Collaborative Professional Development: A Workshop on Teaching Revision

This past week routine things were canceled again due to another significant snowfall, but there was an event looming on the horizon offered by the Long Island Writing Project that I was able to attend.  It was a workshop on how to teach revision in writing to one’s students. Recently retired, I nonetheless like to keep up with new developments and trends. Revision is by no means a new topic, but I was curious to see how other teachers handle it with their students in the new era of the Common Core.

The workshop was led by a very wise and experienced teacher who works with college-age students and female prisoners.  However, her older students exhibit many of the same issues that students in high-school and even lower grades do when it comes to writing coherently and with depth. Her approach to starting the discussion was to throw out a question and ask the group to write a short response that would then be shared with the group.  This made me appreciate the Writing Project all over again, since their model of shared inquiry is so refreshing compared with the usual stuff that is passed off to teachers as Professional Development.

In the interest of full disclosure here is where my own revision begins. When I first wrote this post several days ago, I gave a summary of the conversations that transpired through the two-hour workshop as we arrived at an understanding of the purpose of revision and how we could best communicate to our students the joy of revising as a piece gets ever closer to what we really meant to say.

This evening, however, I had an epiphany as I was taking a shower; one that caused me to change the focus of this piece. I realized that although covering the details of the discussion was important, what was more important to me was the feeling of overall satisfaction and happiness I experienced while collaborating with a dozen other teachers.

I am always fascinated by what teachers have to say; after all, aren’t they the ones walking the walk, not just talking the talk, every day? And since these are all teachers who are passionate about writing (since they are attending a LIWP workshop on a Saturday morning), they did have a lot of good ideas to share.

The first hour was devoted to how we present revision in our teaching lives compared with how we deal with it in our personal writing. The second part of the morning was spent talking about how we would handle reading a set of widely diverse papers on the weekend in need of revision and getting back to the class on Monday with a strategy for teaching revision. Almost everyone agreed that the revision challenges within a paper and moreover a set of papers could not be tackled at once; that the students needed time to reflect on their writing before they could improve it. As one of the participants stated, they needed to “ache with the desire” to revise their own words.

Everyone was on board with the ideas being shared, but then the workshop leader said (I paraphrase here): “I do this with the students until the final couple of weeks in the semester and then I switch gears to teach them how to pass the writing test they will take for their final.” The air went out of the room.

Several teachers had already referred to how the Common Core demands had made it impossible to have Writing Workshop in their K-12 classrooms. How creative writing had gone out the window and been replaced by more formulaic writing such as: How would you take this document and compare it with the ideas in another given document? This kind of writing may be necessary in the adult world, but we all agreed it is not the kind of writing that elicits passion and commitment from young or developing writers. Nor does it help them to find their voice or tell their stories, all of which are essential steps in becoming a reflective, passionate writers.

At the conclusion of the workshop, we were asked to write one sentence, a takeaway, about what we had learned in the workshop. The consensus was that the student writing must drive the lesson on revision. The teacher reading the set of papers must assess where the students are as writers and teach the next class based on their needs, not his/her agenda or the specific demands of the Common Core.

Though I was proud of our hard work at grasping the significance of revision and how to convey this to our students, I was even more proud of our collaboration. My takeaway was that this was a workshop which allowed participants to really listen to each other’s ideas, respond to the ideas presented and eventually reach a consensus that allowed for individual differences. This was real professional development; the kind teachers are rarely offered but the kind we really need to improve our own writing as well as that of our students.

“Houston, we’ve got a problem!”