Editing: A Teachable Skill
For many years, I taught English in addition to Latin. One day, desperate to enact a quick turn around of essays, I edited 20 essays in 40 minutes while the students read the novel we were studying. I repeated this feat this four times that day and I was proud that everyone leaving the room had a thoroughly proofread essay to take home and revise. I corrected everything: comma splices, capitalization, run-on sentences, as well as issues with style and structure. I was, at that time, a very efficient editor. The problem was that my students were not. Since I was doing the editing rather than teaching editing skills, my students ability to edit improved very little.
I had an A-ha! moment when I attended a writing conference in which the speaker suggested that to be a successful writing teacher, you should train students to edit as well as write. To teach editing, the speaker suggested, you need to teach students what questions they should ask of their own paper. These may be grammatical questions such as, "Do I have a list of items? Are the items separated by commas? " or stylistic questions such as, "Does every paragraph have a topic sentence? Of course you need to teach students how to use grammatical tools, but once the skill has been taught, the question rather than the answer should be provided to keep students accountable for their own editing. The questions are asked on a separate piece of paper that you create called a "proofing paper" which guides students to check for the kind of errors that you know they can identify and correct.
What this also means is that the questions you require students to ask students of their own work should be limited in scope to the things they can reasonably be held accountable to fix. Subsequently, there will be a number of errors in grammar or in style that you need to just ignore. For some teachers, this was difficult. For me, it was easy. Bleeding red all over the page had done nothing to improve anyone's writing so I was happy to let it go.
This philosophy applies to teaching writing in Latin. If you give a writing assignment, decide ahead of time what grammatical constructions you want students to be held accountable to form correctly and ignore those they cannot do. For example, in my "Latin Silent Movie Project," students are held accountable to do the three things well that we have been practicing - putting nominative and accusative endings on nouns depending on the context and adding t vs nt to the verb. Prepositional phrases tend to show up in these scripts. Some are correct and some are not correct. I leave them alone.
Now because I want the students to correctly form nominative and accusative nouns as well as singular and plural verbs (third person only), I do not correct their papers of those mistakes. Instead, I had out a proofing sheet, that leads students through the questions they should ask themselves to find their own mistakes. Everyone reads their own script with one of these proofing sheets and then reads a classmates.
Students will ask you as they continue to ask me, "Will you correct my paper?" I tell them gently that I will not correct their paper because the point of this assignment is to see how well they have corrected their own paper. I assure them that if they have thoroughly proofed their paper according to the guidelines of the proofing sheet that they will do well. Students, particularly those anxious about grades, have difficulty believing this at first. They have been surprised before in other classes where they have been held accountable for too many mistakes they didn't have any idea they were making.
I tell them that I will answer questions that they may have about how to put on the correct endings and when to use them. In general, students ask a few questions in the beginning of the project - Is this right? and then write the rest themselves.
So to summarize - teach editing - not writing and free yourself from the burden of marking up multiple drafts and free the students from the tedious process of navigating points of red pustules to be rewritten. (Hmm... too much? Perhaps that line could use another edit.)
Does this blog title make you twitch? I want to correct it myself. How many badly conjugated verbs have you corrected on students papers and quizzes? Would about a billion be a fair estimate?
We spend an inordinate amount of time instructing students about how to correctly built Latin words. The students dutifully write lists of verbs, nouns, noun-adjective pairs and we attempt to get them to care about how to identify the stem, the linking vowel, the declension etc. They wonder and sometimes give voice to the question, "What is the point?"
The point is for students to write in Latin. If you never ask students to write anything more than a correctly declined noun, you may want to reconsider your instruction. Simply put, you could move a great deal faster and more enjoyably through the curriculum without the hassle of forcing students to create lists and lists of badly spliced nouns and verbs.
If however, you do not wish to abandon the teaching of the construction of Latin words, you need to find some compelling reason for students to write in Latin. Now here, I am borrowing a term from the Comprehensible Instruction theorists. (See links for webpages by CI practitioners.) Compelling does not mean finding a life or death scenario but an assignment that generates some enthusiasm to do well.
In addition, most students write better, take more time to write well when the expectation is that the writing will be shared - even if it is only to your Latin class. Many students are motivated by the prospect of entertaining and impressing each other than they are by receiving a grade or homework points from you.
Secondly, you need to structure the assignment so that students can be successful. Give students a highly structured, short assignment. The assignment may only be a few sentences consisting only of subjects and direct objects or a list of commands. The trick is to structure what they can do into an actual project rather than three random lines on a page.
Finally, you need to provide students the tools so that they can edit their own work or each other's work. This is an important lesson I learned as an English teacher. If a student writes something, and the teacher cover it with red pen and hand it back to them, the student has learned nothing. The teacher is the only one practicing editing skills in this scenario. More about how to do this in a subsequent blog - creatively titled "Editing,"
So to recap, generating successful writing projects can be summarized in three commandments: