There is nothing easy about teaching writing to middle schoolers. The editing is hard enough: They are just grasping basic mechanics and conventions despite years of instruction. Their spelling is still developing. And grammar?!? You could spend all day working on that alone!
But once you can get kids to start producing work that looks like actual writing… meaning everything isn’t “centered” on the page; there are actual paragraphs rather than one large block of text; and you can distinguish dialogue from narration, you are left with an even more difficult task:
Asking a middle schooler to actually rewrite all parts of their essay is like asking this middle-aged mom to get up at 5am every morning to exercise. Re: Expect lots and lots of whining, protesting, and dramatic body language.
It is true that when middle schoolers feel “done,” they are, indeed, done. However, when it comes to revising, I’ve found that it’s less about just not wanting to, and more about having no idea HOW to revise their work. And in working with teachers, I’ve found that it’s sorta the same for them: they aren’t exactly sure HOW to teach kids to revise their work.
We all have great mentor pieces that we use as models for good writing. We use excellent excerpts, poems, short stories, picture books, even individual mentor sentences to SHOW kids what they should be doing. But, in my experience, if you don’t show kids where that good writing started so they can see its evolution after the revision process, you aren’t being all that helpful. It would be like if someone gave you a map that only showed your destination rather than the path from where you currently are to your destination.
Recently, I was working on a personal narrative unit with my middle schoolers. Every.single.year I wind up with a slew of first drafts that are nothing more than a description of a favorite vacation, their favorite teacher, a mean kid at school, or a memorable class trip. These aren’t stories, but rather itineraries or lists. Many include awesome similes and descriptive language, but at the end of page, they have nothing more than a detailed description of an experience.
Now, even though I use a BUNDLE of mentor texts, it’s difficult for kids to see how those good stories evolved without first seeing where they began. Of course, we don’t have access to all of Patricia Polacco’s first drafts of my favorite mentors, and so I need to make sure that I create some first and revised drafts that kids can see.
For this specific lesson, I wanted to kids to understand that a personal narrative should be a story and not a description. To do this, I explained that their piece should have a theme, a take-away message for their readers to connect with.
I use this fancy anchor chart to explain:
But then, I need to SHOW them what this looks like. I start by sharing the first draft of a “narrative.” (You can tell the kids you wrote it or it is from a student you had previously… the lie is your choice 😉 This piece is really nothing more than a pretty solid summary of a trip to Disney World. Most kids will read it and say, “it’s pretty good.” But… it’s not a story.
After reading this, we will discuss what the author did well. There is description, transition words, and some figurative language. Then, we will look at our questions from the anchor chart. This is where you need to be skilled in orchestrating your discussion. You want kids to know that while there is good stuff here, it’s not a story. There is a setting and we know the “characters” involved. But, there is no storyline to follow, no conflict, no character development, no theme. All this essay does is give a play-by-play of a trip.
Next, I will talk about how it’s important to “write small” when you are learning. Ralph Fletcher talks a lot about “seed ideas.” I’ll ask the kids if there is anything from this piece, a tiny “seed” that has potential to be a good story. Ask questions like: “Is there a part you’d like to know more about? A part that might be a little more dramatic when told in detail? A part that sounds more interesting than the rest?” Lead the kids to decide that the part where the little sister gets lost sounds like it could have potential.
Explain that the writer decided to focus on just that part, too. And so they worked and worked and worked to revise their narrative to just tell that one “little” story, the story of the sister getting lost. Share the revised piece.
Talk about what is the same from the first draft. Don’t skip this part! It’s important that kids see that this new idea came directly from the first draft and so they don’t necessarily have to “start all over again.” Next, talk about the “story” that is being told – discuss the conflict, plot, and theme. Finally, work through the questions on the anchor chart. The answers for this piece will be much clearer than with the first piece.
Have the kids read their own narrative and decide if it’s more like the first draft or the revised draft. If they say the first, ask them what they need to do to move toward the second.
You will need to repeat the lesson lots and lots of times before they start to really “get it.” I also recommend that you keep both versions of the draft on hand so you can easily refer back to them.
I have a copy of the anchor chart and drafts here!!
(Note, the text on the slides in Google is editable just in case you want to make some changes (or find a typo!!), so if you share them directly with students, they could delete the writing. You might want to change the slides to images if you choose to share digitally.)
I hope you see the value in showing kids both the “how it started” and “how it’s going” drafts. For any important revision lesson that I teach, I always try to make a “before” and “after” so we can compare. You will be amazed at what a difference this makes when asking kids to revise their own work.