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Getting Strategic About Teaching Revision in Writing

James Dittes

Last October I met the author Lauren Groff at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. I wanted a chance to hear from the author of a favorite book, Arcadia, and I wanted an autograph for my copy of her newest book, Fates & Furies. Most of all, I wanted to ask her about writing.

In a presentation she described writing Fates & Furies in longhand. "I began with a story," she said, "and then I wrote it again and again." As she spoke, her left hand held an imaginary writing pad at her waist, and her right hand scribbled across it. She mentioned 39 drafts in all.

As I handed her my copy of her book later, I told Groff that I was a high school writing teacher and asked for a tip for my students. "Emphasize revision," she told me. Then she repeated it—her writing hand waving reflexively in the air as before—"Revision. Revision."

I had been considering revision for some time. Getting students to revise is harder than getting them to write. While I often assign revision activities, I seldom see much more than corrected grammar or other superficial changes. Moreover, it seems I spend more time grading essays than ever.

A few months later, I read Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway, and found answers to the issues that Groff's advice had raised.

For many years I had taught through the "drafting process." My students wrote, waited for feedback, then wrote again to address my corrections. Lemov, Driggs, and Woolway argued instead for "impromptu revisers" who can ask questions and revise as they compose.

One of the teachers they feature posted a "Revision List" in her classroom to ingrain the concept. These included "use active voice" and "include transitional phrases," among others.

I used these recommendations as a basis for my own classroom list. To mix things up, I developed them into the mnemonic, GIVITUP.

Mnemonics are really useful in teaching writing, particularly for struggling writers who need guidance for things such as organization or revision. These seven elements—from activating verbs (V) to checking that the thesis (T) fully answers the question—also provide a nice focus for writing lessons the first nine weeks of school.

More than ever, high school writers need to be strategic&mdashfrom developing ideas, to writing, to revising and publishing. The emphasis on testing in grades 3-11 plays a part, but so do standards shifts that emphasize college and career-ready writing.

This calls for teachers to be strategic, too, in leaving behind teacher-centered writing instruction and providing paths for students and their collaborators to follow. My GIVITUP list is just one teaching shift that can help students produce meaningful writing. Lauren Groff said it best. "Emphasize revision." And that is just what I plan to do.

James A. Dittes teachers English and German at Station Camp High School in Gallatin, Tenn. He is a national fellow with America Achieves and blogs at Learning Out Loud.

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