Here is how you can make your Writing class students’ and fellow Writing-Course colleagues feel satisfied at the end of a term. And here is how you can save yourself a large amount of time, energy and reduce stress.
The final class of the term has just finished. You look at your Level 4 Writing class roster and choose which students whom you are not sure if they have the writing skills necessary to be successful at the next level. Let’s say that out of your 16 students, six are in this “borderline” category. (You are confident in your decision to pass the other eight students and fail two.) You organize a file with writing samples for each of these six students.1 You give this file to the teacher at the next level, Level 5. That teacher reads your six students’ writings, and the next day meets with you. She tells you that she is confident that three of the students look ready for Level 5. You spend about 15-20 minutes talking about the other three students, reading parts of their essays together (sometime aloud) and analyzing their work.2 For students whom you both are still unsure about, you can look at more samples of their writing. In the end, the two of you decide one of them could pass and two should repeat Level 4. You feel assured that your students will be in the right level the next term and that you can explain to any student who might wonder why they failed what they need to work on in order to pass the next term. 3
The reason why this process is so powerful is that it resolves all these troublesome situations:
Situation 1) Teachers are disappointed by the writing skills of students being promoted to their classes. A Level 4 teacher has discovered early in a term that some of the students in the Writing class who were promoted by a teacher at a lower level (Level 3) do not have the necessary writing skills to perform well at that level. Often it results in a tense conversation like this:
Level 4 Teacher: “I have one of your students from last term, Fidi, in my Level 4 class. His writing is very weak. I wonder how he was able to pass your class.” Level 3 Teacher: “Yes, I know he’s not really good. When he came to my class from Level 2, his skills weren’t very good. But he did all the assignments and tried very hard. So I didn’t feel like I could justify failing him.”
Situation 2) Students feel they weren’t treated fairly because the teacher didn’t like them. A student who failed his Writing course complains to the director that the reason why he failed was because the teacher didn’t like him, not because he had poor writing skills.
Situation 3) Teachers burn out from teaching Writing classes due to excessive record keeping. Writing teachers readily accept the fact that these courses involve reading/marking a lot of papers. However, what often overwhelms them the most is having to count up points for every assignment and keep records of these.
Situation 4) Students quibble with the teacher over points on a writing assignment. A student receives 83 out of 100 points on an essay and argues with the teacher that he should have gotten 86 points.
Situation 5) Students who fail the Writing class beg the teachers to change their grade because of the personal hardships failing would cause them. Student: “Could you please, please let me pass this class? My parents don’t have a lot of money, and I might have to leave this school if I fail. I’ll work hard at the next level. I know I can do well in it.”
Here is the process that is the remedy for all those situations.
(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
In this YouTube video, I describe the Writing Workshop Approach to teaching ESL writing skills. This approach has been successfully used by a large number of teachers. Some of the many benefits include motivating students by giving them autonomy and allowing teachers to conference one-on-one with students during the class time rather than outside class.
I learned an important lesson from one of my Writing class students. I originally thought that AJ was a pretty good writer, but the grammar on her second essay was a disaster. In class the next day, I showed her paper to her with all the grammar mistakes coded and asked her if she was surprised by them. With a look of embarrassment on her face, she said she wasn’t surprised because she hadn’t taken enough time to edit her paper.
This story about AJ is connected to a common myth about marking grammar on students’ papers: Students will feel discouraged if they see that they have a lot of grammar mistakes. Contrary to this myth, when I’ve asked students, “Do you want me to mark every grammar mistake on your essay or only the most serious errors?” I have found everyone has responded, “I want you to mark them all.”
However, the idea of marking all the grammar mistakes can present a dilemma for us Writing teachers. Are we just enabling students like AJ by, in essence, becoming their personal editor when, in fact, they could have found the majority of those mistakes on their own had they taken the time to proofread the essay?