Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Editing Clubs, Cultural Models: Teaching Writing in Middle School and High School Students

This is an excerpt from chapter 7, Studying Writer's Craft in Three Middle School Classrooms is from Deepening Literacy Learning: Art & Literature Engagements in K-8.  In this portion of the chapter I describe an 8th grade ELA class I taught. Two other teachers and their students are referenced at the end of this excerpt.  These teachers' classrooms are described in earlier section of the chapter.

A Middle School Editing Club

George Hillocks (1986; see also Hillocks & Smith, 1991) reviewed relevant research since the 1960s on teaching writing and grammar. Hillocks concluded:
None of the studies reviewed for the present report provides any support for teaching grammar as a means of improving composition skills. If schools insist upon teaching the identification of parts of speech, the parsing or diagramming of sentences, or other concepts of traditional grammar (as many still do), they cannot defend it as a means of improving the quality of writing. (p. 138)

If formal grammar exercises then do not lead to improved writing, what might a teacher do who wants his or her students’ finished written work to be polished and for the students to understand how syntax, usage, and spelling can enhance meaning? There are of course many responses.

With an eighth-grade class I taught, students learned how to edit written text by participating in an editing club. Editing club was a learning structure where a small group of students assumed responsibility for editing student-work generated during a month for publication purposes. Membership in this group rotated so that all students had the opportunity to assume these responsibilities several times during the school year. At the end of September, I began by inviting students to join a new classroom club, The Editing Club, explaining that students would work with me in order to edit our first student publication. The students had begun the school year organizing the class into various clubs, so the addition of one more club was certainly not unusual. Out of a class of 28 students, seven students and I met at a round table in the classroom to begin this work. In preparation, I had made copies of an editing checklist the students and I had been using, gathered several different types of reference books such as dictionaries, thesaurus, style guides; and included a jar of blue pencils, along with three laptops so that students might access on- line resources.

I decided to create an editing club when I realized that I was less effective trying to teach my whole class specific editing practices. Although students had individualized editing checklists, they had difficulty applying what they had learned to their finished written work. More importantly, though, my students believed that editing was simply a matter of right and wrong. Choice and the consequences of choice were not familiar ways of understanding the editing process.

At the close of the first month of school, my students and I were readying written work for our initial class publication, Something We’ve Been Meaning to Tell You. This book would become an 80-page collection of poetry, short fiction, drawings, and photography and represented our first works. I wanted to make sure that all copy was ready for printing. I realized that the more I worked as the main editor of student text, the better I became at noticing language, making decisions with regard to usage and spelling, detecting lapses of logic, and addressing syntax issues. I realized at this time that inviting students into this process might also improve students’ capacity to edit their own and others’ texts.

Relying on the editing checklists and minilessons was simply not proving to be overly effective.
Editing club began with students learning how to edit their own work. Students selected one of the texts they had written that was to be included in the class publication. I had noticed that these students’ writing relied on passive verb construction and an overuse of pronouns. I wanted to show them a way writers could make more deliberate choices with regard to subject and predicate. I decided to introduce students to Kevin Boon’s (1993) concept of vertical analysis of word choice. I began by showing them how I would conduct a vertical analysis of word choice using a sample text.

I selected a brief passage taken from a story that a student from a previous class had written. The student wrote:
The day was sunny. It was warm and hot. I wondered if I would find something to do. I walked around my apartment. Then the phone rang and I answered it. I listened to nothing and then dial tone. I hung up. I was scared.
“When the student reread this section, he felt that it dragged," I explained. “One of the strategies I showed him was a vertical analysis of the subjects and predicates in the sentences.” I then showed the club a chart I had made that we would use to record the subject and predicate of each sentence. As a small group we completed that chart (see Table 7.1).

Table 7.1.    Vertical Analysis Chart
Vertical Analysis Directions: Examine the subject and predicate of each sentence. List each in the correct column.
Subject           Predicate
day                 was
It                    was
I                     wondered
I                     would find
I                     walked
phone             rang
I                     answered
I                     listened
I                     hung
I                     was

“Now that we have listed each subject and predicate, I want you to study the chart and tell me what you notice,” I explained to the group.

“Well there sure are a lot of I’s,” Thomas quickly remarked.

“Yeah, and he used the word, was, a few times,” Paulette added.

“He used better verbs,” David said. “Wondered, walked, rang, answered, are more specific.”

“Yes, the verbs you mentioned, David, are more specific than the use of the verb, was,” I replied. “If this was your text and you were to revise this, how would vertical analysis help you to know what to change and perhaps what to leave as is?”

“Well, I would get rid of a lot of the sentences that begin with I. There has to be another way to say it,” Thomas said.

“I think seeing just the subjects and verbs helps you to think about your choice of words,” added Luna.

“Yeah, I think Luna’s right. It was easy to see how this kid relied on I to start a lot of his sentences,” added Thomas.

“Let’s see how each of us might revise a sentence that included the pronoun, I, as its subject,” I said. “Keep in mind that you may need to revise more than one sentence. Jot your revision on a piece of paper and we will listen to these in a few minutes.”

As students reread the passage and chose a sentence to revise, I placed a highlighter in front of each student along with a copy of her or his own work they had selected to revise and edit. After a few minutes of work, I asked the students to read the original sentence and the revised one.

“Okay,” said David. “He (the author of the passage) had written, ‘I walked around my apartment.’ I revised it. Now it says, ‘While walking around my apartment, the phone rang and I answered it.’”

“Good work, David. I like how you combined two of the sentences. Any others?”

“I combined the last two sentences,” said Tony. “Now it reads, ‘I hung up and was scared.’”

“I did those two sentences too,” Paulette said, but I changed them differently. “I wrote, ‘Hanging up the phone, I walked around my apartment checking the windows and doors and was scared.’ ”

“Interesting. Tony and Paulette each helped us to see that there can be more than a single way to revise a work. I noticed that Paulette also extended the scene. Checking the windows and the doors helped me to appreciate how scared the narrator feels,” I said.

“This was hard,” Luna said and then paused. “I changed the sentence, ‘I wondered if I would find something to do.’ I rewrote it. ‘I walked around my apartment and wondered if there was something of interest to do.’ I’m not sure my revision made it better.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, now it seems kind of formal. Like instead of just using I,  I wrote something of interest to do. Seems like a lot of words to me.”

“Luna raises an important question for us to consider,” I told the group. “Just because we can revise the work, does not necessarily mean our revision will improve the text. Like in all things related to writing, we need to think and ask ourselves how does this change fit with the whole work? Is it logical? Does it continue the voice of the piece?”

“I also had to work to figure out the subject and predicate. I wasn’t always sure,” said Kelly.

“So what did you do, Kelly?” I asked.

“Well, I did that trick you taught us. I asked who or what the sentence was about and that helped me find the subject. Then I asked what was the subject doing or being and that helped me find the verb. And then I checked it with David.”

“How did that work for you?” I asked. “Well, I got the right words, so I guess okay,” she answered.

“Knowing the subject and predicate of your sentences helps you to see if the words you have chosen work well. Isolating each helps us to better see if our word choices are powerful, redundant, bland, and so on.”

“I can see that,” Kelly said with a sense of surprise. “Just looking at the subjects and verbs helps you to actually see them. Then you can decide if that’s what you want.”

“Right, Kelly.”

“So with that in mind, I have placed a copy of your writing that you wanted to include in our anthology along with a highlighter. I would like you to reread your own work and see if there is a section that you would want to revise. Remember, the student whose work we just looked at indicated that he felt the section dragged. When you find a section you want to look at again, I’d like you to highlight it and then conduct a vertical analysis just as we did. To do this I am asking you to form three small groups and working with your group see what you notice about each of your choices of subjects and predicates. See if revising is necessary and talk through how you might revise. If you need help selecting a section or identifying the subject and predicate, let me know.”

After completing the work, students generated a list of insights they had made. Peter, who was most vocal, said, “It really helped me to see the words listed. The chart helped me to see the patterns really quickly. I don’t think I would have noticed that I used only pronouns at the beginning of my story. It made it hard to understand who I was talking about.”


I have no doubt that Peter may have papers that had phrases such as, vague pronoun reference, written as commentary. I have no doubt that I may have written such a phrase as well. What Peter’s insight allowed me to consider was the power of charting. Visually charting the words, afforded students an opportunity to see patterns more quickly.

In the week following this initial activity, editing club members completed an analysis and revision of their own text, and then selected two other students and shared this process with them. The editing club member relinquished the decisions about the revision to each author, but worked alongside as a critical advisor. This introductory lesson allowed me to initiate a conversation with students about the social context in which writing and editing occurs.

Using the structure of editing club allowed me to gradually teach students aspects of syntax, spelling, and usage. Along with editing techniques such as isolating words in order to better study them, I also was able to engage students in discussions related to the decisions writers make with regard to syntax, spelling, and usage. These eighth-graders arrived in September believing that editing was a matter of right and wrong. I wanted them to understand that writers make decisions about the way the text will be read and that those decisions are influenced by what we value, what we know, who we are and are not. Perhaps Kelly best summarized the change in belief students experienced when she wrote in a reflection paper:
I didn’t know there were choices I could make. I thought there were just a lot of rights and wrongs and I felt like I was always guessing when it came to editing and usually getting it wrong. I thought I was a really bad writer. I thought I must be kind of dumb when I couldn’t pass grammar tests. I was scared I would fail high school and not get a good job. I didn’t realize that writing was about making choices about how I wanted my work to sound and how I wanted it read. I felt there were right answers and I just didn’t know them.

A Sociocultural Perspective
In thinking about the insights Kelly and her peers developed with regard to editing choices, as well as the ways teaching and learning were situated in Ms. González’s and Ms. Jackson’s classrooms, I am reminded of Lev Vygotsky’s commentary about change. Vygotsky (1960/1997) wrote, “It is easier to assimilate a thousand new facts in any field than to assimilate a new point of view of a few already known facts” (p. 1). Cultivating new perspectives with regard to teaching writing required each teacher to understand that learning is socially situated and that literacy is not “autonomous” (Street, 1984, 1995). The teachers described in this chapter each ascribed to an ideological belief of multiliteracies (Gee, 2002, 2008; Lank- shear & Knobel, 2007; Street, 1995), not the singular belief in an “autonomous” model.

Brian Street (1995) describes an autonomous model of literacy saying it “isolates literacy as an independent variable and then claims to be able to study its consequences. These consequences are classically represented in terms of ‘take off ’ or in terms of cognitive skills” (p. 29). He contrasts the autonomous model with a description of an ideological model that focuses “on the specific social practices of reading and writing” (p. 29). As exemplified in the classrooms described here, the literacy practices were interwoven into the talk, the values, and the beliefs students, teachers, and the wider community cultivated. Our “ways with words” (Heath, 1983) were culturally (in)formed.

If we return to Kelly’s comments concerning her beliefs about her capacity to write and what she understood to be valued in writing, we can uncover the cultural models that informed her learning. Kelly believed that failure on grammar tests would lead to failing “high school and not getting a good job.” James Gee (2008) identifies this type of thinking as that which is informed by the literacy myth: a wildly held belief that literacy makes humans better, less primitive and more advanced. Gee explains that the myth suggests that literacy leads to the following gains:

Literacy leads to logical, analytical, critical, and rational thinking, general and abstract uses of language, skeptical and questioning attitudes, a distinction between myth and history, a recognition of the importance of time and space, complex and modern government (all with separation of church and state), political democracy and greater social equity, a lower crime rate, better citizens, economic development, wealth and productivity, political stability, urbanization, and lower birth rate. (p. 50)

Gee (2008) writes that the literacy myth is “one of the ‘master myths’ of our society; it is foundational to how we make sense of reality” (p. 51). Thirteen-year-old Kelly believed that she “was kind of dumb” and that her economic future was being determined based on performance on previous grammar tests. The autonomous model of literacy makes logical this myth that superiority is granted alongside one’s ability to read and write. Gee states that,
the traditional view of literacy as the ability to read and write rips literacy out of its sociocultural contexts and treats it as an asocial cognitive skill with little or nothing to do with human relationships. It cloaks literacy’s connection to power, to social identity, and to ideologies, often in the service of privileging certain types of literacy and certain types of people. (p. 67)
In contrast, in Ms. González’s seventh grade classroom, Marisa, Penny, and Tamara highlighted the connection between learning and human relationships. As Penny explained, “Yeah, it’s like you didn’t even know you knew how to add details and stuff to your work and then you’re doing it.” And Tamara who said that she “makes up thoughts better working with Risa and Penny.” These middle school students seem to realize that knowledge is multidimensional. Gee (2008) comments:
Our knowledge is not something sitting passively in our heads (though this is the common view of knowledge); rather, what is in our heads is just one aspect of larger more public and historical coordinations that in reality constitute our knowledge. (p. 220)
Similarly, in Ms. Jackson’s sixth grade, Kaila develops an idea that improvisation helps a writer learn what his or her character wants, but cannot have, in conversation with her peers. Kaila uses this insight when she revises her work by adding an inner monologue that connects the physical setting with the way the main character feels when confronted with the end of the summer and the return to school. Kaila shows her reader that Maggie feels burned like the hot summer street when she considers returning to school.

The insights composed by these middle school students were informed by the classroom community and occurred in settings where teachers adopted inclusive approaches to teaching and learning, understood the multiplicity of literacies, and valued transmediation. Gee (2008) writes that, “whenever we write or read, speak or listen, we always do so within a specific historically achieved and history-creating coordination, a coordination of an identity, a social language, things, tools, sites and institutions, as well as other minds and bodies” (p. 220). It was not simply the techniques the teachers and students used to revise and edit their texts that helped to create such powerful literacy learning. In addition to learning strategies, the community of practice (Grossman, Wineburg & Woolworth, 2001; Lave & Wegner, 1991; Rogoff & Lave, 1984; Wenger, 1998) that developed in each of these classrooms provided a setting where students and teachers could risk learning in novel ways.

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Deepening Literacy Learning: Art & Literature in K-8 Classrooms, pp. 194–201 Copyright © 2010 by Information Age Publishing All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.

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