Tuesday, November 1, 2011

High Stakes Rough Drafts

Most of my students could get an A on their essays. Are they exceptional students? Gifted writers? Not necessarily. It's all in getting them to turn in a rough draft. A good number of my students used to skip this step, for any number of reasons, but most often nothing more than procrastination. I tried to convince them that the days of banging out an essay the night before it was due were over.

It wasn't until I raised the stakes and assigned a signficant amount of points to the rough draft that I started to see an improvement. I also devoted a day to group work with the rough drafts, meaning they missed out on participation points if they didn't have a draft. I still wasn't satisfied, though, because I had basically bullied them into turning in complete rough drafts rather than getting them to see the point and wanting to participate.

Finally, I remembered an exercise that I used to do when I traveled around as an author, visiting schools and talking about the writing process. When I pull the pipe cleaners out of my bag and start passing them out, my students wonder if they're back in first grade, but they also have big grins on their faces. Who can resist a bendable, fuzzy stick? The basic idea is they make whatever they want out of one set of pipe cleaners, and write instructions (words only!). Then they swap with a partner and try to make the other person's creations. (Download the complete instructions here). The writer is not allowed to say a word, just watch. Inevitably, it is impossible to stay silent. The writer always wants to clarify something.

And there's the point....you think you've been clear on something so simple, and yet you can instantly see that you could have explained it just a little better here or there, or that you left out something entirely and your reader is confused. Here's a fairly typical result. The original is on the left.

This exercise is valuable in a couple of ways: Students instantly understand the value of re-writing, and they are open to listening to me tell them about how important it is, especially when we're dealing with more complex ideas and themes than making a silly project. It also gets them interacting and laughing and it's nice break to do something hands-on in a writing class.
The complete FREE instructions for this activity are here:


  1. What a great idea! I used to assign points so that it was impossible for students to earn an A on an essay unless they had a rough draft on the day it was assigned, since we always did a ton of peer editing exercises with it before I looked at it. This hands-on activity proves a great point! Thanks for sharing!

    (aka Secondary Solutions)

  2. That's a great idea too, Kristen!

    Thanks again, Laura, for the freebie. I enjoyed tailoring it for use as a conflict resolution requires clear communication lesson.