Beyond the Red Pen: Have Students Actively Reflect on their Writing

Following our look at the Abraham Lincoln assassination, my US History students wrote a paragraph about Lincoln as a president – was he truly the greatest president, or was he a potential tyrant? (BTW, if you are confused about when to capitalize the word president, check out this helpful link!). 

I graded the paragraphs and was concerned, not about the ideas, but about the writing. I am not a Language Arts teacher, but I feel that it is every teacher’s’ responsibility to help students develop their language skills – both in terms of their content language and their academic language.

So, rather than just put red marks on their work, I decided to make this a teachable moment and put together a presentation about paragraph writing. I broke down the skills involved into their basic components and, using the students’ own writing as exemplars, created a number of discussion points about concepts like the hook, the topic sentence, the evidence, and conclusions.

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Here is a link to that presentation.

It is a long presentation and some might feel that it is too simple/analytical/abstract. But, we can’t make any assumptions about what students know about writing simple paragraphs. There is often some real value in going back to the basics, breaking things down and reflecting on the building blocks and how they go together to make effective writing.

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After the reflection, I assigned another paragraph for the students to write. Like the one above, this new paragraph was relevant and connected to our content. Before we started, I quickly reviewed what we had done in the presentation, going over all the elements and how to assemble them effectively.

Students moaned and groaned about the back-to-back writing assignments, but I was delighted with the end results: significant improvement from the initial writing project.

Do you do something similar with your students? If so, I would love to hear from you.

Ed X!

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