and if they were struggling, we’d go over it again on Friday.

I’ve mostly kept to that plan.  It’s not always easy to make that fit with the other things I have going on in class, especially reading and writing, but by and large, that part is working.  I was starting to get super-overwhelmed with my work load, though, because we don’t have grammar textbooks to use and I was having to type up all the exercises on my own.  As I sat crying in my boss’s office one morning, he encouraged me to find a way to automate the grammar instruction or practice.

One of our new teachers had been using No Red Ink for her grammar instruction at a previous school, so I started to pick her brain about it.  Then I got online and checked it out.  Although NRI does not cover everything I have in my state standards for grammar, it does cover most of it, even in the free version.  I can assign a diagnostic test to see where kids are.  Then I teach the skill or content and give them my own practice to do (either a worksheet I make up, or something taken from an old grammar text in my classroom.)  I might do an exit ticket for students to tell me how they think they are doing.  Then I can assign NRI practice, where students have to keep trying until they get it right.  I might go over it once more, and then give a growth quiz to see how they are doing.  If students are still struggling, I can work with them individually and maybe assign more NRI practice.

It’s great because NRI gives me data charts with which I can justify what I’m doing.  (And education is all about the data!)  Although students groan about doing grammar, I see that they actually like NRI because the program uses names of their friends, pets, and favorite celebrities and book characters in the practice sentences, which are sometimes quite hilarious.

The question is whether my plan really helps students to understand and apply grammar.


A Journey into PBLs and DT

There is a lot of buzz around the world of education about teaching students 21st Century Skills. These skills include collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.  The trouble is that sometimes, traditional instructional methods don’t teach all of those things.

Educators are realizing that students need to be prepared for a future we can’t even really imagine.  Culture and technology are changing so quickly that the jobs my 8th grade students will have don’t even exist yet.  So I need to be preparing them not just with knowledge, but the skills to learn, to persevere, to think beyond boundaries, and to work with others.

The first time I heard of Project Based Learning was when I was taking courses for licensure in Gifted and Talented Education.  In that class, I had to develop a PBL unit and then implement it in my class.  It was hard.  My own thinking had to change, and the project I gave the students was big and challenging and beyond their comfort zone.

It was great!

For two years, I put PBLs into place in my honors class.  This year, I’m also developing them for my regular level classes.  In fact, our entire school is moving toward a Design Thinking Model — very similar to PBL, but with additional emphasis on empathy and creating prototypes.


This year, every class I teach will do at least one PBL / DT unit.  The honors class will work with our local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters to develop a advertising campaign for them — aimed at both kids who need Bigs and adults who might be interested in being a Big.

My eighth grade class is working on re-designing my 7th grade course.  They have to come up with books I can teach that will be interesting to the students in my class.  (In the photo, my eighth graders are interviewing fifth graders to find out what kinds of books they like.  This is part of the Empathize step of DT.)


And my seventh grade class will think about what makes a classroom a good learning environment — especially what kind of seating is best.  (Flexible?  Traditional?  I’m still making that decision myself, so they are going to come up with prototypes!)

The longer I teach, the more I realize that learning never ends.  I must continue to learn and adapt in order to bring my students the best education I can.  This is part of my journey.

Being Flexible

There’s a trend in education right now.  Flexible seating.  All the cool teachers are doing it, and if you spend any time on Pinterest, you can see dozens of beautifully decorated classrooms sporting wobble stools, standing desks, plastic rocker chairs, and inflatable seat pads.  These teachers swear that the kids are happier and more focused because they have more choices in their seating and because they get to move around more.

The classrooms look less like this:


and more like this:


(Okay, that last image might be a bit of an exaggeration.)

For a minute, I was sold.  I started looking for grants to purchase all this nifty seating and began planning for what I would buy and how I would arrange it.

And then I thought a minute.  Was I basing my idea to change my entire classroom on a bunch of snazzy photos and some blog posts?  Where was the research to back this up?

To be honest, I hadn’t seen any.  Even now, when I go to Google Scholar to look for research on flexible seating in education, there don’t seem to be a lot of research studies there.  This isn’t to say that anecdotal evidence is no good.  But when I have a classroom that functions pretty well, why do I want to mess with it just because some pretty pictures got me all twitterpated?

I needed to rethink.

Already in my middle school classroom, I do what I can to get kids up and moving.  On most days, half way through the 55-minute class period, I make the kids stand up and get out their wiggles.  I’ll have them stretch, march, take a lap around the room, or try some coordination activities (like rubbing your tummy while patting your head, but more advanced).  When students are reading on their own or working on writing assignments, I allow them to move around the room.  I have three comfy chairs they can use, and many of them like to sit on the floor.

All of this seems to work pretty well.  Why am I eager to ditch my desks?

Admittedly, my kids don’t love the student seating I have in my room.  The chair is attached to the desk on the right side, and left-handed kids hate it because when they write, their left arm is unsupported unless they twist themselves into a strange position in the seat.  If the short kids drop a pencil or book on the right side, someone next to them has to pick it up because the bar prevents them from reaching it.  The desks are small, and you can’t put them in pods because the writing surface is slanted and they aren’t flush when you push them together.

Still, is this a reason to toss them out entirely and replace them all with squashy couches and giant exercise balls?

The science classroom down the hall is getting lab tables to replace the desk and chair sets there.  Then, I’ll get those sets, which are nicer than mine; the desks are bigger and they aren’t attached to the chairs.  I can try pods and other groupings instead of the rows that seem to be the only workable solution in my class.  And as always, I’ll keep doing “brain breaks” to get my kids up and moving.

But until I see some really strong research supporting flexible seating, I’m keeping my standard furniture.

What do you think?  Am I crazy?  Stuck in the dark ages?



I used to be a huge stickler on late work.  When I first started teaching, I didn’t accept late work at all.  If you didn’t turn it in on time, I didn’t accept it.

After a year or so, I relaxed ever so slightly.  Work turned in one day late would be accepted for half credit.  After that, work was not accepted for credit.

I stuck with that rule for a long time.  Other teachers in my school had the same rule, so it seemed reasonable.

But then last year happened.

Last year, my seventh and eighth grade honors English class taught me a lot about stress and about what things really matter.  They taught me about being a middle school student in the 21st century in a small school in East Central Indiana.

I had about a half dozen seventh graders who were gigantic balls of stress.  And they had reason to be.  They were involved in volleyball, basketball, student council, 4-H, Future Problem Solvers, dance teams, and academic teams.  On top of that, most of them were taking at least one high school class, so even as seventh graders, they were worrying about maintaining a particular GPA for their college transcripts.

And I’m a tough teacher.  I have high expectations and a lot of rigor in my classroom.

Unfortunately, this was driving those students to the edge.  I needed to rethink some things.

I started to relax some of my rules.  Not the important ones, not the ones that maintain order in the classroom.  But the ones that, especially in middle school, really don’t matter.  And late work was one policy I really started to think about changing.

It started small.  I would tell a particular stressed out student, or a student who was struggling to finish a paper or understand a concept, to just take one more day.  “Just turn it in by tomorrow,” I’d say.  “I’ll still give you full credit.”  And that seemed to be okay.  It was a case by case basis, and no one took advantage of it.

By third quarter, I was thinking of changing my late work policy altogether.  Under the recommendation of my principal, I changed it with only my eighth grade classes.  That way, if it didn’t work, the seventh graders, whom I would still have in class the next year, wouldn’t know any different.  So for fourth quarter last year, I gave each student three late passes.  For the last nine weeks of school, they had three opportunities to turn in work one day late with no penalty at all.

This made me insane.  I would give a lot of time for a small assignment, and still have students ask to use a late pass.  I had a couple of students who used all three late passes in the first two weeks of the quarter.  I decided that didn’t work for me.

Over the summer, I read some articles that made me consider another plan, which I am trying this year.  Students’ grades have two parts.  Ten percent of their grade is for “On Time Homework.”  The other 90 percent is all the assignments we do in class.  If students turn in their homework on time, they earn points in the on-time homework category.  If not, they don’t.  However, even if the work is late, I will still accept it for no penalty on the work itself for up to two weeks.

I hope this will help not only my bright but anxiety-ridden high-ability students, but also my lower ability students who just sometimes need a little more time.

How was late work accepted when you were a student?  If you’re a teacher, what’s your late work policy?

Can time management be taught?



I have a group of students this year who seem continually stressed out. Admittedly, they have taken on quite a few challenges. They are middle school students who have been accelerated into more advanced math classes. Some of them are also taking honors science in addition to my honors English class. Most of them are also active in sports or dance or theater or music.

These students often bemoan the amount of work they must do, and they complain that they haven’t been given enough time to complete the work. I’ve really reevaluated the workload in my honors class this year. I admit that last year it was too much. But I scaled back this year, and I feel I’ve been more reasonable with my expectations. I’ve given a lot of time in class to work on big projects.

At the same time, I know that some of them spend far more time on assignments and quizzes than they need to. Two hours on math homework that should take fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes on a vocabulary quiz that everyone else finishes in five. Hours and hours on a social studies project that wasn’t even a big deal and could have been much smaller. I recently gave the students an assignment based on Benjamin Franklin’s “Plan for Moral Perfection” from his autobiography, and in the experiment they completed, many of those same students admitted to procrastinating.

I know these kids are young. They’re only 12 or 13 or maybe 14. I know they have many things to balance. In just my class, we continually have both long-term and short-term assignments to juggle. But it seems that some of them spend so much time on the little things that they then become utterly overwhelmed with the big ones. Or they become paralyzed when facing a difficult task. They want so much to do it perfectly that they don’t even know how to begin.

I want to help them develop skills to ease their anxiety. I don’t want students to be stressed out. I give them continual reassurances that it will all be fine and it doesn’t have to be perfect. I want to help them to figure out how to balance all the different things they have to do, but I’m not sure how to begin.

Can time management be taught? Can it be taught in the scope of a language arts class, or does it need to be done separately? I have asked the counseling department for assistance, but is there something I can be doing in my classroom as well?

Determining the value of traditional assignments


There is a push these days to use more technology in the classroom. And to a certain degree, I understand that. Tablets, apps, websites, blogs, podcasts, social media – these are now a huge part of our lives, and students need to know how to use them responsibly. Besides, that’s their culture. That’s what they relate to. My students have never known a world without cell phones or the Internet.

So I’m trying to integrate technology more into my classroom. Instead of just using our iPads on a substitutionary basis (uploading worksheets and having them complete the work in a PDF instead of on paper), I’m trying to be more innovative. So when reading Romeo and Juliet this year, I changed my previous assignment of writing a letter to Romeo or Juliet after they get married to having a text conversation. (The kids wrote the conversation on paper templates, but they were relating to the technology.) Another class is doing a project where they determine criteria for and then choose a candidate as Person of the Year. In addition to a written proposal, they must create a documentary about that person.

And I think these things are good. The kids enjoy them and I’m asking them to use 21st century skills. I wonder, though, about which of my old requirements should fall by the wayside, which should be kept, and which should just be tweaked.

The formal research paper is one. I typically have 8th graders write a research paper in the spring. But is there still value in that? Would it be better to have them create a website or a documentary or a podcast? When they get to high school or college, will it be enough that I taught them research skills? Or will they really need me to have taught them the format of a paper?

It’s a conversation I hope to have with the high school teachers in my building. I remember years ago hearing that traditional research papers would no longer be the norm soon – that instead of looking up information and reporting it, students would need to synthesize the information into something new. Is that now the case in colleges? Would my students be better served by working on a creative project as a result of their research? Or is there still value in the research paper with in-text citations and a works cited page?

I would love to hear your thoughts!