One of my favorite units in grade 3 is fairy tales. The sheer number of stories available to explore is endless, and there is something for everyone! I’d always read several stories to students before ever having them experiment with writing their own. Using graphic organizers, students were mostly successful at structuring their stories. They would have a solid beginning, middle and end. The challenge lay in enticing students to push themselves to add descriptive words, or to reread for clarity, never mind the seemingly insurmountable feat of getting them to correct their spelling!
That’s until I understood that with a few key additions to my teaching practice, magic could take place!
First and foremost, I discovered that we must consistently and explicitly model what we wish to see.
This discovery happened when one day, probably born of pure frustration, I decided to compose a mediocre sentence on chart paper. I didn’t tell them it was bland, I simply wrote it and read it aloud.
“The dog is running,” I read in an even tone. I then eagerly asked students to tell me what they thought of my sentence.
“It’s okay,” one student replied sheepishly.
“It’s kind of boring,” another volunteered hesitantly.
“What if you said, ‘The cute dog is running?’”, one student offered. Suddenly, several hands flew up in the air. One after another, students shared their ideas. By the end of a few minutes, we had completely transformed the sentence. It read something like, “The cute and cuddly dog is joyfully running and rolling around at the park!”
I was so impressed. “Class, do you see what just happened here? By working together and sharing our ideas, we took a simple phrase and made it interesting to read.” I then had them compare the sentence I had written by myself with what we created together. One at a time, I asked them to close their eyes and imagine what each sentence looked like as a picture in their mind.
“Do you see the difference?” I asked. The enthusiasm in the room was palpable, demonstrating that they had indeed understood the lesson. I had to capitalize on the moment, so I seized the opportunity and instructed them to pull out their writing journals and write a simple sentence. Using a timer, they were given a few minutes to jot something down. The target of the lesson was how to revise. For my handful of students who struggled with writing, I quickly suggested a few sentences for them to choose from and record in their journal.
“Who would like to try making their own sentence more interesting?” I asked. Since allowing others to improve our work can make students feel vulnerable, I chose someone whom I knew to be confident and receptive to feedback. From there, once again, I invited a few students to make suggestions. The results were just as impressive and I could tell they were enjoying the process of improving each other’s writing.
“Do you see what we were able to do here? This is what authors do all the time! They don’t sit down and write a book in one shot! They get their ideas down first and then they go back and make it better. They reach out to friends and colleagues to revise their work and offer suggestions. It can take some authors months, even years, to write a book.”
This spontaneous lesson was so successful, I knew I was on to something. The next day as a follow up lesson, borrowing from “The Two Sisters” Daily 5 model, I invited two volunteers to the front of the class to act out what peer revision looks like. (In the book, The Daily 5, authors Gail Boushey and Joan Moser illustrate how getting students to act out the wrong thing to do as well as the right way to do it serves in holding students accountable. For example, we ask two students to act out what quiet reading with a partner should look like (sit knee to knee, whisper voices, eyes on books, etc.) We then ask a student – often one who is likely to misbehave – to show us what it shouldn’t look like (moving around the class, loud voices, eyes wandering, etc.). It always gets a few laughs, but then, that same student shows us what it should look like. We record the desired behaviours on chart paper for future reference. The benefit of asking a more rambunctious student to model both the right and wrong way to do something is that they have now demonstrated to the entire class that they know how to do the right thing – so there’s no excuse for misbehaving.) Since my students were already familiar with this technique, we first brainstormed on chart paper what we thought the expectations for peer revision should be. A pair of student volunteers then proceeded with acting it out the right and wrong way. With this correct model fresh in our minds, I paired students up with a peer of similar writing ability (this sets everyone up for getting the most out of the activity) and told them to take the next ten minutes to revise each other’s sentences.
Finally, I invited students to reflect on this new process for revising their work using a strategy called “Two Stars and A Wish”. (See below for an explanation.)
“I like how my friend helped me to use more interesting words,” said one student.
“This makes writing easier,” stated another. I wanted to better understand what they meant by this, so I replied, “Tell me more about that.”
“It means that I can just write my story without worrying about making it sound perfect the first time. I can do that later,” they elaborated. This response was met with several nods of agreement and smiles.
“Okay, so we have our two stars. What’s one wish?” I asked.
“I wish we could use this for spelling too!” called out one student.
“Great point!” I replied. “We’ll practice that tomorrow!”