Successful Revision with Young Writers

This week I started an email discussion amongst a handful of Pacific University MFA alumns. The question posed was this: What successful classroom activities have you used to help make revision accessible to young writers?
With their suggestions in mind, I encountered a good bit of success today at Joseph High School, varying the lesson plan to accommodate 12th, 6th, and 5th grade students. Despite their differences in age, the basic lesson was the same: Revision at the line-level starts with attacking “to be” verbs.
I asked students to circle is/was/were/are/am/be/been words in their stories. When they thought they had “killed” all the “be” verbs (Get it? Killer be!), they swaped papers with their desk partner and were challenged to find even more be verbs (inevitably, they did). Throughout the class session, this exercise really emphasizes a team effort, encouraging the students through was is the most difficult part of the writing process. If we had time, students also killed all filler words (Killer Filler!), like: that, just, kind of, sort of, I mean, etc.
The first big step complete, we revised several sentences together on the board, brainstorming how to eliminate a to be verb and rewrite the sentence to make it more specific and create a movie in their minds’ eyes. This was difficult but easily graspable for the 12th graders, it was challenging for the 6th graders, and a little overwhelming for the 5th graders. But still…after the group examples, students applied these concepts to their own stories. Older students were able to get through their entire stories. Younger students had a goal of revising just 3 sentences, or maybe 5.
In the end, students volunteered to read their “before” and “after” versions of their sentences. This was the most exciting moment, because the entire class got to hear the difference and readily agreed that revision is a powerful and essential tool. They left feeling proud of how much they could change, if not also a little humbled (but still smiling).
Thursday, I thrust the 12th graders into online submissions (walking them through the process for a couple literary magazines) and give the 6th and 5th graders center stage at our “open-mic.” They’ve had very little public speaking prep other than what I’ll tell them the 10 minutes before guests start to arrive, but I have total faith. They’ll get up there and surprise even themselves with how magnificent they sound, how vivid their stories are, and how truly magical the act of writing and sharing the work of our imaginations can be.

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