How to Remedy the Black Eye of Writing Remediation

After administering a baseline writing prompt in August 2014, my students’ need for writing remediation cold cocked me right between the eyes.  After icing my metaphorical black eye, I realized that,  for whatever reasons,  my students could not write a single clear paragraph.  Aside from all that “silly” formatting like indenting and using margins, students could not write a paragraph that contained a topic sentence, three supporting sentences with one or two examples of elaboration, and a concluding sentence. I am not exaggerating.  I wish I was.  As much as it killed my soul, I realized that Writer’s Workshop would need to take a backseat for a little while in order to ensure students had the basic skills necessary to be successful in a writer’s workshop environment.

After accepting the situation for what it was, I put on my “big girl panties” as one of my favorite colleagues Shannon Hill says, and I searched for solutions to ensure my students had basic writing skills. I am happy to report that returning to more direct instruction did not lessen my students’ enthusiasm for writing; instead, my students now feel empowered and are writing more than ever!  Now, because they feel competent, we are preparing to tackle our first literary letter which is really a disguised five paragraph essay.  And…I have not let go of writer’s workshop entirely!  Let me explain.

In order to address the obvious gap in writing skill, I mentally went through all 21 years of teaching and thought about which activities most positively impacted former students of mine who had struggled with writing.  Two specific activities came to mind:  The Four Square Writing Method and the Paragraph-a- Week writing program.

The Four Square Writing method developed by Judith Gould, helped my students in Virginia organize their thoughts.  A ridiculously inexpensive program, this tool did wonders for my school’s state test writing scores.  We fully implemented it in all content areas and saw our school’s test scores increase from 61.5% to 70.25% in a single year.  I left that school to move to Kentucky, but I understand the following year, Chatham Middle School’s writing scores jumped to 90%!  I have used four squares in my classes ever since, especially for students who struggle with organization.  While some students resisted it, most did not.  I have found that when students lack organizational skills, they appreciate such tools. This year, many of my students tell me the four square is the hardest part of writing.  That makes perfect sense.  Until a writer understands their subject clearly, they can’t write a good paragraph, essay, novel, or doctoral dissertation.  For writers who have not yet developed an innate sense of what a well structured piece of writing should look or sound like, four squares are fantastic.  In my day, outlines used to be the organizational “thing,” but four squares are so much easier to use!

While the four square was great, I knew it was only part of the solution.  My kids still didn’t know what a well structured paragraph contained.  My kids are gut level honest with me, which is part of why I love them so much, so I asked them if they had written as much as I require them to.  They said no. Once in a while they had to write, but usually they just took the F and it didn’t really impact their grade.

While at first you might think this was simply their attempt to avoid writing or throw their teachers under buses, I believe them, and here is why.  First of all, Kentucky eliminated the writing portfolio a year or two before the state switched to the Common Core standards.  I heard a collective sigh of relief from many teachers, administrators, and district personnel, and I do think there was a lot wrong with the program. While portfolios were meant to empower students and give them authentic writing experiences, it ended up doing the opposite.  Students were “coached” to death on their pieces.  Often the pieces were well written due to all the influence of well meaning but misguided teachers.  Final pieces rarely contained a student’s voice or personality.  Fear of low school portfolio scores made a lot of really smart people do some really stupid things.  How could that happen?   Well, any time schools are “graded” on a test score, portfolio, or writing/practical living/arts & humanity review (just sayin’), the purity of the intent of the program suffers.  Any program used to determine a school’s ranking among other schools is usually tainted by the need to show superiority over others.  They do little to help students improve.

In education, what doesn’t get tested tends to gather dust and cobwebs in a corner, so when portfolios were eliminated, I think writing was eliminated in many classrooms where it once occurred regularly. Persuasive pieces and reports were transformed into for multiple choice tests and the occasional open response question. Let’s face it.  Multiple choice test are much easier to grade, far more objective, and produce data far more readily than writing.  As long as the kids could answer an open response question or two, then what did writing longer pieces really matter, especially if state tests weren’t measuring writing?  Where writing had once been embedded in all content areas, it was now relegated to English classrooms who were still held accountable for on-demand tests writing tests.  And then there were those die-hard artsy-fartsy teachers writing project trained teachers who couldn’t seem to understand that writing was dead for all state reported intents and purposes.

The second part of the solution came from a very odd place.  One day at school, I went in search of SOMETHING that would help my students write better paragraphs.  As I meandered through the contents of my filing cabinets which I had purged last August, I ran across a folder I had not thrown away entitled “Paragraph-a-Week”.  I opened it up, and the idea occurred to me that these prompts might be a place to start.  I went to my computer and looked up “paragraph-a-week”.  While I found several references to the program, I couldn’t find the site I remembered using when I first started teaching in 1994.  Then, thanks to Ms. Matthew’s blog post, I found it!

I developed a hybrid of the Four Square and Paragraph-a-Week programs so that students could practice creating a four square, drafting a paragraph, revising a paragraph, and writing a final paragraph every single week.   The  prompts were open ended enough to allow students a certain amount of freedom, but required them to focus on basic paragraph structure over and over and over. Additionally, the checklists that came with it were easily converted into specific common core standards so that students’ finished paragraph scores were easily converted to scores for each standard.   This allowed me to incorporated the instruction into standards-based-grading friendly language.  I am happy to report that creating similar prompts allowed me to move most students’ writing skills forward.  We completed 10 paragraphs.  At first students didn’t take me seriously, but as their grades dropped, they saw they had no choice but to comply or explain F’s to their parents.

My students just started on their first literary letter last week, which is the fancy name I gave them for a five paragraph essay.  Their confidence is palpable when you walk in my room.  They know they can write this because it is five paragraphs and they have already written ten.

Every student started this essay by filling in their four square with a well structure thesis.  Then we talked about how to write a strong introduction, and they wrote them using an upside down pyramid to ensure they have a hook which narrows to the the story they are writing about (W.7.1). Every students’ thesis statement is the last sentence of the introduction.  Students read and peer revised those introductions, and that is what I will start grading after I have published this blog post.

This week, students will write the second paragraph – an objective summary (RL.7.2) and will peer revise and turn that in.  The third paragraph will be about a character’s attribute and students will support their opinion with evidence from the text.  (W.7.9).  The fourth paragraph will discuss the theme will supporting evidence from the text (RL.7.2; W.7.9).  Finally, students will write conclusions that restate the thesis and refer back to their hooks (W.7.2).  When all is said and done, I will give all the paragraphs back to the kids and ask them to write the literary letter to prove the point that they are capable of writing an essay.  I plan to ask the local paper to publish a few to make this a contest of sorts.

After a lot thought, I think I know why these kids struggled with writing.  These students were in 3rd or 4th grade about the time Kentucky adopted the Common Core.  Before any of you begin to blame the Common Core for this, please stop.  I have nothing but great things to say about the English/language arts Common Core!  See my previous post from last week, The ELA Common Core – Not Some Left Wing Communist Plot, if you need don’t believe me.  But because these students had just started learning how to write sentences and paragraphs at the time the Common Core was implemented, I believe that those basic skills were glossed over in an attempt to reach for the higher order thinking skills that the Common Core demands.  I did the same thing to my 7th graders that year, and I need to apologize right now to the high school teachers who currently teach them! It was not intentional.  This happens to our students any time there is a dramatic pedagogical shift in education, which in my career has been every ten years or so.

When combined with the removal of the portfolio in our state, it is not surprising that our students lack the skills necessary to be empowered writers.  Whether or not the state test shows my students have grown, they have.  The state test measures my kids at a 7th grade knowledge base, and I am not certain my kids will demonstrate that growth.  But when I look at where they started, I have no doubt they are learning.  Whether or not the state recognizes that is less important to me than knowing that this group of seventh graders now possess the tools necessary to grow as writers and that they are now ready for writer’s workshop!

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