Lowering the stakes

Analytical writing is often high stakes. It usually takes the form of an essay… and it’s graded… and the grade is worth a lot. It’s time to lower the stakes.

Today, I remembered the value of practicing analytical writing in class. After students discussed the reading in small groups, I announced they were then crafting a written response to one of the questions they had just discussed. Quickly, they asked, But are you going to grade this? When is this due? And what if I don’t finish?

Relax, I said. This is just practice. Don’t worry if you don’t finish. Just see what you can do.

Then, I wrote on the board four qualities of great analytical writing:

  • It explores original ideas and makes interesting connections
  • It includes textual evidence
  • It zooms in on textual details
  • It zooms out and explores big-picture ideas and connections; what, ultimately, is the writer trying to say?

Then, students wrote for 15 minutes. I walked around the room and watched them compose on their screens. I also periodically reminded them about the requirements of great analytical writing.

Then, with the final 10 minutes of class, I stopped them. I spent three minutes talking about editing for strong verbs and explained common verb pitfalls (some examples I took directly–and anonymously–from their own writing). They edited for seven minutes, just looking at verbs and asking me questions when they were stuck.

I had them then highlight their best verb and share their work with me through Google Docs. The writing was confident, sharp and vibrant. And even students who usually struggled produced notably better work. And to those students, I sent a two-sentence email compliment.

I love this activity. I’ve heard before that students should write way more than you could ever conceivably grade. Until today, I hadn’t figured out how to make that happen. Nor had I realized the extent to which students struggle with the pressure of graded analytical writing.

Sometimes, we just need to lower to stakes.

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