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Show Your Work: Learning Editing Skills in Writers’ Groups
  • Academics
  • Middle School
  • Show Your Work

Read about how students learn how to create a complete plot, develop editing skills, and receive and give feedback with their peers.

Show Your Work: Learning Editing Skills in Writers’ Groups
In a UPrep 8th grade English class, students learn how to receive and give feedback

The Class: Eighth Grade

English 8 incorporates vocabulary and grammar study, creative and expository writing, and the reading of classical and contemporary literature. Students study vocabulary drawn from the texts used and the genres encountered in the course, learn about voice and tense of verbs, and examine sentence structure. In addition to practicing different modes of expository writing, students write poetry and short stories. Students delve deeply into texts and participate in discussions to demonstrate their understanding.

The Task: Write and Edit a Narrative Story

Each student writes a short narrative/personal memoir moment based on a real experience that they had with an older person that taught them something. The work must include one main character (the student in some form), one or two supporting characters, a complete plot, and descriptive, effective dialogue. The story can only be 600 words long. Students also meet in three- or four-person writers’ groups and edit their work with each other three times during the writing process.

The Outcomes

Initially, this assignment demonstrates students’ understanding of what it takes to make a complete plot, said English Teacher Carrie Niebanck. While reading short stories and the novel The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, they work to identify plot transition points and look closely at descriptive language and the tools writers use to tell a story.

“One story we read hinges on the moment in a third grade class­room when a girl is told to wear a sweater. I ask the students, ‘Why can a seemingly simple moment have an impact?’” Carrie said. “I want them to take a seed idea that hinges on one moment where they learned something. For example, how do you narrow down a vacation to one specific ten-minute time frame, like a walk. Then they map out a plot around it and write a short narrative.”

While working on the narrative on group days, the students meet in writers’ groups that contain three to four students. Carrie asks the students to let her know one person they would like in their groups that makes them feel safe, and the groups stay the same for the duration of the project. She clearly structures what will happen during each group. “I also model being vulnerable. I write during our free writing time, then I read it out loud and ask, ‘What does my piece need? What do you want to hear more about? What confuses you?’” Carrie said.

She also reads their writing while they write in class. Then she might interrupt them and read a sentence out loud and tell them what she likes about that sentence. She thinks it’s helpful for students to know they will get both specific compliments and constructive criticism in their small group.

Student Isla M. said the first and second writers’ groups were the most helpful for her process. During the first one, they talked through the plotlines of their stories before they wrote them, which helped her map her story. At the second one, they read their drafts out loud and received feedback from each other. “Doing this helped me identify problems with my story, like the over-usage of starting sentences with the word ‘I’ that I may not have caught otherwise,” she said. “People also told me what confused them in the story, so I knew where I needed to explain things more.”

Student Amara K. said the rule about not defending your story after someone gives you feedback was helpful. “Ms. Niebanck told us to just take the feedback for yourself. You’re not writing it for them. You can hear their comments and then decide what you want to change yourself,” she said. “Getting feedback helped me become more comfortable with sharing my work, especially with a personal piece of writing. Probably everyone was a little uncomfortable, but I knew they were not judging me but trying to help me.”

During the third writers’ group, the students used a Revising Game Board that has 12 rectangles with either instructions or hyperlinks to websites that can help them revise and improve their narratives.

For example, one tool checks how often they start sentences with the same words. Another tool has them record their story so they can listen to it, since listening to your work can help you decide what needs editing. The Hemingway app helps users make their writing bold and clear. “This game board gives them choices for revising their pieces and multiple ways to edit. I want them to finish Middle School with a variety of tools they can use for writing in high school, including one another,” Carrie said.

Isla also liked the fact that they could add creative, made-up details to their true stories. “I didn’t think I would like writing about myself that much, but this project helped me discover that writing about myself is easy,” she said. “I can write whatever I want without feel­ing like I am putting words in someone else’s mouth. Many of the little details in my story are not factual, and I could create dramatic dialogue that never happened and dramatize what was dull to be vibrant and captivating. The endless possibilities are addictive.”


Since age seven, Carrie has known she was going to be a teacher. As a young person, she felt welcome and engaged in her school­ing. She attended a cooperative learning program in the ’70s in central California that had three grade levels in one open classroom. As a teacher for the past 20 years, Carrie has strived to create that same ease and engagement with knowledge with her students. She’s taught in Mali, Venezuela, and a boarding school on a farm in upstate New York, where she and the students would collect eggs, groom horses, and feed the sheep every morning. “I started out as a theatre teacher,” said Carrie, who earned her BA in sociology at Oberlin College and her Master of Education at Seattle University. “In both theatre and English classes, young people have a pathway to express themselves creatively and think analytically. I believe you can know and invent yourself, evolve, and get to know other people through playing with words, telling, reading, and writing stories.”

By Writer/Editor Nancy Schatz Alton


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