By Jason Manning, BHP Teacher
New York, USA
I find it difficult to teach students how to write. And for their part, students find writing essays a difficult task, one that leaves them frustrated and discouraged. What do you do when you find yourself struggling to meet the educational needs of your students? You look for the effective strategies of other professionals (thank you BHP online teacher community!), and you look for a tool that can help. Three years ago, I found that tool: Revision Assistant, which is available through BHP Score.
Every year, I teach two sections of Big History, each with 25 to 30 freshmen. Three years ago, I was part of a pilot program that integrated Revision Assistant (RA) with BHP Score. What I discovered was a program that not only helped me teach my students how to write effectively, but a program that created an environment where my students wanted to write. Over the course of the year, their writing improved—and so did the quality of my feedback. These wins were supported by data provided by the program. However, it’s important to understand what this great tool does not do. It doesn’t grade essays for you and it doesn’t teach your students how to write. RA is a tool that can be used to help your students during the writing process.
Your students will be resistant when you assign their first writing task using RA (which for me is Investigation 0), but if you sell the idea that they’ll be using a tool that will provide immediate feedback, they’ll resist a little less. They’ll see that as they write, they can ask the system for a signal check, which will give them a score in four different areas by displaying a very cleverly designed signal bar. The signal bar looks like the Wi-Fi strength symbol found on their phones, and as their writing improves, the signal strength will go up. Even the most reluctant writers will be curious about how they can make the number of bars increase.
I first introduce my students to the RA program and its basic functionality, and then ask them to use it to complete Investigation 0, which, like all BHP Investigations, asks them to write a short essay in response to a unit-related question. There’s no workshop on what we mean by good writing, and I make sure that they understand this is not a graded assignment—it’s mean to provide a baseline. I ask them to answer the Investigation question in one class period, and I tell them to click “signal check” at the end of the period before turning in their results. Most students will have one signal bar in all four of the writing categories.
In my adaptation of the BHP year-long curriculum, the next opportunity to engage with RA comes about a month later, with Investigation 2. Investigation 2 asks the same question as the baseline Investigation 0. Prior to tackling investigation 2, I introduce some writing strategies. I start by printing out students’ Investigation 0 essays. With their work in front of them, I ask, “Do you have a thesis statement?” and “Have you used any of the documents to reinforce the point you were trying to make?” By taking into account these two teaching points, students will see immediate gains in their Investigation 2 essays.
“But you set it up that way! You set it up to show growth! Of course, the bars will go up once you start teaching.” Yes! That is exactly what I do and that is exactly what hooks the students into the system! When one of my strongest students makes that big leap to three and four signal bars, I celebrate it like a home run in the classroom. But when a struggling student sees one or two of the signal bars increase, I celebrate that in the same way. I even use the aggregate class scores to show the jump in the class average from Investigation 0 to Investigation 2. The point is, the students have experienced a feeling of success rather than the feeling of frustration many of them are used to.
Now that my classes have two Investigations under their belts, I tell them that the challenge is to continue to show growth for the next writing assignment. At this point, I have to step up my game, because I have to take a deeper dive into some writing strategies. In Investigation 3, I help the students look for quotes from the documents that help reinforce their thesis statements. I teach them how to use index cards to capture their thoughts about each document, making one index card for each document of the Investigation, which gives them a nice outline of their argument before they begin the writing process. This is also when we discuss in more depth how to effectively use RA. Students can get very signal-check happy as they look for immediate gratification, even though they haven’t added much more writing. It’s important that they understand that the system works more effectively the more they write.
The first time I had a student reach four signal bars in all four categories, he jumped out of his seat with his arms straight up in the air. “Nailed it!” he yelled. It was a great moment, but what’s more important is that all my students have shown growth and all growth is celebrated and rewarded at the same level. When it was time for the state test at the end of the year, my students were angry at not being able to use RA for the essay. I explained to them that they no longer need the training wheels that RA provides. When I got their results back and saw the strength across the board in the writing portion of the test, I knew that Revision Assistant was key to that success. An added bonus—and this is the magic of this tool—is that I’m having conversations with students about the writing process like never before.
About the author: Jason Manning started teaching Big History in 2014 as a replacement for his school’s ninth-grade global history curriculum. He has two sections of the course and reaches about 50 students a year.
Cover image: Teacher helping teenage boy with homework. © Getty Images/Thinkstock