Using Antiracist Reading Practices to Help Writers Engage in Meaningful Revision

By Dutch Henry

In a recent meeting of English teachers one of my colleagues asked, “What are the things you see from students that make you say ‘oh no, not this again?’” Over the laughter, one of the other teachers said, “A ‘revision’ that is the same as the previous draft. I try so hard but I just can’t get my kids to revise. They feel so good about finishing something that they don’t want to keep working on it. They have so much to say and so much greatness in them, I wish I could get them to revise.” The chorus of agreement was so loud I had to turn down the volume in the Zoom meeting.

I think about this lament a lot and I always come back to what I’m doing to help my students meaningfully engage in revision. I’ve tried many different approaches over the years, but without much success. Finally, though, I’ve found that what works best isn’t about me at all. In some ways, it’s not about the writers either, it’s about their readers. Student writers care about the views of their peer readers in ways that are profoundly different than the way they care about me, the teacher-reader. 

In  Asao B. Inoue’s “Teaching Antiracist Reading”, he advocates for antiracist reading practices that “ask [readers] to…investigate the deep and hidden structures that make up their personal reading habits, personal reading habits that are also structural and social.” The varied practices Inoue outlines in the essay involve a series of steps that boil down to two core elements. First, Inoue asks readers to pause while they are reading and ask “What am I feeling right now reading this text? Why am I feeling that? What in the text did that to me?” Next, readers ask themselves “Where in my world do I get the ideas that help me respond this way? Where do those habits come from?” Using these two steps in the process of peer review can help readers engage with their fellow students’ writing in ways that improves their reading process and provides feedback that inspires writers to revise.

Based on Inoue’s ideas, I now ask readers in peer feedback to use these questions to share with their classmates how the writing made them feel and what specifically in the writing made them feel that way. Early in the process I support them with sentence prompts to make specific references to the writing. I also ask them to tell their fellow writers how their response to the writing relates to something in their life or experience. Writers, then, reflect on whether the response the reader shared is the one they were hoping for and how they might revise their writing to increase or alter the reader’s experience. This can then lead to more detailed discussions about how to apply the key elements of rhetorical reading and writing in ERWC.

It may be our lament as teachers that students don’t always reach the goals we set for them, but maybe it’s the “we” in that process that is the problem rather than the students. If we focus on what students are already doing and can do well, we can see them reach goals we hadn’t even anticipated for them. If we turn the experiences of reading and writing over to the students more fully we may find that they reach their own goals, which may be even better than the ones we dream of for them.

Dutch Henry teaches English at Shoreline Community College north of Seattle, WA. As the Higher Education English Lead for the Bridge to College Project in Washington, he has partnered with ERWC on module development, coaching, and professional learning.

Scaffolding Student Writing Using Mentor Texts

By Robby Ching

We all need scaffolds when we face an unfamiliar writing task. As a brand new ESL coordinator, I was asked by my boss to write a memo to a university administrator. I’d been a graduate student working in dusty library stacks and a college ESL teacher. I’d never seen a memo, let alone written one. So I wrote what I thought was a memo but failed to copy him on it. When he asked to see what I’d written, he yelled at me so fiercely for not copying him that I left his office shaking. What I now know I needed was a mentor text–a model of what a memo is and what it looks like. Then I would have seen the cc: line–problem solved.

A perennial question for teachers working with students who are developing academic literacy is how to provide scaffolding for academic writing while preparing them to become independent writers by the time they leave our classes. How much is too much? And how can I teach my students to find their own scaffolds? Mentor texts are an inquiry-based way to help students learn how to create their own scaffolds. 

When students analyze a professional text or a well-written student text, you can guide them as they discover what makes that text successful. For example, in the Juvenile Justice 12th grade module, which I wrote, students write an open letter about juvenile sentencing as their culminating writing task. I received feedback from teachers who piloted the module that students were unsure how to write their own open letters, so I built in an activity that engages them in looking at an open letter of the teacher’s choosing As an example,I suggested one about Colin Kaepenick’s decision to take the knee before a game but proposed that they find one with currency when they teach the module). Students work in a group to analyze the key rhetorical features of the letter (Who is it written to? Where was it published? What caused the writer write it? How is it structured? What rhetorical appeals does it make to its readers?).

Students identify success criteria for an open letter–several characteristics that they think all effective open letters should have. The teacher then guides the whole class in compiling a set of criteria that can guide their writing. This last step gives her a chance to shape the criteria that she will use to grade their work while ensuring that students have ownership of what those criteria are.

While it’s tempting to tell students directly what form their letter should take and what each part of their letter should do, and how it should do it, students can end up like me–utterly perplexed when confronted with a new genre and what the expectations are for it. If somebody had taught me how to figure out for myself the answers to those questions, I could have avoided a painful experience. And now when mentor texts for every conceivable genre are only a few key strokes away, how empowering it is to teach our students how to make use of them instead of relying on us.   

Robby Ching is a professor emerita at Sacramento State in English and a member of the ERWC team since 2002. She has written many ERWC modules, most recently those with an ELD focus.

Reading Like an Author

By Chris Street

Have you ever tried to explain to someone else why you liked a particular piece of writing? It can be difficult to find the language needed to explain exactly why a particular piece resonated with you. Trying to discern how authors make their writing powerful, beautiful, emotional, or descriptive is tough to do.

Yet when we demystify authors’ styles we can learn how writers accomplish the incredible things they do with words. For example, by looking at how writers use active verbs, sentence variety, precise nouns, rhythms of language, vocabulary, organizational schemes, sensory details, repetition, parallel structures, and punctuation—we can begin to acquire the language needed to discuss the ways in which their writing appeals to us.

Another way to consider this is to ask yourself a question: If you were going to replicate the style of a piece of writing that you admire without copying the exact words, how would you do it? It’s not easy to focus your attention to look at a piece of writing this way, but this is what careful readers do when they are trying to learn the craft of writing.

Reading like an author is a skill that all aspiring writers learn to do. Reading like an author helps you to discover different stylistic devices, find various ways to engage readers, and leaves you with a greater awareness of how to target your writing for specific audiences.

As teachers you are all already accomplished readers. Now, I’d invite you to try reading like an author.

For teachers interested in learning to write articles for publication in professional journals this would mean reading the kinds of journals that might publish one’s work. For teachers more interested in writing successful grant proposals this might mean reading previously funded grant proposals as a way to internalize the features of writing that separate the successful from the unsuccessful proposals. The same would be true of aspiring bloggers or web site developers. The models are all around us. All we need to do is read them carefully—as potential authors—and we will surely learn important lessons about the craft of writing.

Since part of our work as English teachers is to support students as they strive to make connections between the texts they read and the writers we want them to appreciate, we can apprentice students in the task of reading like an author by modeling for them how this text-based task is performed. As with all complex literacy tasks, learning to read like an author takes time and guidance. The strategic guidance we can offer students is that much more powerful when we are able to model for students what it means to “think rhetorically,” as an author would. As we uncover the power of an author’s craft for students, we enable students to feel that they are personally part of a larger discourse community, or conversation. And when we help unlock the power behind an author’s words, we allow students to feel they have increased power over the texts they read. Reading like an author can indeed be a transformative event for developing writers, allowing them to see themselves as rhetorical writers who can apply their newly learned skills as they write with increased confidence, skill, and power.

But students are not likely to learn to read like an author unless we model for them what this looks like. As an example, here’s one of my favorite pieces of writing and a few words describing why I like it:

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” (The Outsiders)

The opening words to S.E. Hinton’s short novel immediately ensnare me in her world—the world of a teenager coming to grips with a gritty reality. The crisp words offer a glimpse of the main character and narrator while hinting at the struggle of good versus evil that will occupy the mind of the young story teller.

Hers is a book that tells the truth about life through a teenager’s eyes. The eyes that adjust to the bright sun are Hinton’s eyes, the eyes of a teenager who wrote The Outsiders “because I wanted to read it.”

Using just 29 words, she makes me feel the same way.

Chris Street is a Professor of Secondary Education at California State University, Fullerton, where he also directs the masters program in secondary education. He helps lead the statewide implementation of ERWC as a professional learning facilitator, module author, and member of the ERWC Steering Committee.