Revision Strategies that Make the Cut: Helping Students Be Incisive

I learned to be more incisive as a writer as an AP Language and Composition student (somewhere in between rocking flannel and rocking out to Pearl Jam). My perspicacity heightened with my argument research paper, which I had written by hand. Yes, by hand. We owned a computer, but I still expressed myself better pen to page (I’d make the case that writing by hand is still important for our students. Um–notebook time, anyone?). As I read what I had written, preparing to make revisions, I knew I wanted to rearrange the sections. So, I reached for scissors and tape. And–gasp–I cut up my essay, by paragraph, by sentence even. Sprawled on my bedroom floor, I spent the rest of that evening moving parts around until satisfied the parts built toward my whole.

My students’ body language says it all when I offer this story as the lead in to cutting up their own writing. They lean back, raising eyebrows, looking at me quizzically. I imagine their thoughts: “We have cut and paste for that, Mrs. J. You know, on our smartphones.” “Oh rats (emphasis added), I didn’t print my paper. Ha! Now I don’t have to do that.” “I like the way it is. Why would I want to cut it up?” This last query I think is most important. Writing is an act of making, of creation. As humans, we typically get attached to the things we make; we grow to love our words and the way we’ve orchestrated them on the page. Some students need to wrestle with this implicit bias more in order to discover the gaps in their writing. By making my students cut up their drafts, giving them a different kind of constraint, I’m helping them to engage in cognitive conflict, the kind of disequilibrium they need to continue their work revising and to move forward as writers.

These are 5.5 of the strategies so far (I’m always culling) that have made the cut in my classroom.

1. For Invention and Structure

Process: During the planning phase for their argument research papers, I offer old books and magazines to my students, directing them Disney Imagineer Style to cut words and images related to their issues and then arrange them on the page, keeping their audiences in mind.

Benefits: This kind of gathering, cutting, and moving allows for intuitive structuring of their papers AND sometimes engenders creative analogies within their justification (warrants).

2. For Structure

Process: To further gather ideas for structuring, I direct students to cut apart mentor texts to see how they are structured. Typically, I advise them to start with paragraphing but then encourage them to make further cuts and move text as needed in order to discover the ordering of the text and to label and note for themselves what moves the writers made.

Benefits: This exploration compels students–because they must analyze the implications of how the writer arranged the text–to more purposefully arrange and connect their own ideas.

3. For Development

Process: Students begin by cutting up their papers by paragraphs. They then label the purpose of each section or determine what question each paragraph answers, keeping a post-it with the thesis/theme/point near to see if each paragraph aligns. They can then begin moving paragraphs or parts around to see how to manipulate time, to see if there can be greater logical interrelatedness, or to see if parts require more information.

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This student sample shows a narrative cut up and labeled.

Benefits: Cutting apart their own texts challenges students to determine the efficacy of development in their writing, especially because this compels them to examine one section–in isolation–at a time (something more difficult to do digitally). Here is one of my students talking through how he used the process and what he discovered.

4. For Purpose

Process: Here the cutting gets more minute: I ask students to cut out the center of gravity sentence (their thesis, claim, so what, point, etc.) to see if everything really does rest on it. After cutting it out (and sometimes just transferring it to a post it), students can move it next to different parts of their paper to see if the parts not only relate but if they build toward this.

Benefits: Sometimes the benefit here comes in the realization that they need a so what or that the parts don’t align or that the sentence itself lacks strength.

5. For Style

Process: Cutting out where they used a mentor text move and seeing if they applied that move to their own writing gets students looking at sentence construction.

Benefits: If we ask our students to “lift” a move from a mentor text, can’t we also ask them to lift their text and compare it back to the original, moving them side by side to determine how effective the application of the mentor text move is after all?

 5.5 For . . .?

Possible Processes: Cut away what tells instead of shows. Cut out all of the comparisons in the text to look for patterns, connectivity, etc. Cut out the best sentence from each paragraph to look for ways to build meaningful repetition.

Benefits: I don’t know yet. These are half-formed ideas right now. But I know they could help my students become more discerning as writers.

Amy Estersohn wrote in her recent post about the tools she relies on for workshop. I’d like to add one more tool: scissors. This tool inspires strategy, and thus, our writers. I frequently tell my students that writing is made of moveable parts. So, let’s get our students moving it!

Kristin Jeschke frequently finds scraps of paper and post it notes around her house–writing that may or may not have made the cut of her budding cartoonist nine-year-old and her emerging storyteller six-year-old. Of course, on days when her students are armed with scissors, her classroom looks similar. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

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4 thoughts on “Revision Strategies that Make the Cut: Helping Students Be Incisive

  1. […] Students writers can benefit by learning the art of DELETING. Kristin Jeschke writes thoughtfully here about the value of teaching students to be incisive. Our 100-word memoirs aren’t long enough […]

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  2. blog0rama March 18, 2018 at 10:50 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Mrs. Love's Blog-0-Rama:.

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  3. sgoldbla March 18, 2018 at 9:30 am Reply

    I am taken aback here by all of the possibilities. Scissoring through images as part of the creative process (“imaginering”) to using this as a deeply reflective step in revision is a brilliant way for students to cobble together meaning. (Seeking the “center of gravity”? I think I might faint from its brilliance.) So much to think about here and again, so many possibilities. Years ago my eighth graders took to scissoring through a poem they’d written as part of their revision process for their piece. They were so reticent to make changes with pen or pencil, but once they began to cut and rearrange, the possibilities and logic and flow became more relevant and clear to them. And I was simply asking them to re-envision the architecture of their piece. The idea of doing this with an essay, a narrative and then breaking down and examining each part via dry erase marginalia (or any sort of jotting medium) adds depth and a vital metacognition to the process. Thank you for pushing my thinking, and thank you so much for sharing!

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  4. Amy Estersohn March 18, 2018 at 8:12 am Reply

    Love the possibilities here and the physical act of taking apart and annotating.

    Hopefully this link works – this is author Gina Damico’s outline of her novel after a major draft, I believe. This image just always stuck out to me as a physical / visual explanation of a written work.

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