This week, I had the opportunity to watch a class of 3rd graders work in a realistic fiction unit during writing workshop. This unit of study, which appears in the curriculum for several grade levels, allows students to think deeply about characters. They spend several days creating a main character and planning their stories around that character. They tell their story across their fingers and use a story mountain to map out the events. They draft their stories, and they work with a partner to revise them. Although this revision can be done in a number of ways, this post is about how students in Ms. May’s 3rd grade class work together to revise their realistic fiction.
Every writing workshop lesson follows the same format, and a lesson on revision is no different. There is a connection to previous learning, explicit modeling by the teacher, a chance for students to practice the new strategy, and a link to future learning. For this lesson, Ms. May modeled the use of a new tool for partners to use while revising. She put the checklist on her whiteboard and filled it out for her own story. (She had already modeled the drafting of this story in previous lessons.) She then asked one of her students to play the role of her partner, and they went through the list of questions. The student answered each question with “yes” or “no,” and Ms. May planned her revisions accordingly. She then had the students fill out the sheet for their own story and sent them off to trade with their partner. (Click here to download the checklist they used.)
The “magic” of any writing workshop happens during the independent time. When students went off to their writing spots, they took only a minute or two to settle into their work. While Ms. May met with some students in individual conferences, other students continued to fill out the questions for their realistic fiction story, and still others switched stories with their partner right away. As they read, I could see them giving some real thought to whether or not the character’s feelings, traits, and problem were clear in their partner’s writing.
I noticed that a few students were able to answer “yes” to every question about their partner’s writing. This was a bit problematic, as those writers weren’t quite sure how to revise their work. I asked Ms. May if I could stop the class to give them a mid-workshop reminder. I stopped all of them and told them about the issue I was seeing. I then reminded them of a few revision strategies they had already learned, and told them that they might try some of those today even if their piece of writing had a clear character with a problem, feelings, and traits. They got right back to work, and many of them began to pull apart the pages of their writing and look at it very carefully.
I worked with one student, Charles, who used an even more specific strategy to revise his work. Charles had answered “no” to two of the revision questions, but he was honestly surprised that those things weren’t clear in his writing, since they were very clear in his head. (This is the beauty of a revision checklist or questionnaire!) He decided to assign a symbol to each question answered with a no. Then, he put that same symbol in his writing to show where he had made an appropriate revision. This made his revision work very visible for him, for his partner, and for his teacher.
Working off of a checklist gives students a very appropriate scaffold for the hard work of revision. I was pleasantly surprised at the revision risks Ms. May’s students were willing to take so that their writing would be clearer for their partner. If they’re not writing for an audience, why are they writing at all?