Try this Rubric to Assess Student Writing: It’s Simple

In an earlier post, we proposed a simpler rubric to assess student writing, one which would allow us to track student progress in thinking and writing.  Here’s the general idea:

 

A Simpler Writing Rubric

 

 

Does this   piece of writing…

 

Yes:

Max point   value

 

Getting   There:

Max point   value

 

Not Yet:

Max point value

 

Make a   strong point?

5

 

3

 

0

STOP   HERE STUDENT MUST START OVER

Support the point well?

5

3

1

Include a   strong conclusion?

5

3

1

Make it   clear why the reader should care?

4

2

1

Have a   great style?

3

2

1

Have few   or no grammar and spelling errors?

3

2

1

So how would you use this rubric?  First of all, you would reinforce again and again what it means to make a strong point and to support it , and how their conclusion should somehow tie back to why they are writing in the first place.

To see how this rubric differs from others, let’s score sample student essays and compare our scores to those obtained using the rubric provided by the NYS Board of Regents to score the critical lens essay.

As any New York-based high school English teacher knows, the critical lens essay prompt asks student to discuss two works of literature they have read from the perspective of a statement that is provided.  The student is required to provide a valid interpretation of the statement, agree or disagree with the statement (as he interprets it), and support his opinion using specific references to appropriate literary elements from the two works.

In the examples below, students were asked to write a critical lens essay based on the following statement:

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly . . .”

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince, 1943

First, consider the following essay:

 For thousands of years, poets and philosophers have argued that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Indeed, love is a very powerful sensation, causing profound sensations of euphoria, almost to the point of inebriation.  Sentimentalists and overly romantic persons are the ones who believe that through love, one can see rightly.  However, what they see is a false veneer; they see a façade that reflects a semblance of truth but neglect to notice the myriad flaws of thinking with one’s heart.  Love blinds its victims, inhibiting their true ambitions, causing young lovers to make hasty and reckless decisions, and can be so utterly consuming that it leads to death. 

One character who exemplifies the drawbacks of love is Romeo, of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”  As the tragic hero of the play, Romeo falls victim to an unlikely set of circumstances that ultimately lead to his, and his lover Juliet’s death. His one tragic flaw is his hastiness and his eagerness to be with Juliet.  It is his love of Juliet that causes him to make poor decisions, such as murdering her cousin Tybalt, getting married on a whim, and finally killing himself after seeing Juliet’s lifeless corpse, rather than to live without her.  Ironically, despite the connection of both lovers, both wind up dead.  This outcome is indicative that the inverse of Saint-Exupery’s quote is true:  If Romeo had not used his heart, he could have seen rightly.  He could have stayed with Rosaline and saved both the Montagues and Capulets from enduring his reckless love-inspired antics. 

Another character who is the paragon of being blinded by love is Jay Gatsby, of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”   Like Romeo, Gatsby is a hopeless romantic who has dedicated his entire career, life and being to wooing Daisy Buchanan.  Born into poor circumstances, Gatsby spent his entire life after meeting Daisy trying to impress her, often resorting to petty crime, bootlegging, and even possible murder to become wealthy and impressive.  He acquires and expansive, opulent mansion, reminiscent of European castles, and stockpiles it with many amenities from many colored shirts to a library full of uncut books.  Because Daisy is characterized as superficial and materialistic (her voice was “full of money”), Gatsby is able to win her over again.  However, this love is short lived because Gatsby is murdered.  Again there is much evidence that Gatsby would have been better off forgetting Daisy Buchanan and living his own life without the limiting factor of unrequited love. The reader learns through Gatsby’s father that the young Gatsby had drawn up a list of desirable character traits and a schedule that would make efficient use of his time.  This obscure allusion to Ben Franklin, an outstanding man and founding father of our nation, shows us that Gatsby was highly ambitious and had many talents and skills.  If he had not been so in love with Daisy, perhaps he could have become rich in his own right, without lust as an impetus.  He was certainly hard-working and fiscally shrewd enough to become a billionaire sands the wine and illicit activities.  As was the case with Romeo, had Gatsby not used his heart he could have seen matters coorectly, and made more coherent, sensible decisions, decisions that would have made him a more successful and a better person. 

It is quite shocking that anyone could be so naïve as to think “with the heart one can see rightly.”  Moderation of emotion, tempered with a good healthy dose of realism]/cynicism is the best option for leading a healthy life. If one only uses the heart to think and see and uses love as motivation and inspiration, they are doomed for failure and death.  It is a harsh, critical, and yet apt description of love.

Based on our new, simpler rubric above, this essay is a clear winner:

  • The writer makes a strong pointLove blinds its victims, inhibiting their true ambitions, causing young lovers to make hasty and reckless decisions, and can be so utterly consuming that it leads to death.   Score: 5
  • The writer supports the point well, with two detailed examples, one from Romeo and Juliet, the other from The Great Gatsby of how thinking with your heart only can lead to tragedy. Score: 5 
  • The writer includes a strong conclusion:  Moderation of emotion, tempered with a good healthy dose of realism]/cynicism is the best option for leading a healthy life. If one only uses the heart to think and see and uses love as motivation and inspiration, they are doomed for failure and death.  Score: 5 
  • The writer even makes it clear why the reader should care,  pointing out that this notion that love is the ultimate and highest goal for humanity has been promulgated for “thousands of years,”  and implicitly suggests that it is time for us to stop being naïve.  Score: 4
  • The writer has a great style and uses his/her command of the English language to keep us from being bored. Score:  3
  • There are a few grammatical errors, but generally, spelling and grammar are good.  Score: 2

In total, this essay scored 24/25 points (or 96%), which is pretty close to the Regents suggested score of 6/6.  (Please refer to the Regents Comprehensive Exam in English Test Sampler 2010 for the actual Regent’s rubric and recommended scoring approach. The rubric and essay samples begin on page 27 of this link )

Now let’s look another sample essay, one based on the same prompt.

Antoine de Sainte Exupery once said, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.”  This means that just by looking at someone or hearing about someone, you cannot get a completely accurate sense about who someone is, nor can you know how you feel about them.  When one uses their heart, they can truly see how they feel about someone and truly get a sense of the person’s character.  I thoroughly agree with this statement because theres much more than meets the eye, also when you use your heart, you’re letting yourself decide how you feel and decide what you think about the person.  You are not developing ideas based on ideas and opinions of others.  I believe that this idea is shown in the novel Pride and Prejudice  by Jane Austin and Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. 

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is immediately turned off by Mr. Darcy’s cold and unsociable nature.  All she sees is a rude, egotistical and very serious man.  Thus, she vows to loathe him and she really considers him the last man she would ever want to marry.  Her initial opinions are based upon what she has seen and directly experienced.  She despises him because of his conspicuous qualities and what she sees right away but she does not give her heart any say in the matter. 

However, as time progresses, she beings to realize that she does have some feelings for him.  Although these emotions are influenced by her seeing him do some kind things, she allows her hate to be overridden because she feels in her heart that she does love him.  She sees that he is a good man and rather than just relying on what she sees or hears, she turns to heart, which gives her the true answer and allows her not to make the mistake of letting him go just because of her pervious notions of him. In the end, her heart is right and they get married.  

Another book that exemplifies this quote is Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer.  In this book, the protagonist, Bella Swan, moves to a town called Forks in Washington to live with her father.  When she first attends her school, she automatically sees a boy names Edward Cullen at lunch.  He is amazingly attractive, but is also sitting isolated with his family members in the cafeteria.  On top of that he is glaring viciously at Bella from across the room even though they have never met each other. Bella is very taken back by this action.  Then, when she goes to biology class after lunch, there are no seats open except for next to Edward. She reluctantly sits down next to him and he reacts very intensely.  He moves as far away from her as possible and looks very angry and tense.  Finally, when Bella goes to the office at the end of the day, Edward is there attempting to switch out of biology.  Bella feels very angry at Edward after seeing him act this way because she has not done anything to him. 

Bella’s feeling of disgust and anger are fueled and ultimately created by experiencing Edward act in such an awful manner.  Her opinions of him are totally based on what she sees him do since she knows nothing else about him.  However as mad as she is, she is still overwhelmed with feelings towards Edward and still has the urge to be near him.  She feels a certain connection with him which she is unable to deny despite her distaste for him and his rude reactions to her.  What Bella feels in her heart turns out to be right and it turns out Edward feels it too.  They were able to fall in love because Bella is able to get past her immediate feelings toward him and listened to her heart instead. 

It is very true that one should go by what they feel rather than by what they see or hear when making decisions.  People and things aren’t always what they seem and there may be more to them than you know. Your heart is almost always generally right in these situations and it gives you the most clear idea of what you are feeling.

 

According to the Regents scoring guide, this essay should receive a score of 5 or about 83%.    The commentary says that the response “provides a thoughtful interpretation of the critical lens that clearly establishes the criteria for analysis.”  It further states that the writer “develops ideas clearly and consistently with reference to relevant and specific evidence from both texts to show that people are not always what they seem.

Let’s see how the essay would fare using the rubric above:

  • Does the writer make a strong point?  The writer seems to make two points.  One is “when one uses their heart, they can see how they truly feel about someone and can truly get a sense of the person’s character.” The other is “when you are using your heart you are letting yourself decide what you feel and what you think about the person, you are not developing ideas based on the opinions and feelings of others.”  The main point is not as strong or as clearly stated as it could be.  Still, we know that the writer is basically agreeing with Saint-Exupery.  Score 4
  • Does the writer support the main point?  Not yet.  The example having to do with Pride and Prejudice actually supports the opposite of what the writer is trying to prove.  “Although her emotions are influenced by seeing him do some kind things…” suggests that Elizabeth Bennet is not seeing with her heart, an observation more than supported by the novel itself.  The example that having to do with Twilight is problematic for several reasons.  First, Twilight  is not literature.  We need to explain the difference between literature and pop novels to our students.  The basic difference is that it is really difficult to analyse a pop culture novel because there is not a lot to analyze.  When a novel cannot be analyzed, the student resorts to plot summary – there is nothing else to talk about.  In this case, the discussion about Bella was almost entirely plot summary, concluding with an argument that Bella was better off by allowing her heart to lead her to fall in love Edward.  Given that anyone familiar with the novel knows that  Edward is a vampire, this is a weak argument.  Score: 3 
  • Does the writer include a strong conclusion?  Not yet “Your heart is generally almost always right” might be a good conclusion for a greeting card, but not for an analytical essay.  Score: 2
  • Does the writer make it clear why the reader should care?  Not yet.  It is very difficult to convince the reader to care about what you have written if you cannot support your main point. Score: 2
  • Does the writer have a great style?  Not yet.   This piece is very wordy and at times confusing. Score: 2
  • Is the piece free of grammar and spelling errors?  Not yet.  Score: 2  

Using the rubric above,  this essay scored 15/25 points (60%)  which is quite a bit lower than the Regent’s recommended score of 5/6 (83%).    Yes, this is a “first draft” essay written under time constraints.  But so was the first essay we reviewed (and, by the way, so is the memo this student’s boss may one day ask for an hour before she needs it).

The difference in scores is largely a function of how the rubrics assess (or fail to assess) the quality of writer’s main point and support for that point. The Regents rubric, although far wordier than the one above, fails to assess the quality of the writer’s thinking.

The writer of this essay can and should be taught how to think more analytically. She has a good command of language and good recall of what she reads.  But the essay does not exhibit the level of thinking we should expect from our students.  To say this essay deserves a 5/6 is to contribute to the crisis employers have been bringing to our attention for more than a decade: The majority of graduates who enter the work place are not prepared for the communications challenges they face.   A rubric, such as the one proposed above, is a simple way to assess and track student progress  in terms of analytical thinking (and therefore good writing).  Try it and see what you think.

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How Do you Know if You are Making Progress?

How do you know if you are making progress?

This is the key question to ask when teaching writing.  And it turns out that even colleges don’t do a very good job of answering this question.  In a recent column in the New York Times, David Brooks  reported that according to   “surveys of employers, only a quarter of college graduates have the writing and thinking skills necessary to do their jobs.”

In an earlier post, we suggested that most writing rubrics fall short.    They are often too complicated, requiring both teacher and student to learn a new vocabulary to use them with ease.   Even more problematic, many rubrics entirely fail to address the most fundamental question a writer can ask:  Was my point worth making? Most rubrics allow the user to evaluate whether a thesis statement exists, whether it is clearly stated, whether it is well-developed.  But such rubrics rarely allow the user to assess the quality of the thesis statement or the support for it.

As we have said before on this site, writing is just thinking on paper.   To write anything well involves the answering the following questions, a process that becomes habit for talented writers.

1. Who are you talking to and what do you want to happen? The answer to this question will affect the answer to the next four questions.  There are many different reasons people write, but all of them involve having a thought and wanting to share it with someone for some reason.   For instance:

  • If I am writing an analytical essay about the significance of the character of Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby, I am writing to my teacher and fellow classmates so that their understanding of the novel will be enhanced.
  • If I am writing a lab report, I am writing to my teacher and fellow scientists so that they can compare the findings of their own research with mine and agree or disagree in the spirit of scientific inquiry.
  • If I am writing a blog about the disastrous rock concert I attended Friday night, I am writing for my friends so that they can understand the experience and think twice before they rush to buy tickets.

2. What is the strongest point you can make to bring about that result?  The most difficult aspect of writing well is figuring out the best point you can make, given your purpose.  Generally speaking, a strong point is one that not obvious, is arguable, and, ideally, makes you think about the subject differently. It takes time to come up with a strong point, and many good writers discover that they cannot articulate their main point as clearly as they would like until a second or third draft.

3.  How can you support that point?  The way you support your point will depend on what you are writing:

  • If you are writing an analysis of literature, you support your point with textual evidence that proves your argument.
  • If you are writing a lab report, you support your point  by describing your procedure and results.
  • If you are writing the blog for your friends about that terrible concert, you support your point with examples of how the concert fell short of expectations.

4.  Why should the reader care? Depending on the purpose for writing, this question may not need an explicit answer.  For instance, in the blog about the rock concert, your main point may have already answered this question (e.g. “If you are thinking of going to the Battle of the Bands at Roxy Theater next month, consider this:  I found the sound of my dentist’s drill more pleasing.”)  But often it is useful to remind your readers why they need to care about what you are writing about.  There are a variety of ways to do this:  You can use rhetorical strategies to persuade your reader that the subject is important.  You can explicitly explain why the results of the lab experiment matter –and thereby show a deeper level of thinking than writing formulaically about the hypothesis, procedure and materials and results.

5.  What is the best take away message you can give your reader?    Generally speaking, the conclusion you write will be directly related to your purpose for writing in the first place.  What do you want your reader to do after he/she reads your work?  Smile?  Take action?  Think about things a different way?  Build on your results?

6.  How do you jazz it up? Once you have answered the previous five questions, it is relatively easy to turn your written work into something that is interesting to read.   By the time you get to this question, you may have already unconsciously employed some stylistic techniques such as diction (choice or words as in “I blew it,” versus “I made an error”) that are appropriate for your audience and purpose.

 

With these questions in mind, let’s try to construct a new rubric, one that reinforces the idea that good writing begins with good thinking.  Rather than give students points for understanding the purpose and audience for the written work, let’s remind them at the time of the assignment to think about who they are writing for (their audience) and what they want to happen as a result (their purpose, which will directly affect their conclusion).


A Simpler Writing Rubric

 

 

Does this   piece of writing…

 

Yes

Max point value:

 

Getting  There

Max point value:

 

Not Yet

Max point value:

 

Make a   strong point?

5

 

3

 

0

STOP   HERE STUDENT MUST START OVER

Support the point well?

5

3

1

Include a   strong conclusion?

5

3

1

Make it   clear why the reader should care?

4

2

1

Have a   great style?

3

2

1

Have few   or no grammar and spelling errors?

3

2

1

Notice that the three components of writing that are worth the most points on this rubric are making a strong point, supporting that point, and writing a strong conclusion.  It is not that grammar and style are unimportant.  Weak writers will very likely need to work on grammar.   Strong writers will likely need to improve their style.

But remember, our first goal (and it is a worthy one)  is to teach students to think critically, to figure out exactly what they want to write, why they want to write it, and what they want to happen as a result.  And, we want to track their progress.  Because whether you are a high school teacher under pressure to comply with the common core standards or a college instructor trying to get your students ready for the challenge of an academic research paper, you need evidence to prove that the way you are teaching your students is actually bringing results.

In our next post, we will discuss how to use this rubric and how and why the scores resulting from this rubric provide a better gauge of student progress than those resulting from other rubrics, notably that used for the NYS Regents exam in English.

A Rubric to Track Critical Thinking

When it comes to assessing student writing, rubrics reign supreme.  There are probably enough of them to wallpaper every floor of the Empire State Building twice over.  And yet, colleges and employers tell us most high school graduates can’t write.  So maybe we need to find a different way to think about how to assess student writing.

Most writing rubrics look pretty similar.  They rate student writing across a range of factors, including whether the main idea is clearly stated, whether the paper is organized well, whether it includes rich vocabulary and whether it has grammar or spelling errors.   Rarely does a rubric allow the user to assess whether the written work tells us something worthwhile.  This is a problematic, because if the main point is not worth making, the paper, no matter how well-organized, richly worded, and grammatically polished,  is weak.

If we start with the basic premise that writing is just thinking on paper, then it makes sense to begin our assessment of writing with an assessment of thinking.   In an earlier post we laid down a general approach for how to assess student progress in critical thinking.  Now, let’s take that approach a step further and actually create a simple rubric to assess the level at which students are thinking about the words they read.

Let’s review the basics:  Well-written (or spoken) works should answer the following questions: 

  1. What is the point?
  2. Is the point one that is worth making?
      • Is it obvious?  (Do we already know it?)
      • Is it arguable? How?
      • Is it important? Why?
      • Is it interesting? In what way?
  3. Does the author adequately support that point?  If so, How?
      • Appeals to our emotion or to our belief in the author’s sterling reputation are not support for a main point, but they are worth talking about.
  4. Does the author tell why we need to know what he has written?
  5. Is there another way to look at look at it? 
      • Can you take what the author is saying and come up with a different  main point or conclusion?

Since each of these questions targets a different level of thinking, we can craft a very simple rubric to track student progress.    Let’s start with a rubric that will help track the critical thinking skills of students as they read. 

Can the Student Do This?

Not Yet

(0 points for each bullet)

Yes!

(1-2  points for each bullet)

1.

Identify the Main Point

  • Misses the point.

 

  • Gets the point 

2.

Assess Whether the Point is Worth Making

  • Does not recognize a weak main point.

 

  • Explains why the main point is or is not a strong one. 

3.

 Find support (or lack of support) for the main point?

  • Does not identify any support for the main point.
  • Does not distinguish strong from weak support.
  • Identifies support for main point.
  • Assesses whether support is strong or weak.

 

4.

 

Answer “So What?”

  • Does not comment on what the author’s “takeaway message” is.
  • Does not offer a plausible takeaway message.
 

  • Explains what the author’s takeaway message seems to be.

5.

 Think of another way to see it?

  • Does not present an opposing argument or alternative conclusion.
  •  Presents an opposing argument or alternative conclusion.

Based on this rubric, your weakest readers/thinkers would get a check;  your strongest would get a check plus 12 (Of course, you can use your own numbering system, but this is the general idea).

How would you use such a rubric?    The common core standards place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of having students read non-fiction and having them write logical arguments.   So let’s start by assigning students a non-fiction argument to read. The Battle of the Binge, by Jack Hitt, deals with a subject many teenagers can relate to and fits the bill nicely.    (By the way,  this selection is featured in the Norton Reader, a treasure trove of short non-fiction pieces, many of which are suitable for upper high-school students.)    The general approach would be to assign this piece for students to read, and then to have them critique it by answering the following questions:

  1. What is the author’s point?
  2. Is it a point worth making?  Why or why not?
  3. How does the author support his point?
  4. So what? What do you think the author wants us to do or think about as a result of reading his work?
  5. Is there another way to see it?  What might be the counter-argument to this author’s claims?

Short answers are fine for this exercise.  Now let’s see how some sample responses would be scored on the rubric.

 What is the author’s point?  

  • 2 point response:  The author’s main point is that binge drinking on college campuses is a result of raising the legal drinking age to 21,thus depriving students the opportunity of “learning to drink” on campus.
  • 1 point response: The author’s main point is that it was wrong to raise the legal drinking age (implied, but not the main point).
  • 0 point response:  Binge drinking on college campuses was as big a problem in the 1970s as it is today.  (If the student entirely missed the point, you need go no further on the rubric:  The grade for this assignment is a “check.”)

          Is it a point worth making?  Why or why not?

  • 2 point response:   Yes, because it offers an interesting explanation of the cause of a big contemporary problem.
  • 1 point response:  Yes, because it is interesting (not specific).
  • 0 point response:  No because encouraging teenagers to drink is dangerous (author is not encouraging young people to drink).

       Does the author support this main point?  How?

  • 2 point response:  The author offers anecdotal and factual support for his claim:
    • He learned to drink alcohol through his own college experience.
    • His nephew, now attending the same college, knows many students who binge drink alone, often in the woods to avoid being caught.
    • Despite various attempts by colleges to reduce it, binge drinking persists on campuses at alarming rates.
  • 1 point response:  Any response that cites some, but not all support for the main point.
  • 0 point response:  No supporting points cited at all.

 So What?

  • 2 point response:  We need to change the way we think about this:  If you can vote and fight in a war, you ought to be able to drink.
  • 1 point response:  We have to lower the drinking age to 18 (not quite, he is suggesting it would be difficult to do this and that we need to change the culture first).
  • 0 point response:   We have to outlaw binge drinking (author never suggests this).

Is there another way to see it?

  • 2 point responses:
    • Is binge drinking only on the rise among college students?  What if it is on the rise among all age groups?  That would weaken the author’s argument.
    • The author says that legislators raised the drinking minimum as a reaction to the “raw emotion deployed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” but he does not tell us whether deaths due to drunk driving have decreased as a result of raising the minimum age.  Have they?  If so, maybe we need to change nothing.
  • 1 point response:  It is up to parents to teach their children social habits, including how to drink and how to abide with the law as it is (a counter argument based too much on personal  opinion).
  • 0 point response:  No counter argument offered.

What Does All this Have to Do with Writing?!

This exercise in teaching students to become critical readers and then tracking the results is an important step in teaching them to think.  And remember, writing is thinking on paper.  When you teach your students to write an argument, you will ask them to use the kind thinking in their own work that they used to critique arguments such as this one.  Then you can grade them using a writing rubric that flows directly from the reading rubric.  

Coming soon:  How to craft and use a writing rubric that tracks critical thinking progress.

Writing Across the Curriculum: The Pros and Pros of Peer Editing Teams

If you are a chemistry teacher who has just been asked to incorporate writing into your curriculum, your biggest concern may (justifiably) be:  How am I going to find the time to do this? 

The key is to help your students help each other.  To that end, a small investment of time at the start of the school year can make a big difference.

Just as there are some students who are naturally gifted in math and science, there are some students who are naturally gifted in writing.  We have all come across them.  By the time they get to high school, these gifted writers express themselves almost as well as well as their English teachers and often better than their math or science teachers. 

Get to know these writers.  Start your year by having students write a short paper titled “My Life as a Scientist” (or, depending on your subject, a mathematician, and historian, a linguist, etc.).  It is a great way to break the ice and a good way to separate strong from weaker writers. Explain to the class that since this assignment will count as their first quiz grade, they need to take it seriously.  Here’s how your actual assignment might look:

Write a one and one- half page minimum, two page maximum (double spaced 12 point, Times New Roman font) paper about your life as a scientist.  Be specific about your likes, dislikes, difficulties and strengths in your science classes to date.  Here are some questions to think about as you organize your paper:

  • What is your earliest memory of science?
  • What do you know about the scientific method and how much do you use it in your day-to-day life?
  • What do you like most about science?
  • What do you like least about it?
  • What was your favorite science class?  Why?
  • What are your greatest strengths as a scientist?
  • What are your greatest weaknesses?
  • Do you enjoy reading science fiction? Why?
  • If you had one suggestion for how to make class more interesting this year, what would it be?

DO NOT merely answer these questions.  Make sure your paper is well organized and has a strong introduction and conclusion.

Do not do any modeling for this assignment; just let your students write.  The results will give you a great deal of information about both the quality of writing among your students and their level of interest in your subject.  (Yes. you could skip this assignment, and just ask the English teacher on your team who the strong/weak writers are, but isn’t it worth it to find out for yourself?)

Once you have identified the strongest (and weakest) writers, group students into editing teams of four or five members each.  Make sure each team has at least one strong writer and, if possible, no more than one very weak writer.  These teams will do the bulk of your grading on written assignments.

How to Get the Most from Peer Editing Teams

If you teach a non-ELA class, peer editing teams can lighten your load by providing feedback on both short and longer written assignments. For instance, suppose a math teacher assigns the following journaling assignment to her geometry students:

Two times per week, you will be required to write a 150-200 word journal entry describing what you learned in class, how what you’ve learned in class is relevant to the real world, and what question (s) you still have. Take your time writing these entries. 

Try to have your response look something like this:

Yesterday, we learned how to measure the volume in different shaped solids.  This process is analogous to the one used for measuring the area of a rectangle or circle except that it incorporates a third dimension. For instance, we previously learned that the area of a rectangle is defined as its length multiplied by its width. The volume of a rectangular solid is defined as length times width times height, or the area of the base of the solid multiplied by its height.  This makes sense intuitively.  Similarly, the area of a circle is equal to pi multiplied by the radius squared.  The volume of a cylinder is therefore pi times the radius squared times the height of the cylinder.  Volume measures are regularly used in day- to- day life.  How many books will fit in that carton?  How many CDs in that cylindrical container?  These are practical questions that need volume calculations. What is unclear to me is why we also study how to measure the volume of irregular shapes that we do not usually see in our lives.

Make sure your essay does not look like this:

Yesterday, we studied volume.  It was very interesting.  Volume is length times width times height.  You definitely need a calculator for the answer.  This is relevant because, when you think about it, everything has volume.  We are not paper dolls LOL.   The question I have is why do we ever measure things in cubed feet.  That sounds gross. I would rather we measured things in cubed inches. I am looking forward to using graph paper in class one day soon.

Instead of grading these entries, the teacher might leverage the capabilities of her peer editing teams.  Here are two approaches:

  • Have your peer editing teams meet once per week to share work and collaborate on writing one final entry for the “team journal.”  Briefly observe how each team works together (with your grade book in hand, so that you can note when a student has failed to do the assignments) and allow the teams to know you are available for assistance. Then have one student from each team step to the front of the class and present the team journal entry.  Grade only the presented team entries, assigning the same grade to each member of the team. In other words, grade five entries instead of twenty-five!
  • Have students make copies of their journal entries for each member of their editing team.  Have each team member rotate being editor-in- chief, reviewing the journal entries of all members and writing a final, improved entry for the team journal.  Grade only the editor- in- chief on the team journal entry (recognizing that each student will serve in this capacity several times throughout the year).

Peer editing teams can also be useful in evaluating longer, formulaic writing assignments, such as lab reports: 

  • Begin with a lesson for the entire class on how to write a good lab report (ideally, model the entire process for the class from outlining, to writing to editing).  Then supply each student with a copy of a model lab report, including the outline used to create it.
  • The next time a lab report assignment is due, instead of collecting it, have students break into peer editing groups. Instruct the groups to evaluate each report based on the model and make suggestions for improvements. 
  • Give the students one additional day to write the improved draft, which they will hand in for a grade. 

In addition to making grading a little easier, this process helps to underscore a basic truth about writing:  good writers write more than one draft!  

If you decide to assign a longer paper, such as a biography of a scientist of mathematician, or a persuasive essay on, for instance, why biology classes should (or should not be)  required in high school, peer editing teams can play a key role in cutting back on your grading and improving the outcome: 

  • Break the assignment into smaller parts.  Instead of assigning a paper, start by having students explores possible topics and thesis statements.  Then have them create simple argument outlines (What is my point?  How do I back it up? So what?)
  • Have students, with these basic ideas in hand, break into peer editing teams to discuss their thesis statements and outlines get suggestions for improvement.
  • Have students hand in their basic argument outline (What is my point?  How do I back it up? So what?) to you on an index card. You will want to read these to make sure a student is not getting off to a bad start.
  • Have students write their first draft and then meet with peer editors for feedback.  Have peer editors follow the “How Much Red Ink Should You Use?” guidelines in helping the student to improve the draft, and have each student take notes on what needs to be changed/improved in his draft.
  • Have students write a second draft and hand it in with the original draft and peer editing notes for improvement attached.

Yes, you will still have to grade the papers.  But the quality will be better, and the idea that good writing requires revision will be reinforced to all students.  That is supporting writing across the curriculum!

How to Avoid the Perils of Peer Editing

It sounds like a great idea:  teach your students to grade each other.  Actually, it is a great idea.  Good writers need multiple drafts.  You should not have to grade at least one of those drafts.

But often, initiating a peer editing program in the classroom seems like more of a chore than a time-saver.  Why is this so?  Is it because peer editors do not take their job as seriously as teachers?  Maybe, but some teachers are using peer editing effectively and cutting back on hours they spend grading as a result. 

What are these lucky teachers doing right? Here are a few simple tips to avoid the perils of peer editing:

  1. Teach them what to look for:  In the beginning, just ask your student editors to assess whether the written piece makes a point that is worth making and backs it up.  That’s all.  It will save you time later on.  Over time, make sure your students, can distinguish between big problems and smaller problems in the essays/papers they read.  (See “How Much Red Ink Should You Use?”) 

Here are the big problems: 

  • The basic point of the essay is not clear.
  • The basic point of the essay is clear, but not worth making.
  • The basic point of the essay is not supported in the essay.
  • The essay is so poorly written that you cannot figure out what the writer is trying to say: the essay is unintelligible.
  • The many grammatical problems in the essay are making it hard to understand what the writer is trying to say. 

Here are smaller problems:

  • The basic point is clear and defended, but the language is boring.
  • The essay is wordy.
  • The writer does not use a consistent tense addressing the audience.
  • The writer has some grammar weaknesses that need to be addressed. 

2.  Hold both writers and editors accountable.  When you ask students to edit each others work, make sure you give a joint grade on the result.  Grade the writer’s revisions based on the editor’s feedback, but also grade the editor’s feedback.  Since the ability to revise and to edit are equally important, explain to your students that the grade they receive on an assignment that is peer edited will depend on both the quality of their writing and revision and the quality of the feedback they give to their partner. 

 3. First, pair weak with strong. It sounds counter intuitive, but it is actually a good idea to pair very strong with very weak writers.  Why? Because strong writers will usually have a pretty good first draft that features a strong point that is well defended.  The weaker writer can help the strong writer by asking for clarification in certain areas.  The strong writer can help the weaker writer better define the main point and better organize his ideas for a second draft.  This saves you time, and it is a nice challenge for a strong writer to have to analyze and think about how to fix a weak paper.  

4. Then, mix it up.  After a few peer editing sessions, change partners.  Have strong writers edit each other.  Give weaker writers an opportunity to make suggestions for improving weaker pieces of writing. Then, keep mixing it up: Writers benefit from different perspectives!

Why You Should Discuss Real Estate With Weak Writers

Imagine you are shopping for a house.  You have seen so many houses that you have a good idea of what you like and what you don’t like.  You don’t like dark wood paneling in the family room.   You prefer wood floors to carpeted ones in general.  

 One day, you find a house that is just about perfect; it has everything you want, even the wood floors!  But when you have the house inspected, you learn that its foundation is weak – so weak, that the house is not structurally sound.  In other words, even thought it looks almost perfect, the house is almost worthless.  

In many ways, a well-written essay is like a well-built house.  If it has a solid structure, that is, if the writer has something worthwhile to say, can back it up, and can tell us why we need to know it, he is well on his way to writing a good essay.  But if the main point is not worth making, even grammatically perfect and well-organized essay will be a weak one. 

Students need to be reminded over and over again that writing is thinking on paper.  So if a writer has not thought hard about what she wants to say and why she needs to say it, her paper will not be a good one. If on the other hand, the writer has a good point to make and can back it up well, she has already scaled the biggest hurdle in writing a good paper. 

So the next time you read one of your student’s essays, remember to focus first on the basics

  • What point is this writer trying to make? 
  • Is it a good point? 
  • Can she back it up?” 

If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” don’t bother talking to the writer about redundancies and run-on sentences.  Even if the writer were to get rid of redundancies and run-ons, the essay would be weak.  

 

The fundamental rule about a written work is that it can only be as good as the information it imparts. Or to use the words of writer Sholem Asch, “Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.”

How Much Red Ink Should You Use?

One of the biggest challenges writing teachers face is to determine how much criticism to give developing writers.  If you try to correct everything, the writer may retain nothing except a sense of failure.  So you have to adjust your feedback accordingly. 

 Generally Speaking:  

Weak writers need to work on the basic argument and logical flow of ideas:

  • Think out loud with them, help them to organize their thoughts as they speak.
  • Once you agree on a point, help them come up with support for it – again, ask them questions (lead if necessary)  

Average writers need to work on grammar, especially fragments and run-ons.  The weaker the writer, the simpler the sentences should be. 

Stronger writers need to work on mining for richer vocabulary and better transitions.  Use 10 Rules for Adding Bling to help them make their writing more interesting.

Strongest writers should be challenged even more.  Ask them to find the greatest weaknesses in their papers.  Play “devil’s advocate” and disagree with their main points just to make them defend them more strongly.  Have them read their papers out loud! Whenever a writer finds that a sentence is a mouthful, have her rewrite it.

In Sum:  Some Basics for How to Give Feedback on Writing 

First:  Content and Structure

  • Does the writer make a strong point?  If not, allow her to talk through her ideas and ask questions that will help her determine which point she wants to make.
  • Does the writer back up her point well? If not, ask him how he can defend his main point.  Are there passages from the text that he can use to defend what he is saying (if he is arguing a point)?  Can she put her ideas in a more logical order (if she is explaining a point)?
  • Has the writer considered opposing views? If the writer is arguing a point, it is useful to consider the opposing side.  This can be a great way to transition into a new paragraph (e.g., if you are writing a paper against cloning, you might begin your second supporting paragraph with: “The Frankenstein Society recently argued forcefully that human cloning would save lives and ultimately prolong our existence.  But at what cost?”)
  • Does the writer answer “so what?” in the conclusion? Why did the writer write this in the first place? Why do we need to know this?  

Then, Paragraphs, Transitions, Definitions and Grammar  

  • Does the writer use paragraphs correctly?  If not, review the five paragraph essay (first paragraph= introduction, next three paragraphs=supporting points, final paragraph = conclusion)
  • Does the writer use transitions?  If not, help her to practice moving from one point to the next – talk it through, then have her rewrite.
  • Does the writer define all terms? Remember, a good paper can be understood by anyone – even someone unfamiliar with the material.
  • Does the writer use too many run-on sentences or sentence fragments?  If so, encourage him to writing in simple, short sentences – for a while. 
  • Are there subject/verb/pronoun agreement and other problems?  If the writer has never been taught grammar (and many students these days are not), you will have to help him learn it.  DON’T PANIC: There are plenty of resources out there. Most SAT prep books, for instance, provide a quick way to cover the basics. 

Finally, Style

  • Does the opening paragraph grab you?
  • Are there too many passive or tired verbs?
  • Are there opportunities to redefine boring nouns so they seem fresh (Remember Abe Lincoln — instead of “our democracy,” he wrote “our government of the people, by the people, for the people.”)
  • Is there too much telling and not enough showing? (Remember Barack Obama– Instead of “We need to create more jobs,” he talks about “the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, and every walk of life.”)
  • Are there too many clichés and mixed metaphors?
  • Is the paper too wordy?  (if so, have the writer go through and eliminate all words (sometimes sentences and even paragraphs!) that are not necessary to making his point.)
  • Is the writing easy on the ear? The ear is a writer’s best friend. If a writer can not read a sentence out loud without difficulty, he needs to rewrite it.