Monday, March 28, 2016

Making the Soup: Supporting Students in Writing From Sources

Students in my classroom have been working on writing a synthesis essay based on two different text passages. It's a process! This kind of instruction can often feel messy and unkempt, especially when the whole thing sprawls over multiple weeks.

    But I like to have the whole thing unfold in class. Having students write essays on their own is like sitting in the dining room while student cooks are making soup. Once the soup is served there's not much that can be done to fix it. But if you stand in the kitchen, watching the students cook, you can offer help and feedback through the process: "Maybe not so much salt" or "You might want to cut the potatoes into smaller pieces."

   In fact, during a particularly tough writing task, I find that a checklist is especially useful. Not a checklist for students, but a checklist for myself as I observe students and see how they are doing.

    I circulate around the room and check off students as they complete each paragraph. Going out of order is fine--I actually encourage it--but I emphasize putting pen to paper and getting writing done.

    I don't have students line up to have paragraphs checked; I hate the practice of students lining up and waiting for a teacher's attention. Instead, I walk around, checking in with students who seem to be struggling and waiting to chat with those who are on a writing streak.

    I star paragraphs that seem to be working. In the class that I co-teach, this is important so that the two of us can stay on the same page. And I don't always agree with myself. "But you said it was okay yesterday!" a student complained after I told her to rethink a transition. What can I say? Writing is a subjective process. "Today I think you can do more," I told her. "Don't you agree?"

    The checklist also helps me to see when students move beyond a linear process and start thinking more recursively. "I have you checked off for three paragraphs, but it looks like you're starting over," I told one student. She replied, "My body paragraphs were coming out to be too long, so I changed my thesis and started over." Wow! Although it looked as if this students was lagging behind, she was really surging far ahead and doing just the kind of writing that we want to encourage in writers.

    As the project starts to wind down, it's tempting to say something like "All essays must be turned in by Friday." But this is the same as sending a junior cook into the kitchen to make the soup alone. The students who take the longest are the ones who need the most support.

   And so it's important to have robust enrichment activities in place. In my classroom, I use independent reading, Genius Hour, and to engage students once they finish the assigned essay. This way, I can help those who are working while others move on to new challenges.

    Synthesis writing is a drawn-out, recursive process. It does take a lot of class time, and it takes a great deal of self-control (not to mention sang-froid) to keep myself as a teacher calm while the whole process plays out in class. There's so much more to cover! I tell myself, but I steel my nerves as I watch the students at work. Managing multiple sources and sticking to a thesis is a tough task. I'm lucky to be able to watch it happen.

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