Submitted by Timothy Boyle on February 14, 2012
A Big Idea that came out of my EduCon 2.4 experience was creating conditions in which failure is acceptable, useful, and fast. Students failing at something should be viewed as something instructive to both learner and educator. A classroom without risk damns those who don’t “get it” the first time. I really took to this idea and thought it related well to the kind of writing instruction I do with my 2nd grade classes.
So when my first group of 2nd graders came to me this week, I had the chance to apply some of this thinking into practice. One of the four skills 2nd graders are working on in the 3rd report card period is to edit their writing. This skill is a year-long process but I haven’t felt like they really understood what I meant by “edit”.
You can’t edit if you haven’t failed in some way. I needed some language to express this to the kids however. “You’ve failed” won’t work; they’ve heard it too much already. In a writing strategies conversation from this weekend a teacher shared the idea of having students write purposely bad sentences. The logic behind the idea is that students might be afraid to participate if they can get it wrong; removing that fear elicits more participation.
Class started with “write three terrible sentences.” The kids didn’t believe me right away. After some coaxing that I wanted them to write as badly as they could, like when they were in kindergarten, the writing began in earnest. When I saw some children struggling we all stopped and put some ideas on the board about what it meant to write badly. The students came up with ideas like having an incomplete thought, run-on sentence, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. After we really defined what bad writing was, everyone went back to work.
Wonderfully, students asked within minutes of writing if they could share. First students shared at their tables. The kids really enjoyed showing off how bad they could write. While sharing, students asked if they could go to other tables. We thought of some rules; move slowly, talk quietly, you have to say yes if someone asks you to read their work. The discussions were about what was wrong with the sentences, exactly the kind of “kid talk” that I know I need more of in my room.
Class ended with editing our bad sentences. The students were just as pleased about fixing what they created as the initial creation. They were still sharing, now about how they could improve their writing looking at the list of reasons to edit on the board. After thinking about this lesson there might be a tragic flaw. I don’t want students to hear “edit this” as “your work is bad”. Next class we’ll have to do some more editing of good sentences to great sentences to cement the concept of improvement over fixing. All told, I was happy with the lesson. The students enjoyed starting with wrong to get to better. The real test of this idea will be the next time that we write narratives and it comes time to peer edit their work.