Like all English teachers, what I want for my students is not just for them to score well in my class—I want to help them build the skills they’ll need to be effective communicators across the curriculum and throughout their lives. So the more I can set up conditions that allow them to be in control of their writing, the better. There are several strategies I’ve applied over the years to transfer ownership of their writing to my students.
Opening the Gate
One of the biggest pitfalls I see in my teaching is when students become reliant on me to be the gatekeeper of good writing. Some surefire signs that this is happening: They rely on weasel words such as good and bad in talking about their writing, using terms that don’t really describe anything helpful; they don’t know how to use a rubric; and I hear questions like, “Miss, is this good?” or “Miss, can you read this?”
I’ve found regularly using model texts in the classroom to be the best way to cede my role as gatekeeper. These include models I write, but the better option is to use samples of student writing. We deconstruct these models together, usually with color coding, annotations, and think-aloud strategies, so they get specific ideas about how and why different writing strategies work in different situations.
Something I did this year that worked well was a station activity with student examples. The students each wrote a paragraph in advance, and I selected some based on relevant skills. They traveled to each of the stations in groups, discussing strengths and making comparisons to their own paragraphs, and finally they independently reflected on a graphic organizer.
However, the single most important strategy to stepping down as gatekeeper is the collaborative scoring of student samples. For this process, I pair students up and give them a rubric. They have to read samples and come to a consensus for each criterion. After this process is complete, we discuss as a whole class.
Guiding Students to Reflect on Their Work
Once students become gatekeepers, a critical next step is metacognition.
I build in lots of opportunities for students to reflect on their writing throughout the entire process. Recently, I tasked them with bringing half a draft to class. Their first task in class was to complete a reflection form. I used that to guide writing conferences, zeroing in on their self-identified areas of feedback.
Often, after mini-lessons and/or writing workshops, I ask students to email me a plan as an exit slip outlining what they noticed in their writing and what their specific next steps will be.
Passing the Gavel
When students have an idea of what constitutes good writing and have reflected on that in relation to their own work, it’s time for self-evaluation. We all know how time-intensive grading writing can be. Transferring ownership of their writing to the students can include having them evaluate their work, which takes some of the onus off the teacher and gives students self-produced feedback that is ongoing and formative.
Very rarely do I have students submit an essay without self-scoring. If it is the final draft, I have them do this scoring directly on the rubric. One of my favorite pieces of feedback to give is “I 100 percent agree with your self-reflection!” This puts the student in the driver’s seat of their learning. If they are still at the draft stage, I have them complete forms I create specifically for the task they’re working on.
I also almost always build in time during class for peer feedback and evaluation of a completed draft. My favorite way to do this is with a graphic organizer broken down by rubric criteria. The first task is for students to note in writing the area they’re worried about and seeking feedback on. Then they pass their writing and that note to their partner or partners for feedback and/or scoring rounds.
Applying What They’ve Learned
All of this sets up the premise that students can be in charge of their writing. However, what really matters is the space to apply the feedback. So often—just as in teaching—there is so much data and not enough meaningful time to address it. Building in time for application is the final step in transferring ownership to students.
I like to do this throughout the writing process with small chunks. For example, I often have students write, evaluate, rewrite, and reflect on their thesis or topic sentences, or analysis. I also find that giving whole class feedback on patterns and then having students look for those patterns in their writing so they can revise them works well. Sometimes I present one student’s paper—keeping it anonymous—and we rework it as a whole class. Then everyone reworks their own piece by applying what they just learned.
These processes require a considerable amount of time, but ultimately they serve to transfer ownership of their writing and learning to students, which sets them up to be effective writers throughout their school years and beyond.