A Life Full of Revision

I saw one in early August this year, winging its way over our Fine Line Buckthorns, past our Red Maple tree, through our verdant yard. Transfixed, I hoped it would land on one of our scarlet day lilies just like the first time I beheld one (back when I held Ingrid and held Jonas’ hand). But this Tiger Swallowtail–golden-winged and delicate–floated away, on its own journey of transformation. And while I once marveled at its beauty with my children, this year I marveled at the metamorphosis the butterfly endured in order to take flight. 

Even as that caterpillar egg (where, if you look closely, the caterpillar inside is visible) becomes a caterpillar; even as that caterpillar decimates leaves and sheds its skin several times to grow; even as that caterpillar forms a chrysalis and, as it begins its transformation, actually digests itself, using highly organized groups of cells to redirect its creation; even as there is seemingly destruction–something new emerges. And, after all this, the butterfly must hang upside down to allow its wings to harden before it takes flight. A butterfly in its colorful splendor is the culmination of a life full of revision.

Maya Angelou once noted that “We delight in the beauty of the of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” She’s right, of course. We reduce the complexity of the transformation in the same ways many of our students reduce the complexity of revision in writing. The beautiful butterfly doesn’t exist without significant change just as beautiful writing doesn’t suddenly and artfully emerge. So many of our students need to learn that once an idea is born into the world, this idea can and will transform–many times!–given the right conditions. This learning can transform the possibilities they see for themselves as writers, possibilities often limited by the misconception that some people are good writers while others are not. 

So, what do we do as teachers? How do we provide the right conditions, the ones that nurture (to help grow, develop, or succeed) destruction that leads to transformation? And, how can we help them look inside their work to see the special parts that hold the potential for splendor?

  1. The pitch: Have students pitch their ideas for writing projects to one another (Liz Prather’s Project Based Writing is an excellent resource for this). This lets ideas live, born into the world by sharing with peers, providing time and space for growth and development. And, sometimes, necessary destruction. 
  2. Feedback: Share this video with students about the nature of offering and receiving feedback. This may transform their understanding of the power of their responses to one another. 
  3. Modeling and practicing revision: Consistent practice in small ways in notebooks allows students to internalize the ways to direct their revision. Ask them to add, delete, rearrange, or substitute in their writing. Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle speak to the importance of this, especially with writing that is generative. More importantly, as teachers, we can and should model this, making it visible how and why we transform our writing. 
  4. Showing: Use the work of other students, snagging Google History screenshots to make visible the kinds of revision that occurs. Discuss these together. Show them our own, too. This is like looking inside the chrysalis! Whoa!
  5. Conferring: The questions we ask and the micro lessons we offer during this time can both trigger transformation and call attention to the parts already bright with meaning. Celebrating with students where a move works may prove a catalyst for more revision. 
  6. Destruction: Encourage students to print drafts and cut them apart. All the parts may be there, but they may need to be rearranged or to be developed further. 
  7. Letting students create their own analogy: Engage students in creating their own analogies about revision. They create meaning while we glimpse their thinking.
  8. Managing their creative process: This video from Tiffany Shlain helps writers think about their own processes. One of the most important aspects it focuses on is time. Writers need time to hang upside down with their ideas before they take flight. 

Of course, the limitation of comparing the nature of revision to metamorphosis is that it likens writing to a cycle. But writing is and must be recursive for our writers to successfully transform their writing. When our writers embrace this, then we can stand back with wonder and appreciation and watch them take flight.

Kristin Jeschke is an Instructional Coach for Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa (where she spent time prior as an English teacher). She’s standing back, watching her colleagues write in their writer’s notebooks, wondering about the potential in each. What ideas will take flight? Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

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