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?