It was a short and rather odd school week. We had Monday and Tuesday off for February Break, and my kiddos returned to the classroom wearing Spring attire and feeling Spring fever due to weirdly warm temperatures. I opened all our classroom windows to let in as much fresh air as I could, and we celebrated being able to do that. Warm breezes and sandals feel odd in February…but we all know that winter is not done quite yet, so we need to enjoy this reprieve while it lasts.
We have been essaying in Room 202, first reading mentor texts, then choosing topics and drafting our own essays, and now beginning to revise and refine our work. On Friday, we gathered together with our most recent drafts, the ones we were about to finalize for our writing celebration on Monday, to talk each other through how we would peer edit and offer each other constructive criticism.
The nature of essay writing demands that each writer brings their own individual voice to their journey of thought: there is no prescribed formula, for the very idea of this kind of essay is to allow each writer to forge their own creative path through their thinking in order to arrive at their destination. Some may meander, and some may be more direct, but each will have the freedom to allow their idiosyncrasies, their peculiar writing tics, to be evident on the page as a stamp of who they are as writers and thinkers. Indeed, this is what we were most looking forward to as we dove into essay writing. Over the course of the drafting process, I kept these words from The Journey is Everything – my “Bible of essay writing” – of Katherine Bomer’s:
As teachers of writing, if we do agree to abandon the “thug and bully thesis” (Ballenger 2013), and to forestall the use of clever formulas and predictable structures, then we must internalize and extremely difficult first lesson, one that pertains to all of writing: we must learn to trust. Trust the process. Trust the words and sentences to lead students to the full flowering of their voices. And, finally, trust that students will be able to look back at their drafts fifty times, alone, in conference with you, and in collaboration with peers, to revise and shape the material so that it makes sense for readers. For now, rather than trying to fit material and ideas into prefabricated pyramids, students can let their material speak to them. What does it want to do? Where does it want to go? What does it want to say? (p.118)
Learning to trust, and leading students to where their topics can speak to them, were central to my purpose in jumping into essaying with my sixth graders. First, they had to trust that they could care enough about a topic to venture into a journey of sustained and meaningful thought about it; second, they could find their own structure to best lay out their thinking and take their reader on this journey.
Many of my students discovered what they most wanted to say after much meandering; my greatest challenge during conferences was validate that meandering (they were always worried about getting “off topic”) and teach them how to build on that meandering – that that was the essence of the journey of thought!
On Friday, essays in hand, they were still concerned about how effective they had been in communicating important ideas they had thought about as they wrote. I had created a very loose peer editing form for my students to use, but I recognized right away that my form was irrelevant to their biggest concern. What to do?
Well, thank goodness for Georgia Heard and her book, which I am currently reading: Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing. In it, she argues for an expanded notion of crafting heart maps, and encourages us to use them in more ways than just to collect writing ideas. What if each of my kids could create maps to answer the question: what is at the heart of my essay? before they handed over their drafts for peer editing? Then, a peer editor could read over the essay and respond to this question: what ideas are at the heart of this essay? Comparing the two, I thought, would be much more beneficial to my writers than the peer editing form I had generated the night before.
My students thought this was a great idea, and jumped into their heart maps with excitement and purpose:
Then, they exchanged essays with their fellow writers and tried to read and identify the heart of these essays. I asked for one sentence summations, mostly because I wanted these to be as focused as possible to be as helpful as possible. The results of our peer editing experiment were surprising. In most cases, there was clear overlap between heart maps and these one sentence summations. In some cases, there was wide divergence. So we talked some more.
Because I had conferred through each step of the process and knew what each writer was trying to essay about, I had ceased somewhat to be an effective editor in terms of what was at the heart of each student’s essay – it was clear to me because we had conferred so much! A new set of eyes, however, sometimes revealed a different, less clearly visible, view. For these students, it was a moment of writing revelation: I need to go back into my piece and figure out how to make my point more clearly! Writers sat side by side to assist in this figuring out process, and heart maps became a tool for these new conversations.
Moving from group to group, mostly listening in, I celebrated heart mapping our way through revising our essays. Something new in Room 202!