One of the things about teaching AP Biology that is a little different from less rigorous courses is the amount of time that needs to be spent on helping teach kids how to write worth a damn. For whatever reason(s), my students generally show up to me with the urge to write as non-technically as possible. It should be obvious to readers of this site that I am not immune from the urge toward more floral rhetoric than might be absolutely necessary, but I’m not writing scientifically here (in point of fact, I write precious little about science at all in this space). I am a semi-trained scientist, and a semi-trained writer, and as such I'd like to think that I know what sort of writing is appropriate for this venue, and what would have to change were I writing a paper for publication. My students don't seem to come to me with the ability to change their style for their audience. The one audience they do seem to write for (which I assume could be grossly categorized as “their English teachers”), seems to have conditioned them to think that any concept that can be explained in five words should be explained in more, and that whatever those words are, they should be filled with wonderfully colorful, descriptive adjectives, and all sorts of implicit value judgments. In short, they write in a way that is totally contrary to what I need them to do as aspiring scientists. I've written previously about my latest strategy to get rid of inappropriate words in my course. This post is not a revisiting of that technique (which is working quite well as far as I can tell). Rather, this post is a description of another technique that I have developed this year to help give my students a maximized amount of writing practice, with a minimized amount of my guidance or oversight. I call it “Weekend Writing”, and I think it’s going to stay in my toolbox for a while.
Weekend Writing is an iterative cyclical process. I’ve done three-week, and four-week cycles, and they both are useful. Here is the process:
Week 1: First Draft. In week one, students write a response to an AP exam prompt. I choose the prompt, and try to make it loosely aligned to the content that we are dealing with in class at the moment. Students post their response to the course forum (a private webspace that only the members of the class can see). I require that students write a “full credit” response, as dictated by an overt statement of how many points should be earned in each section. Students are also required to parenthetically indicate where they think they are receiving the points in their response. The completed First Draft response is due by midnight Sunday of the week on which it is assigned (hence Weekend Writing, a toungue-in-cheek nod to the reality that most of these responses are going to be written at the end of the working timeframe).
Week 2: Peer Feedback. In week two, every student in class is both peer-editor and peer-editee for another student. This is a non-reciprocal, rotating relationship (every student edits and is edited by a different student in the class each week), so as to prevent any grudges from forming. We have already had a long history of peer review in the course, and students are well aware of what constitutes constructive feedback, and what doesn’t. The open nature of the process also helps to prevent any ugliness from occurring. Editors are required to leave feedback about what they like, and what they think could be improved. Their editing is due by the end of the second week in the cycle.
Week 3: Revision. In week three, students revise their original response, incorporating the feedback left by their peers, along with any other revisions they feel are important. Along with the revisions, students are also required to write a concluding paragraph explaining what they have changed in their original response, and why they have changed it. A complete revised response with included analysis paragraph is due by the end of the third week in the cycle.
INSTRUCTOR FEEDBACK: The end of week three is the moment where I leave feedback on any and all responses that I feel warrant such things. It is my opportunity to leave comments to clean up any lingering misconceptions, and spotlight anything that I think is really great, or shows really great growth from the first week through the third. I’ll also leave global comments on the trends that I see in the group’s writing as a whole.
Week 4: Bonus week. I’ve only used week 4 once so far, but I could see it being used again. In week 4, students are asked to ape the format of the AP exam as much as possible in rewriting the response again from the ground up. I have students spend 3 minutes outlining their response and then time themselves at a firm 20 minutes totally rewriting their response knowing what they know now. I could also see a place in week 4 to post the actual scoring rubric and have students use that to frame their new answer, but I would really only do this if students were totally struggling, and mine haven’t been there yet. Actually, after the first Weekend Writing cycle, I haven’t even seen the need to use week four at all, since the lingering errors at the end of week three were pretty insignificant (and let’s be honest, a third rewrite of a response is a pretty heroic measure).
This is the Weekend Writing Cycle, quite possibly the most original idea I’ve had all year. I was interested in how well it would work with my class, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive. In our mid-year conferences, multiple students told me how much they appreciated the process, and how much they felt it was helping them frame their responses for the course. I was glad to hear it. Interestingly, in my conversations with my ELA colleagues, they have all mentioned that the same issues I have with my students writing are the ones that they are having, too. Turns out that ELA teacher have just as little use for overwritten rhetorical navel-gazing as we do in the sciences. This process gives me a way to help students shed that urge as much as possible, while still almost leaving me out of it entirely. Could I get similar effects by editing every student response? Maybe, but that would only encourage students to view this process as one that teaches them to write how I want them to because I'm telling them how, not because they are coming to it on their own, with a little help from their friends. I'm sure it won't surprise anyone that I have a distinct preference for the latter.