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The Politics of Correction

By Linda Christensen

Obviously, when a student's paper is filled with errors, giving only positive feedback is a dereliction of duty. Students need to know how to access the language of power. Clearly, LaJuane struggled with conventions. But he had so many errors that as a teacher, I had to choose which ones to first target for change. In her book Errors and Expectations, Mina Shaughnessy wrote, "[T]he teacher must try to decipher the individual student's code, examining samples of his writing as a scientist might, searching for patterns or explanations, listening to what the student says about punctuation, and creating situations in the classroom that encourage all students to talk openly about what they don't understand."

Using Shaughnessy's scientist analogy as a model, at the beginning of each year I sit with my students' papers and categorize each student's errors, looking for patterns. I keep this list for myself, so I can work with students to eliminate their errors one at a time. I also create a personalized page for each student on my computer.

As I work with students on their errors, I hold them accountable for self-correcting before turning in a final draft. LaJuane's paper, for example, demonstrates problems with capitalization, apostrophes, spelling, and basic sentence structure. I tackled capitalization first because it was the easiest problem to solve. Then I made him accountable for checking to make sure that he used capitals correctly. By just correcting the capitalization problems, LaJuane eliminated many errors. Once he mastered that convention, we moved on to another.

When I first explain this process, it sounds so time consuming that teachers nod and turn away. Believe me, I am not a martyr. At Jefferson, I taught three 90-minute block classes, typically around 90 students, but I would continue to keep track this way even if my student load was 150. Because each student's error chart is on my computer, I can just update it regularly and print it out when I hand back papers. It actually takes less time than marking — and remarking — the same errors on paper after paper. It is also more effective. When I mark student errors, instead of making them responsible, I'm doing all of the work. If students read their error sheets and make the changes, they do the work. Also, they have to review their error sheet prior to turning in final drafts, so I see fewer errors as the year moves on.

Teaching Mini-Lessons

Frequently, many students in my classes make the same errors — punctuating dialogue, for example — and I can teach mini-lessons. In fact, when possible, I find the best way to deal with these problems is to ask students to generate the rules. They remember their rules far longer than when they read the rule and correct the errors in a punctuation exercise.

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