Writing Meaningfully About Meaningful Reading Part 1: A Look at Low Stakes Writing

So here’s a true confession: I was one of those high school students who sometimes handed in book reports about books I hadn’t read. I’m not really sure when my fudging began, but I distinctly remember the time when my 10th grade teacher Miss Ingersoll assigned the class John Hershey’s Hiroshima to read and write about over a break. I meant to read it, I really did, just as soon as I finished the unassigned book I was secretly reading at home—John Fowles’s The Collector, which my parents disapproved of but I found riveting.

Unfortunately, however, I didn’t finish The Collector until the night before the book report was due. And so, without the benefit of Spark Notes or sites like iEssay.com, I read the blurbs, grabbed a thesaurus and scanned a few pages for quotes. Then I cobbled and strung together what I had well enough to earn a B- and to learn the same lesson Calvin shares here with Hobbes:

In the age of the Internet when a Google search for “free high school English essays” yields over 19 million results in less than a second, I don’t know how many students learned the same lesson that Calvin and I did. But I do see a lot of writing these days that doesn’t seem terribly meaningful—as my book report wasn’t—and I think that’s directly connected to the college student’s comment I shared the other week: that across the grades, from first up through twelfth, we focus too much on teaching students how to organize ideas and not enough on how to build them.

Many colleges address this imbalance by assigning what the great writing professor and author Peter Elbow calls “low stakes writing”—i.e., writing that’s undertaken “not so much to produce excellent pieces of writing as to get students to think, learn and understand more of the course material.” In his essay “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing,” Elbow enumerates the benefits of low stakes writing, which include the following:

  • Low stakes writing helps students be active learners [rather than] merely passive receivers.
  • Low stakes writing helps students find their own language for the issues of the course; they work out their own analogies and metaphors for academic concepts . . . in their own lingo.
  • Low stakes writing gives us a better view of how students are understanding the course material and reacting to their teaching. We get a better sense of how their minds work.
  • Low stakes writing improves the quality of high stakes writing [because] with frequent low stakes writing we ensure that students have already done lots of writing before we grade a high stakes piece.

This sort of low stakes writing does crop up in grade schools, though not as much in high schools as I think it should. Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman and Nancy Steineke, for Low Stakes Writinginstance, devote close to half their book Content-Area Writing to low stakes “Writing to Learn” strategies. Middle school teacher, blogger and Two Writing Teachers contributor Tara Smith shares how she helps students use their reading notebooks to push and develop thinking in her recent posts “Setting Up the Reading Journal For a Year of Writing About Reading” and “Writing About Reading Begins With Thinking About Reading.” And in her book Writing about Reading,” Janet Angelillo offers a great list of low stakes “Ways to Think, Talk and Writing About Books,” which includes options such as “Finding places in the text where a light goes on in my mind and signals me to pay attention” and “Finding an idea thread to follow throughout the text or building a theory about the text.”

In my own practice, I’ve been inviting students to consider some open-ended questions about details, lines, patterns or scenes, such as Why might the author be showing you Basic CMYKthis? How might this be connected to that? And why and how has this changed your thinking—or not? I’ve also invited them to consider questions that engage them in viewing the text through more than one lens of the Character-Author-Reader eye. With a class of fifth graders, for instance, who just finished the first chapter of Kate DiCamillo’s marvelous Tiger Rising, I asked students what they thought was making the main character’s life hard, how he was dealing with that, and whether or not they thought his ways of coping were effective. As you’ll see below, this led students to focus on different aspects of the text and voice a wide range of ideas, which they revisited, developed and revised as they kept on reading.

Tiger Rising Responses

 I’ve also had wonderful opportunities to work with teachers who are eager to experiment with different ways of writing about reading, such as Ede Blabec and Rachel Kovach who wanted to bring more meaningful writing back to their eighth grade students’ reading notebooks. To do this, they decided to have students keep a separate notebook dedicated to their next read-aloud A Wrinkle in Time. And they made a brilliant decision to provide the class with simple, unadorned notebooks that were small enough to fit in a pocket. This made the notebooks seem both personal and unintimidating, and to personalize them even more, the students were invited to illustrate their thinking, which as you can see below allowed some students to unleash their inner artist.

Wrinkle 01Wrinkle 02

All these ways of writing about reading seem different from the menus or lists of reading response options I frequently find stapled into students’ reading notebooks. These low risk ways of writing focus on the reader as much as on the text and on what Dorothy Barnhouse and I call “the process of meaning making,” where students are invited to question, dig deeper, explore ideas and consider how the text affects them. The reading response menus, on the other hand, seem more like performance-based tasks or short-constructed responses—and they’re often evaluated with rubrics that emphasize structure, mechanics and the citing of evidence over depth of thought.

Of course, students who engage in low stakes writing may still have to learn a thing or two about structure. And so in Part 2, I’ll share ways they can do that by studying mentor texts rather than by using a formula. But at least when it’s time to write more formally, students will have something meaningful to say. And they’ll also have experienced for themselves how writing, like talk, can be used as a tool not only to present and demonstrate thinking but to actually grow ideas.

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14 thoughts on “Writing Meaningfully About Meaningful Reading Part 1: A Look at Low Stakes Writing

  1. Once again, you do hit the the nail on the head, Vicki. I remember feeling the same way at times in HS: I don’t know WHAT to say. I can organize, I can punctuate, I can use great words, but WHAT am I supposed to say about this and how do I figure it out? (Partly this was from my perfectionistic tendency, I mean I wanted the “right answer” and a good grade!) So what exactly was the correct thought I should search for ?…….I believe that my reaction as well as the assignments were limiting to me. No one ever taught me how to figure out what to write, they just said to do X in so many words! I think “low stakes” writing is so important to get your thinking going. I love the little pocket notebooks, the illustrations and thoughts shown. I also think that we need to give kids lots of examples of clear/varied/ great responses so they can see what the “genre” or range of responding to questions is like. I used to talk about the “door that opens in your mind” that comes from some famous work, and once you “see it” you can get “in the flow” and improve. If you see each writing you do in school as an exercise for a grade, it is something to be gotten through and may not help you move ahead in a meaningful way…. Eager for part 2.

    • Thanks, Janet. I’ll be trying to give more examples next time but these days kids have it even harder because they’re asked so often to do on-demand writing, which I think is really all about test prep. Having done a little research for that NYC HS Principals Day, I discovered that psychologists and cognitive scientists recommended that you try NOT to think when doing on-demand work, but rather just tap into what you already know and then let it flow—or not. This is exactly what happens when teachers and I try to do the tasks we ask kids to do: we go on automatic. But we have years and years to draw on, and if we’re mostly having kids to on-demand writing without enough non-demand experiences, there’s no reason to think that they should bring any more to the next on-demand task than they did before. So the whole obsession with more writing on-demand doesn’t help kids move ahead in a meaningful way either.

  2. Such a wonderful piece – can’t wait to hear part two! This year I’ve made my teaching of writing my focus for PD. It’s such a difficult subject to teach and to teach well. If there’s one thing I know is true, we have to give students plenty of opportunities for ‘low stakes’ writing in order to reach the point where they are confident enough and thoughtful enough to produce the ‘high stakes’ pieces.

    • I think writing is really, really hard to teach because it’s also hard to do. That’s not to say it can’t be fun, fulfilling and sometimes really rewarding, but it takes a lot of brain power. And that message really comes home every time I ask teachers to do a task they’re thinking of assigning to students with me. We all lift our heads a little shell-shocked and humbled, which I think is really good to remember—especially if we’re only given kids time and space to write high stakes pieces. Nothing makes kids—or adults–not feel confident than feeling like you’ve got nothing thoughtful to say.

  3. Vicki,

    Great sentiments, on all accounts–from the memories of writing in high school, to the practices we employ with our students today. Low-stakes writing has such high value in our classrooms, and in reading your piece, I couldn’t help thinking of equating this type of writing to the idea we talk about in reading of “imaginative rehearsals.” When we read material that explores areas of emotion or psychology that we have not fully explored in our lives, it better prepares us for when we have to deal with those events. Writing in low-stakes forms, allows us to explore similar things; we get to practice new ideas in a space that is non-threatening. Essentially, we get to play with thoughts, ideas, and words that may or may not become part of our thinking later on, when it may matter much more.

    Thanks again!

    • Thanks so much for sharing the concept of ‘imaginative rehearsals’ which I don’t think I’ve heard about (or at least not phrased quite that way). And I also love the idea that both that and low stakes writing are ways of playing with thoughts and ideas. It reminds me of an Einstein quote I’ve been trying to find a home for in a blog post for a while: “Play is the highest form of research.” And it also reminds me Steve Peterson, a wonderful teacher and blogger who I’ll be presenting at NCTE with on Friday who’s written several great posts on intellectual play including this recent one: http://insidethedog.edublogs.org/2014/07/17/next-year-begins-with-playfulness/. Now we only need to figure out a way to make politicians believe in play, too.

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is my first year in 4th grade and the parents want all product. Rubrics, grades, research, 5paragraphs. They are also concerned with State tests that decide Jr. high placement. If they only realized that it’s a necessary part of growth and not always needing to be graded. Thank you for these links as I will use them to help my own studies.

  5. Vicki,
    I’m not remembering book reports in high school. I remember putting book titles on note cards in a semester long “Independent Reading” course but I think the goal was “quantity” . . . . I’m sure if a summary was needed that I probably copied it from the book jacket and just rearranged some words. Thank goodness that there wasn’t an internet or I would have been a huge plagiarizer as I struggled with “what does my teacher want?”

    • I would have been a huge plagiarizer, too! I also remember having to do a research paper in another HS English class and I let the teacher convince me to do it on naturalism in literature (which was easy for him to do because I, too, thought it was all about giving the teacher what he wanted). I think I got away with a B- on that one, too, even though to this day I couldn’t really tell you what naturalism is, and I managed to write the paper without reading any of the books that were supposedly examples of it (like Sister Carrie & Call of the Wild). But look what’s become of us! Not only did we survive but we’re helping kids really own their reading and writing lives!

  6. Serendipity. Right post at the right time! Thanks for your honesty (I’ve got stories that won’t get told in public!!) and your thinking.

  7. Pingback: Ideas for Skinning the Writing about Reading Cat | To Make a Prairie

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