3 Challenges and 3 Strategies: Des Moines Public Schools and Revision Assistant

Jeremy Schwennen, Curriculum Coordinator for Secondary Literacy at Des Moines Public Schools, and his fellow administrators identified that writing simply wasn’t happening enough in the middle and high school classrooms at Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS). While writing instruction was not directly embedded into existing district initiatives, all stakeholders agreed that students needed to be able to organize and communicate their thoughts in order to be successful in secondary school, college, and beyond.

Last month, Schwennen hosted a webcast with Turnitin that detailed not only the challenges that DMPS encountered with writing instruction but also the strategies teachers and administrators employed in response to these challenges. Schwennen identified that three primary obstacles stood in the way of making writing a routine part of every classroom:

  1. There were more students in fewer classrooms than ever before with class sizes even pushing 40 in some places. A class this size makes it daunting to assign an essay, especially if the teacher may have to read several drafts of each paper.
  2. Teachers were experiencing initiative overload. There is always something new and important coming downing the pipe. It’s easy to lose sight of the things, such as writing, that are important to the district but aren’t specifically spotlighted by those initiatives.
  3. Time was a finite resource, and teachers needed more of it. Time both during and outside of school for writing, feedback, revision, grading, and for helping students get “unstuck.” That “stuck effect,” when students found themselves unable to move forward on a writing assignment without a teacher’s help, seemed to take the most time of all.

After researching and reviewing the many tools on the market, Schwennen and his team determined that Revision Assistant offered a potential solution. The product was aligned to Common Core State Standards, fit easily into existing classroom workflows, and provided students with the automated feedback they needed to “unstick” themselves.

Even though they had settled on a tool to try out, piloting a new tool and implementing a tool at scale are two different beasts. Des Moines Public Schools needed a plan, and just like the above challenges, it manifested in three parts.

  1. Prioritize training: Even with an intuitive tool like Revision Assistant, teachers benefit from having an opportunity to become comfortable with a tool before introducing it to students. DMPS made a point to bring all ELA teachers together and made sure that they knew exactly how to use the tool at the same time.
  2. Create support groups: Once teachers were trained to use Revision Assistant, Schwennen and his team made sure that they felt supported beyond the initial professional development. Teachers worked together in district-wide PLCs to determine the Revision Assistant prompts they could seamlessly incorporate into their classes. Rather than requiring specific prompts, the district gave teachers the freedom to pick and choose the prompts that would work best for them.
  3. Embrace the dabble: Once teachers were trained and supported, they were turned loose to dabble individually. To ensure that teachers were comfortable with the chaos that inevitably accompanied dabbling, administrators worked with teachers to determine realistic milestones for implementation and made sure to rescue teachers when they felt stuck. This worked to reduce the fear associated with trying something new.

Thanks to the above strategies, Schwennen and his team fostered a culture of trust between both administrators and teachers and between teachers and students. At the end of this year of experimentation, 177 English teachers assigned Revision Assistant prompts to 1,737 students. They completed 22,399 drafts: 12 drafts per student.

With Revision Assistant, students are not only writing more, but the drafts that teachers receive are now better, and the feedback they give doesn’t focus on mechanics and transition sentences. Instead, teachers have been given the gift of time: time to help students craft their big picture ideas and grow as writers and communicators.

To learn more about DMPS and their experience with Revision Assistant, listen to Jeremy Schwennen’s webcast here.