How to teach writing by doing less and trusting more

The English teacher sits down with a stack of essays, coffee on the left and red pen to the right. She leafs through the stack, finds one that looks promising, and begins to read.

Suddenly, the realization hits: What am I looking for? How do I grade this?

The grades slapped on student papers will surprise many students, because no criteria were set. The learning has stopped and the conversation is over.

This teacher represents the first of four scenarios I’ve enacted, observed or experienced when it comes to students, teachers and writing assignments:

    1. Students get the directions for an essay. They submit a draft. They receive a grade, number or letter, at the top. There may be evaluative comments on the paper, too. Case closed.
    2. Students receive directions and a rubric. They submit a draft. They receive the assignment back with a rubric covered with circled boxes. There may be comments on the paper.

(Some may see a difference between one and two, but I find that they have the same effect: they evaluate students’ abilities but don’t promote writing growth.)

3. Students receive directions and a rubric. The teacher collects the drafts, and provides formative feedback. Students use the feedback to revise, and re-submit for a grade.

(This is an improvement, but still teacher-driven, carrot and stick. The students address the teacher’s comments, ignoring the rubric and learning objectives. The comments are the standards that they are judging their work off of, not the rubric, because pleasing the teacher will lead to a good grade)

Here’s the fourth option, which takes the most planning but gets results.

The major difference: it relies on the teacher trusting the students’ ability to know good writing when they see it.

4. Students receive an assignment. Earlier in the year, my students wrote editorials, so I’ll use this for an example.

First we read mentor texts and discuss the style and structure of editorials.

Eventually students write drafts, and I collect the work to provide feedback. I focus the feedback specifically on the the lessons that we’ve done in class leading up to the writing of these drafts. I ignore many small errors in spelling, grammar and usage, so that my feedback is focused on the skills we’ve addressed in class.

The students revise. They don’t realize it, but they’re revising based on the rubric. The feedback I gave them was based on the lessons that we’ve done, which will later be materialized on the rubric used to grade the final products.

Next, students bring in printed, revised papers. Here, I use read around groups (RAGS), an activity from Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers. Before the activity begins, we review the rubric criteria as a class.

Let’s say the criteria are:

Content (the quality of arguments and evidence, and the acknowledgement and response to counterarguments)
Style (the quality and clarity of “voice.” This is a nebulous one, but the concept was discussed extensively in our study of mentor texts.)
Structure (The use of intentional paragraphing to organize and emphasize ideas.)

Also on the rubric are four column headers: “Exceeds Standards,” “Meets Standards,” “Approaches Standards” and “Doesn’t Address”  It looks this like:


Then, the RAGS begin. Students remove their names from their papers using markers or scissors. They form groups of 4-5 and one person collects the papers. Each group passes its group of papers to another group to begin the activity. Then, each students receives one paper and spends one minute reading the paper. At my call, students pass the papers to the right. The activity continues until each student in the group has read each paper.

Students have 2-3 minutes to choose the best paper. I find that the word “best,” though vague, is clear enough to allow students to identify the quality writing in the class.

When students have decided, I note the names of the best papers, and each group gives its papers to another group. The activity continues until all students have read all papers (except their own.)

The votes are tallied. Every time I’ve done the activity, there are a handful of papers that receive the majority of the votes. I usually select the top three papers to use as models for next class.

Before the next class, I make a copy of the model papers and and the blank rubrics.

We have a class discussion about which papers best utilize the skills on the rubric. Often their is some overlap of opinion, which is beneficial for students to see and talk about.

We decide on if we think the papers do some things that all students should be able to do–Meets Standards–and if the papers do some things that likely few students will be able to do–Exceeds Standards.

The students describe what the writers have done to meet or exceed the standards for the three categories.

At this point the students have:

  • Experienced lessons on various writing skills
  • Received feedback focused on those skills
  • Revised their writing based on the feedback
  • Read 20-30 similar papers of various quality
  • Discussed and selected the best writing
  • Written about the qualities of the best writing

Now they have ideas about what makes a good editorial. Students revise their work. I suggest changes based on what the mentor texts do that the students don’t do, or what the mentor texts might do better than the students.

Yes, at the end, the papers are graded…but the trust placed in the students to know good writing when they see it facilitates more student learning than other systems I’ve used.

They receive a letter grade corresponding to the mastery level ratings they received on the rubric. This is an imperfect process, because it involves some averaging and eventually some judgement calls on which letter grade the student deserves. I hope to improve that by using a standards-based grading system this year.

While the stuff above describes very specific class procedures, it is also part of a larger teaching mindset: get out of the way of student learning.

The best way for students to improve as readers, writers, speakers, listeners, and thinkers, is to create the conditions for them to build on what they already know and what they can teach each other. It’s important to ask: am I needed right now? Or can they do this on their own?

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