RATS in the Classroom

Teaching writing is one of my consistent struggles. Writing instruction in many ways feels like some strange mystical land into which I’ve not been granted entry.  For a long time, I just whined about it. But since returning from NCTE, I’ve been reading Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher and Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle and trying to implement some of their strategies. 

Students have been rewriting African folktales in a variety of ways and their drafts are due tomorrow. I decided to try a strategy for revision Kelly describes in his book. He describes the STAR (Substitute, Take things out, Add, and Rearrange) acronym Richard Cornwelll devised. As I wrote the letters on the board at the beginning of class, one of the students suggested it could be RATS. That led to a minute of word scramble (ARTS, SRAT, TARS), but students decided RATS was the way to go. (I really hate rats but anything to get kids on board.) Students brainstormed a list of the kinds of actions they might take for each category.

One class was struggling with the difference between revision and editing and kept suggesting adding commas or substituting commas with periods. While I emphasized these were good mistakes to correct, I told them we were focusing on improving writing, not just fixing grammatical mistakes. I shared that I had sent a piece of writing to a friend (Jim Burke) last night. He responded with an entire page of suggestions, none of which had anything to do with my grammar or spelling. They were floored. At first they thought I didn’t have any grammatical mistakes or maybe my friend wasn’t really a teacher 🙂 I assured them I’d made mistakes and showed them the back of my Teacher’s Daybook to prove that he was a teacher. I told them my friend was more interested at this point in helping me use words to better express myself than making sure the punctuation was exactly right.

The exchange brought home for me how much some teachers (including myself more than I’d like to admit) focus on fixing the grammatical mistakes when teaching writing. On the occasions when I’ve done this in the past, it’s been primarily for two reasons- 1) It’s quicker to correct the easy mistakes and 2) I didn’t feel like I had the tools to help students who were struggling do anything past fixing the easy mistakes.

After we’d made the list of possible revising actions, students split into groups to revise news stories written for the same unit by last year’s class. (Always fun to critique the older kids’ work.) As I walked around the room I heard things like- “We should replace _______ with _________ because it is more specific.” or “I think this part will make more sense if we rearrange these three sentences.” After they finished their edits, we reconvened to discuss which action had been most helpful for revising each article. Students noted that different actions had worked better depending on the article.

At the end of the class, I sent this tweet.

Thank you, Penny, Kelly, and Jim! Today’s class was made possible by you.


One thought on “RATS in the Classroom

  1. Wow. Great way to pay it forward, Meredith. I love those moments when the lightbulb goes on. It makes all the hard work worth it, doesn’t it? My students never believe I could need all the revising, either. It always looks “perfect” to them until I show them the changes.

    Well done! And I second the thank you to Jim, Penny, and Kelly!

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