National Writing Project

Learning a Lesson from The Girls Who Write Notes

By: Janis Cramer
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3
Date: 2004

Summary: When the top scorers on the writing assessment were the girls who wrote long notes to boyfriends, Cramer created a journaling program in which students wrote without being graded, chose their topics, and collaboratively revised.


The first year that Oklahoma gave its state writing assessment, without any great confidence on my part, I prepared my sophomore English students by having them write in several different genres, practice some tricks for revision, study the school-mandated vocabulary words, and practice writing to picture prompts because the test was to be set up that way.

When we received the scores from the state, I was shocked. The wrong students got the highest scores. To my bewilderment, the high-scoring students were (drum roll, please) The Girls Who Write Notes—notes to be given to their boyfriends or confidants during passing period. These were the girls whose artfully folded messages I grabbed from their hands, read out loud to the class, posted on the bulletin board, threatened to send home to Mama; the same girls who wrote in giant, round letters and dotted their i's with circles or stars, the girls who didn't have time to spell out with but used "w/" instead. I was perplexed. Why had these girls, whose only interest in writing seemed to be motivated by a need to fill pages and pages of notebook paper with glowing purple ink as rapidly as possible, scored higher than students I viewed as competent writers?

Studying the way the graders had scored the test, I realized the students had received analytical scores for development, sentence structure, word usage, grammar, and punctuation. However, their main score had been based holistically on an overall impression of the paper's merit. This holistic score was derived from an evaluation of the paper's content, organization, fluency, and attention to audience. Errors in mechanics and usage did not influence the holistic score unless they impaired meaning. Had The Girls Who Write Notes scored well because they just wrote all the time, never giving a thought to order, elaboration, spelling, or punctuation? Was the key to their success that they wrote about what mattered to them and they wrote to a specific audience? One would wish, of course, that the technical aspects of the work of The Girls Who Write Notes would have matched their fluency and sense of audience, but I also noted that many of the more technically proficient writers in my class thought first and only about getting things right. Writing enough words to make an idea work and to direct it to a specific audience was not a priority for them.

My challenge was this: How could I create in these relatively proficient writers the writing energy to propel a piece of writing forward in a manner that came too easily to The Girls Who Write Notes? I wasn't going to require students to write notes to their friends, but I did want to find a way to make them more prolific writers. I decided the answer must be to give them time to write and write and write.

The following school year, I asked my students to fill a folder with about fifty sheets of notebook paper and gave them one whole class period with old magazines from the school library to cut out pictures, images, and words and to design a collage for the cover. The purpose was to let them create a journal they would want to open and write in. They covered their collages with strips of two-inch-wide transparent tape, just for neatness. Each class kept its journals in a dishpan on a shelf at the back of the classroom. The journals were not to leave the classroom.

So far, not much new here. Many English teachers begin each period with an in-class journal writing activity of five minutes or so before they get to the lesson of the day. But in my view, five minutes or even ten minutes of journal writing is only time enough just to get started. In this time frame, no student could be expected to write a sustained piece or to take their writing seriously. So I declared Monday to be Journal Monday; the entire period would be devoted to journal writing.

But what were students to write? The Girls Who Write Notes faced no limitations. Whatever bizarre event transpired in phys-ed class was fodder for their eloquence. On Journal Monday, few students faced this visceral need to write, and I wanted to make sure they would not be looking at a blank piece of paper all period. So I tried to come up with topics that I thought would have sent The Girls Who Write Notes off and running. I asked them to consider, for instance, a time they were afraid or a memory involving the family car. I showed them student samples from the previous year of the kind of writing for which I was looking, as well as examples (with the authors' names concealed) of the skimpy, undeveloped prose we were working to overcome. For those looking for ways to get started—never a problem with The Girls Who Write Notes—I modeled prewriting strategies: a brainstorm list, a cluster, a graphic chart. Then I let them go. The only rule was "No talking while we're writing."

I didn't read the journals; I did not mark them; but I did grade them. Students earned one hundred points, the equivalent of an A in the grade book, for developed journal entries. There was a time I would have been shocked if I had heard that a teacher was giving A's without having read the student work. But in this activity I had a single goal: to build fluency. In this regard, I was trying to push students to follow the example of The Girls Who Write Notes.

That didn't mean no one read them, though. The Girls Who Write Notes knew how to write to an audience, and that, I theorized, was one reason why they received high marks on the assessment exam. With this in mind, I regularly asked students to trade journals with three other students in class and read silently what each other had written. I encouraged them to write compliments and questions to the writer in the margins (yes, notes, but notes about writing) and asked them to put their initials on the entries they liked best, the one they thought the writer should revise.

Sharing in this way benefited the most reluctant writers particularly, as they now had real classroom models to imitate. When challenged by the other students with, "Was that all you could think to say?" they learned how to add details, how to work on order, and how to add figurative language just by noticing how other students had approached the topic. The students seemed to care more about what their peers thought than they ever did about what I thought. The classroom became a community with almost no effort on my part.

I came to understand in the beginning that I could not require every student to write for an entire period. When a student thought she had finished the day's writing, she could go put her journal in the dishpan and pick up the next day's class assignment. (Yes, I was still teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, Julius Caesar, and all those other things in the sophomore curriculum the other four days of the week.) In the beginning the students were writing for maybe ten or fifteen minutes before putting up their journals. But I noticed as time passed that each Monday they were spending more and more time in their journals. By February many of them were writing for at least forty-five minutes and picking up their homework as they left the classroom.

I knew, however, that just writing nonstop for a certain length of time wasn't going to be enough to raise the analytical part of their test scores. In this area of the exam, I wanted students to exceed the performance of The Girls Who Write Notes. I knew that if they were to become not only fluent but proficient writers, they would need to diligently revise some of their journal entries, and I would need to read those revisions. But I did not want to use the correction model that had previously failed all of us. I knew from experience that marking everything on their papers only made students more certain they couldn't write. I decided that less would be more. We would work on one aspect of revision at a time, covering in the process all of the analytical areas measured by the state assessment. As a follow-up to Journal Monday, I devoted time each day during the rest of that week to minilessons on a specific revision skill. For instance, when my journal prompts directed students to descriptive writing, we focused on organizing and expanding with details—the state's first analytical skill. Working with expository writing, we learned to cut out wasted words. Writing narratives, we focused on choosing vivid verbs, using active voice, and keeping verbs in the same tense.

The key, I discovered, was to use students' own papers as models in the minilessons. As I read their revisions, I looked for samples of problems we would be working on in the next minilesson. I pulled them from their papers and put these examples on a handout. For instance, if I knew we were going to be working on removing wasted words, I would choose about ten examples like this one:

Original: Then I saw a huge computer that made a buzzing sound in my ears. It had little sticky notes stuck to the sides of the screen.

I would ask the students to try to tighten the sentence alone and then with a partner, then I would send a volunteer to the board to write the revision. We would argue as a class about who had the most concise revised sentence.

Revision 1: The huge computer buzzed in my ears, sticky notes stuck to the sides of the screen.

Revision 2: The huge computer, decorated with sticky notes, buzzed in my ears.

Revision 3: Sticky notes stuck to its screen, the huge computer buzzed.

As students developed several workable versions, they were learning that most writing problems have more than one solution, and more important, they were learning language to use when they talked about revision.

My basic strategy in working with students' revisions was to go easy. Rather than scout out every faux pas, I'd look for student application of the revision techniques we had focused on in the minilessons. The rubric I used to evaluate the revision, modeled after the state assessment tool, gave students a holistic score on their piece as a whole and an analytical score on the specific revision skill we'd been practicing. Of course once they had learned that skill, they were accountable for it in all of the other revisions, so the students were building in skills as they progressed. As we continued through the year, their rubrics grew to include word choice, grammar and usage, sentence formation and variety, and eventually mechanics.

Yes, I did finally teach them subject-verb agreement and proper pronoun usage, but only after we'd studied these rules in class was it fair game for me to mark these errors on their papers. Usually I didn't need to; often their peers had read their papers, pointed out their mistakes, and given them a chance to correct them. "You forgot and used `Jerry and me' for the subject. You need to change `me' to `I,' remember?" Not until three weeks before the state writing assessment did we begin working on mechanical skills like punctuation. By then the sophomores had all become more fluent writers. Some still might not be able to fill up three pages as the The Girls Who Write Notes did, but almost all of them had progressed from writing a paragraph to filling more than a page. They were now ready to start being picky about their own and each other's writing, to look for comma splices and sentence fragments, and to talk about how to correct them.

We received our reward in the spring after the exam when students received their scores from the state department. My sophomores' scores had leaped 8 percent higher than those of the previous year. So what did I learn from The Girls Who Write Notes? I learned to encourage students to write without worrying about being graded, to write about topics that mattered to them, and to write for an audience of their peers. As for The Girls Who Write Notes, they excelled as I had expected. But in my class, they were now too busy writing to my requirements to surreptitiously pen notes to their boyfriends and confidants. For this activity, they would need to find time in history class.

About the Author Janis Cramer, co-director of the Oklahoma Writing Project, was a high school English and creative writing teacher for thirty years. She now teaches in the College of Education at the University of Oklahoma.

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