When I visit a classroom, one of the first things I often say to kids is, “Today, please don’t erase. I want to see ALL the great work you are doing as a writer. When you erase, your work disappears!”
Often, this is what kids are accustomed to and they continue working away. But sometimes, kids stare at me as if I’ve got two heads. Some kids are confused by the request for no erasing. Others, in fact, give me an angry stare. The perfectionists in the room (even at 7 or 8 years old) sometimes try to sneakily erase anyway. I often circulate the room, coaching into the new routine.
“Just a single line through works perfectly. This way you can see ALL the hard work you’ve done.”
“Wow! Look at all the changes you are making to your writing. You’ve really learned a lot about revising. Can I share how you did this with other kids?”
“Crossing things out to make changes shows that you know that writers are always revising. It shows that you’re working hard on your writing. It shows that you are always thinking and problem solving.”
By noticing and naming the work kids are doing when they cross things out, you can make it replicable–so they can do it over and over again on many pieces of writing, not just the one they happen to have in front of them.
I’m mindful of the kind of language I use. I try to keep in mind what I’ve learned from masterful educators like Peter Johnston, and from researchers like Carol Dweck. I want to use words that will build a sense of agency and independence–a willingness to make mistakes and try and try again. I used to say things like, “Good writers do this…” or “I like/love how you…” Now, instead, I try to use judgement-free language. Instead of teaching kids to do things to get praise from the teacher, I try to name what they’re doing in an objective way, and in a way that gives kids ownership over their work instead of growing their dependence on adults. “I noticed/see how you…” “You must have worked hard on…”
You see, I can get kids to cross things out for me, by saying over and over “I love how you crossed things out!” But then they’re really only doing it to please the teacher, instead of making changes to their work as a way to solve problems, try new things, and make their own work the best that it can be.
This of course applies to learning across the day… but back to crossing things out instead of erasing…
Kids (and teachers) often wonder why I am such a stickler about this. I go to great lengths to promote crossing out — even cutting the erasers off of pencils and (gasp!) switching to pens instead of pencils.
A few advantages of a consistent, “no-erasing” policy in writing workshop:
- As stated above, erasing makes it impossible to know all the work that the student did, therefore impossible to assess the entire process.
- Erasing implicitly teaches students that we don’t want to see mistakes–when in fact we know that effective teaching must encourage mistakes and problem solving.
- Erasing can be time-consuming, using up important minutes of writing time. Putting a line through it is quick.
- Erasing (ironically) often makes student work more difficult to read.
- Erasing has the potential to become a strategy for “fake writing,” a phenomenon where students look like they are hard at work, when in fact they’ve been writing the same sentence (or drawing the same stick figure) over and over.
- Erasers themselves, as an object, can be distracting with all the various shapes, colors, sizes, wear and tear, and varying levels of quality one might find in a given classroom.
The list could go on. In any case, I’ve yet to experience very many advantages of erasing. I often give older, fluent writers the choice.
Of course, I’m open to changing my mind. As a writer, I am always revising my work, making changes, crossing things out, and adding new bits. As a teacher, I do the same, always making changes to my teaching and revising my own thinking.
20 thoughts on “An Eraser-Free Workshop and the Language We Use for Talking About It”
I switched to pens a few years ago, but I still have issues with kids scribbling out instead of just crossing out with one line. So your reasons and more importantly, your language, is so helpful. Thanks so much!
My students love to chew, cut and carve erasers. What will they do without this creative outlet?? Oh, wait, I know…write!
Honestly I think this is the most transformational post I’ve read in a long time and I read a lot of them! I am going to have a no-erase rule this year. Perhaps apropos of Kathleen’s article today, I should make a banner that says Mistakes are valuable or brave or something for a classroom mantra. Thank you.
Wow! Thanks Kim! I love the idea of a class mantra around hard work, trying new things, and making mistakes!
I switched to pens last year in my first grade classroom and loved it! I can usually find packs of 12 for a dollar or even less during summer sales. I stock up and, Kathleen is right, they do last much longer than pencils and there’s also less wear and tear on the pencil sharpener (and on my ears!). Thanks also for the reminder about the power of our words–I’m still working on achieving 100% judgment-free language –I slip up once in a while!
Such a thought-provoking post that focuses on more than just the tools we use. You are so right about all you said about erasing and the reasons why it should be avoided. The part at the end where you talk about revising your teaching and being open to that was so refreshing and an important reminder. Learners- readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, explorers- all need to be flexible enough in their thinking that when new ideas and data become available, new structures and ideas can take root. Teachers need to model this for our students, too, and let them know it’s okay to change something we used to do now that we know more/better how to do it. I am going to be much more aware of the language I use with students and think about them doing something because it’s going to help them as a learner, not just to make me “happy” because “I like the way…”
p.s. I just read my comment again and I forgot to say what our “strike out” is. duh. I teach the kids, “One, two, three strikes, it’s out!” and they put three lines through the word. Try as I might, I could only get a few kids to be happy with one line, so I let them do three– and tied it to baseball (and yes, we sing the song), and then they could all do just three. It is overkill, but no more blotches and no more holes in the paper.
I love this post… of course when I agree with every word it is easy. I try to drop judgement as often as I can, and over time it does almost disappear from your language. One phrase I use is, “I can see you are working hard” or “Looks like you are pretty happy with that work,” It gives them the credit for the feeling, and helps them reflect. Alfie Kohn has written a lot about the language we use with kids. And on another note, I simply don’t have pencils in my kindergarten classroom. The kids write with skinny markers at the beginning of the year, then we move on to black and blue clicker pens, then we spice it up with new clickers of different colors as the year goes on. I teach “strike out” and they really get into it… otherwise they try to completely obliterate their writing making a blotch and a hole. A couple other bonuses to ditching the pencils is no more sharpening- less noise, mess, wasted time for me and them. And it takes less hand effort to write with a pen than a pencil– more effort can go into the thoughts than into making marks on the paper. Now is the time to buy your pen stash. They are cheapest at back to school time, though you won’t need as many as you think because they last way longer than pencils. The kids get over the clicking mechanism pretty quickly and it has never been an issue in the classroom- they are better than caps which get lost, and clicking it in stops tips from being exposed when put away. I have been doing it this way for years. Thanks for the post!
So trying this in September! First thing on the supply closet request: a box or two of pens!
I’ve been talking about this for years!! Also there’s things to consider about the grip and effort issues with pencils – I find that often young writers (and old ones like me! LOL) can get hand fatigue from pencils but most pens write much smoother!). Shared to my FB page!!
This opens up lots of opportunities for other children to notice changes in their peer’s writing as well. Even after 20 years, I’m still working on using “I notice” instead of “I like the way…” I need to carry Peter Johnston book with my conferring notes or something.
This is awesome, Beth! It helps us know how to say this to kids. I also love the gentle reminder at the end about always wanting to revise our teaching!
Elizabeth, hurrah! Erasing for even very young students can be very problematic. Also, some reluctant writers, I have one in my own house, get into the habit of – write a word – erase two words, write two words, erase three words. The writing never progresses because they get into such a habit of erasing nearly everything they write. Thank you for the permission to cut the erasers off the pencils! I may even hand out pens to first graders – gasp! Maybe not.
Thanks for giving the language to do this! This is an area I definitely need to work on!
Thank you for encouraging the eraser-free classroom – suggested rule I have long had in place. Resistance comes from HS students who like a ‘clean page’ – but this eventually works itself out. Students will use pens and some will choose different color pens when they ‘cross out’ – whatever makes it stress free for the student.
The list of reasons is so helpful! I also believe in pens and especially Flair markers because the writing shows up so clearly on the document camera so all the students can see it while sharing during mid-workshop interruption or even during mini-lesson.
Asking students to show “cross outs” on google docs has also become a mantra so that revisions and progress can also be seen!
Great point about google docs, Fran! This is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit! And I totally agree that Flair pens are the BEST!
This is a great discussion topic for our PD sessions as grade level groups come together again after the summer. I’m also curious about your thoughts on older students who primarily use an electronic device for writing, it’s so easy for them to “erase” and then we may never really know of their ongoing revision.
I eradicated the value judgment words (I like…, I love…) after doing Responsive Classroom training in 2006. I feel as though I’m on a quest to help teachers eradicate those phrases from their repertoire. So glad I’m not alone with that thinking. Can’t wait to share this piece with other Ts!
Btw: If we use pens (like you suggested in the past), erasing is a non-issue. Pens for all!
You’ve answered some questions for me in this post. As long as there is no erasing, pencils will suffice. Writers love pens, but purchasing pens for two blocks can be expensive.
I see the need for no erasing or whiteout; how could we figure out the writer’s issue, if we can not see it! It’s not tangible! Therefore, I can’t coach a writer through an obstacle.
Thank you for your post.
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