#2 Writing and Composition (continued from previous entry)

Posted: July 22, 2016 in Personal Whining

Nancy Atwell had a writing component to her program as well which had the same individualized nature to it.

At the beginning of a week students were expected to fill out a contract outlining the piece of writing they were going to work on.  There was space on the contract for the title of the piece, a short description, the genre or style of writing (narrative, exposition, poem, etc.) and space for between two and four goals that they would try to achieve in this writing.  The goals were based on previous writing, often suggested my me, although students were free to set their own goals based on self evaluation.  The contract had to be submitted with the final draft of the writing, which I would use as the evaluation page, and often I would make goal suggestion on the sheet to be considered for the next composition.  This might include attention to sentence structure, paragraphing or vocabulary.  There might be a suggestion to edit work for spelling errors, or to consider greater depth in character development.  The writing would be evaluated based on the goals.  In addition I would assign the writing an overall grade based on the COSMP grading method.

This COSMP grading method came out of a workshop I attended and I don’t remember the specific source.  I quickly adopted it because it really facilitated the contract aspect of Atwell’s writing workshops.  The letters stand for:
C – Content : This evaluated the substance of the writing, whether it was factual material presented in an exposition, proper reasoning and support in an opinion piece, or plot development in a story.
O – Organization : This was often paragraphing, but went beyond that in to the proper sequencing of ideas or story line.
S – Style : This involved the complexity of sentence structure (encouraging students to use complex/compound sentences) along with level of vocabulary, use of metaphorical language, etc.
M – Mechanics : This is the straight forward mechanical grammar of the piece, such as writing in proper sentences, and also spelling (**to be discussed separately later**).
P – Presentation : Not always included as part of the evaluation.  On occasion, if the writing project was a story or a poem, the nature of the presentation, such as  binding or illustrating, would also be an evaluation component.

Separating the evaluation into these streams had many benefits:

  1. It gave the student greater feedback and could be used to help guide them and me in the creation of contract goals. I don’t mind discussing the work with students, but I found that breaking it down like this allowed less interviewing and writing of comments without sacrificing detail.
    2.  It gave me some leeway in separating marks into reading comprehension, writing composition and media streams when doing final evaluation summaries.
    3.  It allowed me to use this system on all work in other subjects, such as a science experiment, and then migrate those marks into Language evaluation, thereby fulfilling the whole “language across the curriculum” imperative that was popular in some years.  Doing this made the students aware that their language skills were important when they were writing anything, not just in Language Arts.

Students had writing folders that were divided into three pockets.  (When the Board provided these folders it was a great resource, but afterwards students made their own.)  The writing process for the student went something like this.  First the student would decide on a project.  (Sometimes that would be a continuation of a previous project, as students were encouraged to divide their writing into realistic segments that might be ongoing for several weeks.)  Then they would complete the Writing Contract, referencing previous contracts to help them setting their goals.  Then they would do the pre-writing portion, which might involve brainstorming, mind maps, research or any of several other strategies which we covered in mini-lessons.   This would go into the Pre-Writing pocket of their folder.  The next step would be the First Draft, which the student was encouraged to do with the primary focus of Content.  Getting the idea or opinion or story down on paper was the first priority.  One or more drafts might be required, and I often quoted Hemingway (I think) who said, “A good novel is not written.  It’s rewritten.”  These would all go into the Drafts pocket of the folder.

During these steps of Pre-Writing and Draft Writing the student would have the option to conference with a classmate or with the teacher.  To avoid chaos and a really noisy classroom, a system was set up.  On a bulletin board there was posted all the student names on post-it stickies.  If a student wished to conference they and their partner would take their sticky note and put it on a sheet labelled “In Conference”.  Only three pairs were allowed to conference at a time and the conferences were restricted to five minutes.  If you wanted to conference and saw that the “In Conference” board was full, then you had to wait.  As you would expect, there was some issues around this at the beginning, but it quickly turned into a workable routine.  I always had a rather large number of students in my classes, so I had to have conferencing done in the hallway.

Once conferencing was done and a student was reasonably happy with the draft, they could present the draft to the teacher for a final edit.  This was the one stage of the program with which I sometimes got bogged down.  I tried to guarantee that students would get their edited draft back in 24 hours, but sometimes there was a deluge and it was hard.  I never had the chance to experiment with parent volunteers or older students doing the editing, but it would be worthwhile to try.  I kept my editing to two things.  I circled any mechanical errors (without correcting them) and I sometimes made comments related things like Style, Organization or Content.  Over the years I developed a bit of an editing shorthand that students became familiar with.

Then it is up to the student to complete a final draft.  When it is time to hand it in the contract was on top, followed by the Final Draft and then followed by earlier drafts is the student wanted the teacher to witness the progressive improvement that were made.  I often stressed how impressed I would be by seeing that.

Now the Final Draft is in my hands and I have to evaluate it.  Before reading it, I would look at the goals and keep them in mind.  Each goal would be scored out of 10 (although any evaluation system could be used).  I would write comments on the sheet and perhaps add a goal or two on the back to be considered for the next composition.  I would then give it a comprehensive grade using the COSMP system.  All of that would be recorded in my mark book, meaning that I’d have quite a few marks for the same composition.  Sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn’t as most of it is the simple recording of numbers in an organized way.  Some years I made photocopies of the contracts before giving them back, which was good for accountability.  It depended on the number of students in the classroom and how much time I had to do it.

When the student gets the work back, it’s a pretty comprehensive evaluation package.  They’re encouraged to look at more than the bottom line because they need the feedback to complete the goals on their next contract.

When I was running these programs, although there was extensive use of computer technology in the schools, it was not yet seamless and much of this was still paper and pencil writing and record keeping.  I have no doubt that things may have evolved considerably in the intervening years and that some or all of this process could be easily accomplished on screen.  I still believe that the submitted product should still be a hard copy, but perhaps there are new developments of which I am unaware.  I can easily see, however, that the developmental process could easily be adopted to some kind of technology connection.  And I can only hope that easier methods of tracking and record keeping for the teacher have also evolved.

Two more things come out of the process.  The first is spelling, which I’ll deal with in the next blog entry.

The other is the whole idea of mini lessons and tasks.  Each student had a tracking sheet, again a modified version of something that came up in some workshop.  It tracked several things.  One was the genre of writing that was being attempted by the student.  Over the course of the year the student was required to tick off all of the different genres at least once.  The other thing tracked was a list of common writing problems, including everything from sentence structure to use of homonyms to verb tense agreement.  (I could email someone the MW doc I used, but I’m not sure how to include it here.  These tracking sheets were in a binder that was open in front of me when I was marking writing.  If I noticed that a student had a weakness in a particular area, …say homonyms…, I would check off that box.  Over many years, stealing from the internet, old textbooks and random worksheets, I had put together one file folder for each of these writing problems.  Into these folders I would put copies of worksheets related to the problem which I could take out as needed and give to the student to complete.  When they handed it back to me, I crossed off the check mark.  Usually this translated into a goal for the next contract as well.  If I found that a significant portion of the class was experiencing the same problem, it would become the subject of a mini-lesson and a larger portion of the class might get the work sheet as homework.  If it was a new concept, such as compound sentences, then we might spend a few lessons on it and everyone got the sheet.  But it was always presented hand in hand with practical applications to their writing projects.

That’s it, except for the Spelling.  It looks like a lot of work, but it went surprisingly smoothly once all of the organization and resources were set up.  The biggest hassle was if you wanted to mark and you didn’t have the right binder with you.  Then you were crippled.  Also there were the inevitable bottle-necks.  But in the end it resulted in some amazing work from the students, primarily because they were motivated to complete things that they were interested in and to meet goals that they had a big hand in setting for themselves.  Obviously you get a range of responses, but you get that in anything.  I found that the range for this program shifted distinctly to the positive.

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