Faculty Spotlight Series: Sarah Brown on How to Get Students to Want to Revise Their Writing

Nicole Vitale

Sarah Brown has been teaching sixth-grade Language Arts and Social Studies at The Windward School for four years. She has always been a book lover, so she enjoyed researching dyslexia and language and reading development in both college and graduate school at Columbia University Teachers College. When Ms. Brown is not teaching, she enjoys baking new recipes (which her students always taste-test), running, traveling, and exploring New York City where she lives.

The Windward School is a learning community that recognizes the profession of teaching is a craft that takes an incredible amount of study, practice, and reflection to perfect. Thus, it is part of the School's mission to develop a faculty that is expert in teaching children with language-based learning disabilities. In our Faculty Friday series, we will be highlighting Windward faculty members and their expertise on a variety of educational topics. 


How do you get students to  want  to revise their writing?  

In the writing process, making revisions is all about mindset. As adults, we know the writing process is on-going, that there is always more we can improve or change. But for students, when writing itself is such a demanding cognitive task, the last thing they want to do is receive your feedback and re-write something they just spent so much time and energy on. The most common responses I get to my feedback is “Do I have to erase all of that?” or “Do I have to change all of that?” Feedback – especially in a brightly colored pen – can feel overwhelming, intimidating, or personal. After all, no one enjoys being told what they need to change.  

So, one way I encourage students to embrace revising is by letting them revise my work. After reading an article or a short story as a class, I write “my best paragraph” and then – hamming it up, of course – I ask them what they think of the paragraph I stayed up all night writing. They are usually appalled by its simplicity, its lack of strategy use or sophisticated vocabulary, or its brevity. I ask for their help and – being 6th graders – they are more than eager to offer their feedback and revisions which I add to the paragraph before drafting a “final” paragraph altogether.  Later in the year, after modeling this process a few times, we have competitions where the students work in “Revising Teams” to follow a checklist of revisions or add in their own revisions to make my paragraph the best it can be. When it’s not their individual work, they can focus on the skill of revising without the personal attachment to each individual sentence.  

The goal of these activities is to create a mindset of being open to—and actually excited about—revising a piece of writing. Eventually, as my students become more independent in their paragraph and essay writing, I provide a similarly individualized checklist for them to follow with their brightly colored pen in hand. Being able to check off each goal and know they are actively improving their work builds their confidence and, ideally, their desire to revise their work again and again.   

In three hundred words or less, what is the most important teaching advice that you have either received or given?   

My teaching mantra is this: Every day is a blank slate—both for you and your students. While it may feel intimidating to embrace at times, all you need to do—and should plan to do—is just the next right thing. Chances are, if you are a teacher, you are always looking ahead, trying to improve or implement change into your curriculum or classroom. The Teacher To-Do list is never done, so remind yourself that just being present each day for your students is more work than some people do in a week. Give yourself the mentality that you are enough, even if you are not spending every living, breathing, waking moment thinking about your teaching. Showing up, smiling, caring, and being human in front of your students is the best consistency, the best system of trust and community you can create—whether your lesson plan was perfectly executed or not. You will make mistakes, but you will get through it. Keep a box of any kind notes, emails, or cards you receive from your students or colleagues to cheer yourself up in the toughest moments. Tomorrow is a new day, a blank slate for you and for them. Show up, try again, and know that what you do is unbelievably hard but undeniably meaningful.

Every day is a blank slate—both for you and your students. While it may feel intimidating to embrace at times, all you need to do—and should plan to do—is just the next right thing.