Transferring Ownership of Writing to Students

The post that appears below is the original, unedited draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.)

Their Own Writes: Transferring Ownership to Students

Control a student’s writing, and you have a good paper. 

Transfer ownership to a student, and you have a good writer. 

Thought not exactly about fish anymore, this adage is something I am constantly striving for in my high school English classroom. The more I can set up conditions that allow students to be in control of their writing, the better. In this way, they will not just score well in my class; more importantly, they will foster the skills necessary across curriculum and throughout their lifetime to be effective communicators. Here are some steps I’ve applied over the years to transfer writing ownership to students.

Open the Gate.

One of the biggest pitfalls I see in my teaching is when students become reliant on me to be the gatekeeper of good writing. Some surefire signs that this is happening: they rely on weasel words such as “good” and “bad” that don’t really describe anything helpful; they don’t know how to use a rubric; I hear these questions: “Miss, is this good?” or “Miss, can you read this?”

I have found using models regularly in the classroom to be the best way to cede my role as gatekeeper. We can write collaboratively as a whole class to feel good writing form. I write models for students, either in front of them or often beforehand, and then we deconstruct it together, usually with color coding and annotations. Something I did this year that worked well was a station activity with student examples. Students previously wrote a paragraph and I selected some based on relevant skills. Then in groups, they traveled to each of the stations, discussing strengths and comparisons to their own paragraphs, and finally they independently reflected on a graphic organizer. However, the single most important strategy to stepping down as gatekeeper is the collaborative scoring of student samples. For this process, I pair students up with a rubric. They have to read samples, then come to a consensus for each criteria. After this process is complete, we moderate as a whole class. 

Provide a Mirror.

Once students become the gatekeepers, a critical next step is metacognition.

I build in lots of opportunities for students to reflect on their writing throughout the entire process. Recently, students were assigned to show up to class with half a draft. Their first task in class was a reflection form. I then used that to guide writing conferences, only zeroing in on their self-identified areas of feedback. Often, after writing mini-lessons and/or workshopping, I ask students to email me a plan as an exit slip outlining what they noticed in their writing and what are their specific next steps. 

Pass the Gavel.

Now that students know what constitutes good writing, reflect on it in relationship to themselves, it is time for evaluation. Any humanities teacher will gladly tell you about the time-intensive work of grading papers. But…if we can transfer ownership to the students, evaluation can be independent, thus ongoing and formative!

Very rarely do I have students submit an essay without self-scoring. If it is the final, I have them do it directly on the rubric. One of my favorite pieces of feedback to give is “I 100% agree with your self-reflection!” This puts the student in the driver’s seat of his/her own learning. If it is a draft, I like Google forms for this task. I also almost always build in time during class for peer feedback and evaluation of a completed draft. My favorite way to do this is with a graphic organizer broken down by rubric criterion (like this one [without scoring] or this one [with scoring]). The first task is for students to write down what area they are worried about and seeking feedback in (sometimes this is embedded on the graphic organizer; sometimes I have them write it on a post-it). Then students pass the graphic organizer along with printed essay for peer feedback and/or scoring rounds. 

Please Apply.

All of this sets up the premise that students can be in charge of their writing. However, what really matters is the space to apply the feedback. So often–just as it is in teaching–there is so much data without meaningful time to address it. Building in time for application is the final step in transferring ownership to students. 

I like to do this throughout the writing process with small chunks. For example, I often have students write, evaluate, rewrite and reflect on their thesis or topic sentences, or analysis, using a Google form. I also find giving whole class feedback on patterns and then having students revise one in their writing works well. Sometimes I anonymously take one student’s paper and we rework it as a whole class. Then, students need to rework their own piece applying what they just learned.  

I recognize all of this requires more time. But, ultimately, depth over breadth is another way we transfer writing ownership to students. 

Do you have resources or strategies to help students own their writing? I’d love to hear about them!

creating a student-led classroom

During this past school year, I have focused on creating a student-led classroom. This focus grows out of my own ideologies as a teacher, the evaluation system of my district, as well as the professional development our school has been receiving.

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One of my goals as a teacher has always been to transfer the locus of control from me to my students. I find myself aligning with a constructivist model in my classroom, where the students are in charge of their own learning and I act as a facilitator. In this system, my students are as much the teacher as I am. This is critical for the population that I teach: a student body that is used to be underestimated and overlooked. By organizing my classroom into a place where they take leadership, the routines and community of our classroom operate from an asset-based lens–a lens that builds them up and elicits their strengths as opposed to magnifying their weaknesses.

Naturally, because students feel believed in and entrusted, they rise to the occasion. They take ownership of their learning, of their writing, of their discussions, of their reading. Thus, a student-led classroom breeds students who are more engaged. On any given day, I have at least 95% engagement in my classroom. And not compliance-engagement, where students do what they’re supposed to do passively to avoid consequences, but active, energetic, purposeful engagement.

But a student-led classroom is not just about what I believe…it is about preparing my students for college. A student-led classroom inherently creates a soil where solid and healthy trees of rigor can grow, and students climb these trees into the sky of their future. By transferring more of the responsibility to students, they are forced to be meta-cognitive…one of the highest skills in terms of rigorous thinking. They also must become self-advocates. Both meta-cognition and self-advocacy are essential skills for college learning, and so a student-led classroom eases the difficulties of transitioning to college.

Lastly, I have focused on creating a student-led classroom this year because it aligns with our district evaluation as well as our school PD. To be distinguished in a majority of our evaluation system’s categories, the ownership lies in the hands of the students…not the teachers. The students are evaluating each other, building the objectives, applying their learning, checking each other for understanding, teaching each other, keeping each other in check, etc. And being the perfectionist I am, I want those distinguished ratings! And so I must not only push myself, but my students to be the best “teacher” possible.

This has not only been something on my mind, but on the mind of my colleagues as well. One of our PD approaches this year has been learning labs, where we visit a host teacher’s classroom and debrief together. In each of those, our focus questions have revolved around building student capacity:

How can I vary teacher CFUs according to content target to foster student self-checks for understandings?

How can I build higher level (according to Bloom’s Taxonomy) questions from students that elicit thoughtful upper level responses from peers and between peers?

By focusing on these questions, we read, planned, and reflected on how to increase rigor of questioning by transferring leadership to students–a critical component of a student-led classroom. When I hosted the learning lab, I worked with a colleague who suggested adding a peer evaluation component to my planned lesson. I did, and the level of thinking and evaluation it elicited from students was inspiring! (See this website for the lesson plan and graphic organizer I used to implement this peer evaluation.)

The many reasons I want to create a student-led classroom matter very little if I cannot actually implement it on the ground. Here are the strategies I have used to transfer leadership to my students:

  • Asking quality questions and teaching my students to do that. As my boss said, this is “making the question do the work.” I used AVID strategies to teach my students the language and process of quality questioning. That became a foundation for my questioning, as well as their own.
  • Student-led discussions. I modeled effective discussion leader practices. I pointed them out. Then I handed that role over to my students. Here are resources for this. Part of this piece is 100% participation…no one can hide in my class. In fact, it’s often a part of grades for students to call out their quiet and hidden peers.
  • Student evaluations of each other. We wrote papers. I then showed AP scores on those same prompts. They used this to score each other’s papers and give feedback. I was no longer the grader…they became responsible for that evaluation piece.
  • Student feedback to each other. I expected students to give feedback to other students during discussion, such as correcting verbs, upgrading vocabulary, adding details, asking probing questions. See resource for how I taught them to probe each other to increase depth.
  • Socratic seminars. Stay tuned for a 3 part blog series regarding how I make these work for my students! For right now however, I cannot say enough about how this practice transfers ownership to students!
  • Structures. A student-led classroom has an innumerable amount of structures, routines, and procedures that are hidden, but essential. They are the foundations! For example, students must have rubrics and models to give quality feedback to each other.
  • Teacher language. The way I talk to my students, about my students, from day one, establishes whether or not I will be able to transfer leadership to students. Therefore, I am a broken record: “Listen to your colleagues.” “We honor all voices in here.” “Talk to each other, not me.” “There are 24 teachers in this room…I am only one of them.” Language like this converts students from passive unbelievers to active owners of their own leadership qualities.

Did it work this year? Yes. Did it work perfectly? No. It is a work in progress. But these are some moments that I am proud of and that highlight the student-led classroom I’ve created and its many benefits:

  • I hosted a PD for my colleagues on how to facilitate Socratic seminars.
  • I scored 7’s–distinguished–in several LEAP categories.
  • On my student perception survey: 97% of students said “my teacher encourages me to share my ideas” and 100% agreed that “my teacher makes sure we treat each other with respect.”
  • Feedback from when I hosted the learning lab: “a classroom where the students both ask and answer the questions”; “students conversation at table did not follow a protocol but all students participated”; “students shared leadership roles”

Of course, there’s more to do. Next year, here is what I want to do to strengthen the level of student leadership and ownership in my room:

  • Supports. I have built up quite a repertoire of student supports and scaffolds, but I need to do a better job of introducing them earlier and pulling them away as the year progresses. The goal is for the student to not only not need those, but to feel confident without them. I know in college they will not have those, and I will be heart-broken if I handicap students so that they are less prepared for the rigor, intensity, and individualism of college.
  • Sequencing. To meet the aforementioned growth area, I need to re-sequence my texts. Right now, they progress to the most complex and difficult, but I think I need to rearrange that so I send them off to college and the AP exam feeling confident and prepared. This goes back to the structure piece I mentioned earlier. I cannot create a student-led classroom unless I have organized the content in such a way that fosters that.
  • Early embedding of clear structures. Every year I feel I waste so much time getting to know the students and figuring out systems that will best support them. I need to do this earlier and earlier each year, so that I can immediately start expecting them to take leadership in our classroom. This directly correlates to one of the challenges of a student-led classroom: how much time it takes. It’s much easier for me to just tell students something, and it’s quicker. But to establish the structures, then let students struggle until mastery, is much more time-intensive. I know it is worth it, but it calls on me to be on my game much earlier in the year so as to minimize these transitions.

I want to conclude with a symbolic representation of two different classrooms:

This is a teacher-centered classroom, in which the teacher is the hub. All the spokes represent the students. In this classroom, all information originates and returns to the teacher, while the spokes are independent of one another.

This is a teacher-centered classroom, in which the teacher is the hub. All the spokes represent the students. In this classroom, all information originates and returns to the teacher, while the students are independent of one another.


Here is a classroom that is messy, but still contained. The boundaries are the teacher as facilitator. The dots are the students all participating, all leading, all owning.

Here is a classroom that is messy, but still contained. The boundaries are the teacher as facilitator. The dots are the students all participating, all leading, all owning.

I do not want a classroom where I am the center. I want a classroom that is led by students, owned by students… but mostly loved by students.

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