To be good writers, students need good taste

It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?” – Ira Glass

The writing teacher should make him or herself more and more obsolete as time goes on. We are not shady chiropractors. We don’t want repeat clients. We want the students to learn the content and skills they need to succeed without us.

When it comes to teaching writing, we can encourage independence by teaching students to develop good taste for writing. Then they will know when, where, how, and why to revise.

When I write my blog posts, I rarely have someone read them over. And, you might say, it shows, because I often publish the post, re-read it and notice a few errors. Then I correct them. But I also go through a revision process on my own between drafting and publishing.

We can teach students to revise and edit their work without us. We can’t force them. We can teach them.

How do we do this?

We teach students to have taste for good writing. Then, students notice the difference between good writing and their first draft. We tell them to fix the first draft so it looks more like the good writing.

How do we teach students to develop taste in good writing?

We show them what good writing looks like.  We can do this through a variety of writing lessons.

Lesson 1: Analyze a writer’s style by comparing two texts

I stumbled on this lesson by accident about four years ago.

In the morning class, students read one piece by Leonard Pitts. They annotated with the purpose of identifying his voice. There were crickets when it came time to discuss.

In the afternoon class, students read two pieces by Leonard Pitts. This time, they looked for the elements of his voice that they saw in both pieces. Eureka! The students saw fragments, parallel structure, anecdotes, counterclaims, and lots more.

This lesson encourages good taste because students observe the moves good writers use over and over. Even if students can’t write like the pros yet, they can notice when their writing does some of these things.

Lesson 2: Socrative Writing Pedagogy

This one is by Jen Roberts. Again, it is simple and powerful. It helps students develop their taste in writing. Here’s how it works:

Teacher preparation: set a goal. It should relate to one aspect of students’ writing that you’d like to see improved.

  1. Students have a finished a draft, or at least a finished part of a writing piece.
  2. Students re-read their writing with the goal in mind (e.g. emulate the voice of Holden Caufield).
  3. Students select a part of their writing that best meets the goal. They copy and paste their writing into a short answer question on Socrative.
  4. After all students have submitted, press “start vote.” *This feature lets students anonymously view all of their classmates’ responses* Students  vote on the three best pieces by their peers.  Sometimes students vote on the ones that are funny instead of actually good. Watch out for that.
  5. Take a moment to copy and paste the three best student pieces onto some blank slides. This takes a few minutes. You may want to ask students to turn and discuss their votes with a partner.
  6. Display the three slides, each containing one of the best examples of student writing. Lead the class through discussing the postiive qualities of each of these examples.
  7. Send students back into their writing to revise with the best examples in mind.

Lesson 3: Circle the “betterness”

At NCTE Boston, Kelly Gallagher spoke with Penny Kittle and Cris Tovani. The topic was encouraging student revision.  Kelly began his part by leading the audience through this lesson:

[Side note: I’ll never forget the writing piece that Mr. Gallagher shared. It was a personal narrative he wrote about the death of his father. That was a meta-lesson in teacher vulnerability for me. Read his narrative here.]

  1. Select one of your best student papers and one of your average student papers. Use papers from last year. Or, use papers from another class. Or write two examples of your own.
  2. Ask students to read both papers.
  3. Have students circle the “betterness” in the best paper.
  4. Turn and talk, then discuss the traits as a whole class.
  5. Ask students to revise their writing, borrowing from that “betterness.”

You might say that this is copying. Everyone copies other people when they are learning. You have to have good taste before you can develop your own style. And part of the process of developing good taste is to copy the style of others. I’m doing it right now.

Developing good taste–that’s not an ending. It’s a beginning. It’s like you are wondering around lost and  finally recognize the neighborhood. You’re not at the destination yet, so there’s still work to do. But you know the direction that you need to travel.

This post was inspired by this video featuring Ira Glass.

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