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When Revision Doesn’t Work

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For this week’s Slice of Life, I decided to write a found poem from some of the golden lines shared during our #twtblog Twitter chat on Monday evening.  The problem was, by the time I started working on it, the clock was nearing midnight and I was exhausted. My mind felt fuzzy. I put the words down, knowing they desperately needed to be fixed up. Morning came and with the day’s busy schedule looming, I knew I only had a little pocket of time to revise and post my Slice. I wanted to capture the essence of what was shared during the chat in a fresh and inspiring way. I wanted the poem to be a tribute to this community of writers. I revised but knew I needed to revise more, yet I was out of time.  You can find the poem I posted here. (It needs work!)

For me, and so many writers, revision is a natural and necessary part of the writing process.  We, who write often, know that our first attempts are often just the beginning and certainly not the work that makes its way out into the world. The more we care about a piece, the more we revise. But do our students feel this way? Do our students understand revision?

These very questions were raised this past Saturday, when I participated in a workshop hosted by the Long Island Writing Project. It was facilitated by Dr. Jane Maher, an accomplished writer and professor at Nassau Community College. The title of the workshop was, “When Revision Doesn’t Work- What Do We Do About it?” As a third grade teacher, I deeply appreciated the chance to have this discussion with teachers across grade levels. College professors, high school, middle school and elementary teachers were all part of the conversation.

Dr. Maher began by asking us to take a minute, in writing,  to think about revision, feedback, how we personally feel about revision and how our students feel about revision.  She asked us if there is a disconnect between how we view revision and how our students understand revision.  Most of the group agreed there was a disconnect and students have difficulty with revision.

As I explored my feeling about revision in my writing, the first memory that came  was a comment from my 5th grade teacher about a writing assignment I had completed. I remember my teacher standing by the blackboard, and I asked her if she liked my story. She casually said, “It wasn’t your best.” 26 years later, I remember the sting of that comment. I’m certain she said kind things to me throughout that year, but you know- I can’t remember one. I can remember, with crystal clear clarity, that one comment about my writing. Reflecting on this incident made me think about the words we say to our students and how we approach changes that they need to make in their writing. I don’t recall the teacher showing me any part of my work that could have been revised or even having the conversation about revision. It was simply labeled “not as good” without me understanding why or how I could possibly make it better.

Students’ feelings were part of our conversation during the workshop. Dr. Maher shared some of her students’ writing. She teaches in the Basic Education department for students who need to strengthen their literacy skills before they can enroll in credited courses.  Many of the pieces she shared with us were deeply personal and emotional.  When a student is writing about being abandoned by a parent at a young age and how that impacted her life, how should the teacher respond? When you want students to feel safe, supported, and encouraged to write, how do you address major issues in structure, organization, elaboration, and mechanics? How do you instruct reluctant and reticent writers, with major skill deficits, when they write about such personal and painful life events?

I used to think professional workshops were where you would go to get answers, but now I know that the best ones are where you find more questions. I’ve learned there are no easy solutions to complex problems, but collaborating, sharing, discussing, questioning, and brainstorming with other colleagues is an important way to have a deeper understanding of whatever you are wrestling with. Fellow Slicer and Long Island Writing Project friend, Barbara Suter, wrote a post about the very same workshop I describe here, focusing on the gift of collaboration and teachers having the chance to read, write, listen, and share ideas with each other.

This workshop was part of the Long Island Writing Project Saturday Series, focused around the notion that “Writing Matters.” As we strive to model and demonstrate for our students that writing matters in our lives, with revision playing a key role in the writing process, will students learn to embrace revision? What are some ways you have approached revision with your students?

6 thoughts on “When Revision Doesn’t Work Leave a comment

  1. I have found in my own writing that sometimes revision is embedded into the writing process. And when the writing is quick, like your blog post, there may be no need for revision. You may not feel like it was a great poem, but it communicated well how you felt about the Twitter chat and this community. That was the point, right? And yet I have been rewriting a novel in verse for many years now. Too many to count. I could revise it for 10 more years, actually, and not feel like it is the best I’ve ever done. With my students, there are some pieces we sit with a revise. But there are some that serve another purpose and don’t need or want revision. Our students do not have the stamina to work on a piece of writing more than once or twice. That’s just a fact. One thing that does help is composing by hand and then typing. There are always revisions made as they type. I agree with Kimberley that every piece of writing is a step within itself. A colleague of mine once told me that kids tend to revise across pieces of writing rather than on one particular piece. I am trying to relax about revision. I don’t want it to become a chore. Thanks for bringing this up.

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  2. A retired teacher here, but one working with “revision” in the stories we TELL. My own, as a performing storyteller with a big gig FRIDAY….. this talk of the gentleness of revision helps me – at 64! My struggle is that I improvise (despite rehearsal), because the audience present AFFECTS me! Have to trust what comes, and accept that for that night I gave my “finished” product. AND I appreciate and honor the stories students tell when I’m in a school residency. I nudge, and I watch when my nudge stings or pushes my young story-composers to a place they DON’T want to go. Oh….. and in the end I simply TRUST. Have to. I’m only a visitor. A fellow teller/teacher stung me once when I was new to telling as performance. “LESS IS MORE… you ever heard of that?” Oh…… it was a STAB since I admired that friend. But…. those words have served me. Hope they will Friday night. The sting is 98% gone, and the value of the comment is a help. GREAT work, this post. So grateful to read this blog when I can. MISS having “kids” of my own … but so grateful for freelance teaching. My book about telling/revision is available in e-form from Stenhouse. Storyteller, Storyteacher. It was a great joy to write how storyTELLING changed my teaching of writing.

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  3. I think the revision process for those of us that are new to Writers Workshop would be best if it came from the student identifying what THEY want to revise. How can THEY make their writing more visual to their readers?The focus being on conveying a message, sharing something special and not on what we think they should revise. If we are to build self-directed writers, we need to provide them opportunities to BE self directed. Thanks for sending these daily posts and inspiring me to reflect on this process .
    Tammy

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  4. I think having students tell us what they would like to work on helps us get to the heart of what matters to them. I may not have gone in that direction, but if the student is invested the revision process will be more successful. This also allows me to generate small groups of students who are focusing on their lead, their voice, their character development etc. and the group should be a great platform for them to experience each other’s writing and focus on that one small piece. Providing plenty of mentor texts for them to refer to is also an opportunity to generate discussions and revisions. Not every piece of writing needs to be fully edited either. Each revision is a baby step toward the greater product.

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  5. Kathleen – That’s very powerful! I, too, know there is a disconnect with my students with the idea of revision. I also know that it is human nature for us to focus on and remember the harsh words rather than the praise…why is that?? I think if we build a trusting community within our classroom, then we can have those revision discussions – of course beginning with what the student has done well. What we like in their writing and maybe using that little part as a mentor for the class. Then asking them to “try” something in another part that will help communicate their meaning to their audience. Thanks for sharing!
    Janie

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