Sunday, March 17, 2013

Editing : The Final Frontier

If you don't have a quality piece of writing, who cares if the punctuation is just right?

Nancy McLean made this statement to us as teachers, just before going into the Grade 4 classroom to demonstrate working on editing.  It is a strong statement for Nancy, an educator who never misses an opportunity to lift up a learner, be they student or teacher. She said it in her gentle, celebratory way with her beautiful southern accent ensuring that it could never sound harsh or critical.  But she said it very intentionally and explicitly so that we as teachers would remember and share with students that writing is about the message first and the conventions later.

Nancy went on to say that:

Editing can be approached with joy.

You can respectfully turn it back to the writer.

In the classroom, Nancy began by having the students collectively write "I can statements".  She told them that they were doing this because they were getting to be such good writers that she wanted to create a list to remind them of the good writing they could do all the time.  To reiterate that the message is the most important part of writing, she asked for things they could do to make their message just right for their reader.

The list created by the students began in this way:

What Good Writers Do in Grade 4

I can write a hook to get the reader interested.
I can reread to make sure it makes sense for the reader.
I can use descriptive words so the reader can: feel my emotions, get a picture in his/her head.
I can cross out instead of erasing because it shows my thinking over time.
I can use details to make my writing more interesting to the reader.

Nancy told the students and classroom teacher that they would add to this list as they continued to grow as writers.

She then brought them back to thinking about the letters they were writing.  After reminding them that these letters were going to be a gift for their intended reader, Nancy talked about how they would copy the letters on pretty paper in their very best handwriting.  She said that once we have our very best writing, we edit.  We edit out of care and respect for our reader.  Editing is not about the message, it is about the conventions.  "Conventions" means that there are certain ways we do things when we are making our writing public.

Working with the editing criteria already established by the classroom teacher, Nancy told the students that they were going to work on editing for punctuation and capitalization only, that we would save spelling for the next time.  She explained that she would model how to do this with one student to teach everyone how to do it and then they would do it on their own.  We would not be helping them, she said, because they were old enough and good enough writers to do this on their own.

You get to do this by yourself.  

You get to be your own teacher.

Nancy worked with one student, showing how to take a coloured pencil to make the necessary changes. After modelling how to read line by line looking for punctuation at the end of each sentence and a capital following it, Nancy broke the process down into steps:

1. Reread one last time to make sure it makes sense.
2. Reread line by line looking for where punctuation needs to end a sentence.
3. Reread line by line putting in capital letters.
4. After you reread 3-4 times and think you are done, put it on the corner of your desk for the teacher to  see.

She then set a high standard, saying that they were expected to find all of the places where punctuation and capitals should go. This was softened a bit by the addition of the notion that they would be given one freebie.  All students got immediately down to editing, just as they had done with writing.  They knew what to do.

The next day, after reviewing the papers that night, Nancy began with celebration.

  • I noticed you using your editing pencil many times.
  • I saw that many of you added capitals and periods. 
  • Thank you for making it clear to your reader.
  • The reason I am handing this responsibility over to you is that we have discovered we teachers have been doing it for you.  That isn't giving you enough credit.  You can do this.  It is time for you to take care of this.
With the classroom teacher, Nancy had noticed that the students rarely capitalized "I".  Together they reviewed the editing chart that described how "I" is always capitalized.  Students were given their letters and the responsibility of editing for the word "I". When they returned to the carpet, Nancy told them that this would be the one and only time they would edit for "I"  and that now that they were taking responsibility for their own editing, they should always just write it with a capital letter the first time.  

Editing for spelling came next.  Nancy again connected the purpose for this back to respect for the reader, saying that spelling errors are very distracting for the reader.  They take away from the power of your message.  Students were told that they were responsible for "Grade 4 words", words we should reasonably expect you to be able to spell or words that you could find in the classroom.

This post is a description of two editing lessons in a Grade 4 classroom.  Stay tuned for some conclusions Nancy helped us draw about editing, her recommendations on what to do when writers come back with their editing only partially done and some of my recent experiences with this part of the process.

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