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5 Non-Negotiables When Designing Writing Instruction

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First draft of a unit plan in my notebook

I plan my units of instruction in three-week chunks, alternating between a reading-focused unit and a writing-focused unit.  In every unit, and in every class period, I keep some routines the same, much like Amy describes here.  While I do most of the big thinking about a unit up front, I do leave some holes in the plans to make space for mini-lessons that are responsive to what I discover students need during our conferences.  And every year, I design brand new units.

While each unit is unique, I was reminded while at the NCTE Annual Convention of five non-negotiables to keep in mind when designing writing instruction.

Writing should be low-stakes.  Students need to write a lot, and a lot of that writing should be ungraded, unread, or worth very few points.  I have felt liberated in terms of grading writing since I read Kelly Gallagher’s research-based statement that students should be reading and writing four times as much as a teacher could ever grade.

I think, since I embraced that philosophy, that my students also feel liberated.  Their notebooks are a “safe place for regular, ungraded practice,” as Penny Kittle described in her Ignite session.  While we write in our notebooks every day, and outside of class in one-pagers, I only collect notebooks every two weeks, and only carefully read and respond to one or two pieces my students have marked.  Indeed, 80% of the writing we do stays in our notebooks and never makes it to ‘published’ form.  This takes the pressure off writers to produce something perfect or error-free, because “our classrooms need to be a safe place to fail,” in the words of Taylor Mali.

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The first two weeks of Kelly Gallagher’s unit plan–week three is filled with revision and getting to best draft #3 at the ‘deep end’

Teaching writing is complex, layered, and nuanced.  In her session on revision, Georgia Heard shared the five things all students need in order to make authentic revision happen:  “opportunities for students to write, mini-lessons on craft and revision, choice in topics, mentor texts, one-on-one conferences with both teachers and students.”  Kelly Gallagher’s unit plan he walked us through adhered to those rules remarkably well.  “Assigning writing and teaching writing are two different things.  Grading writing and assessing writing are two different things,” he reminded us.  It is impossible for students to produce great writing if it is merely assigned.  Thus, when I plan a unit of writing instruction, I leave ample time for craft mini-lessons, modeling my own writing, and talk amongst students and myself.

When teachers are writers ourselves, and experience the process of topic choice, revision, and studying craft moves beside our students, we can become the most effective teachers of writing.  We have to walk the talk.  “Great, effective teachers must be informed AND inspired,” Kwame Alexander asserted.  To be a truly informed teacher of writing, a teacher must be a writer herself. I learned more about writing a strong narrative while participating in NaNoWriMo alongside my students than I ever did just trying to teach fiction before I wrote fiction.  I loved the experience six years ago during my first attempt, and I’ve continued to complete all assignments beside my students ever since.  When we write with our students, inspiration will spread through “the contagion of passion,” in Penny Kittle’s words.

Writing should be personal.  While I love to write about reading, and find it valuable for students to do so often, most of the writing in my classroom is personalized, choice-driven, and often remains private.  When we do a nonfiction writing unit, like the rhetorical analysis we’re in the midst of right now, our written products are focused on the students’ relationships to the texts they’re analyzing–in this case, the misleading rhetoric often found in American politics.  Mostly we write narratives, even in the midst of nonfiction, telling the stories of our connections to the topics we discuss in informative or argumentative genres.

“You can write yourself out of dark places. How much of the writing we do in school nurtures that?” Gary Anderson wondered in his session on reflection.  We have to honor the fact that students are not inherently motivated to write for their futures–for college, job applications, or resumes–but rather they are motivated to write for the here and now, and for themselves.  This is why choice is, and will remain, at the center of my writing instruction.

How do you design writing instruction?  Share your process in the comments!

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9 thoughts on “5 Non-Negotiables When Designing Writing Instruction

  1. […] post on writing instruction from Three Teachers Talk, this one by Shana on the 5 Non-Negotiables When Designing Writing Instruction–an excellent reminder for righting your course and tweaking workshop starting in January. And […]

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  2. Dana December 11, 2015 at 12:34 pm Reply

    Thank you! I think I’ll get those for Christmas and try to get one read over the holidays. So glad I saw this link to your blog. (Penny Kittle retweeted it.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dana December 11, 2015 at 9:35 am Reply

    This is fantastic. Thanks for sharing. I need to know which Kelly Gallagher book can guide me with the writing. Thanks to meeting Donalyn Miller at a conference last winter, I’ve been turned on to Penny Kittle who also keeps referencing Gallagher. I’ve improved my reading lessons enormously but need just the kind of help you mentioned. I see 6 books by him. Is there one in particular that can help me figure out how to assign more writing without being swamped by the grading? This is exactly what holds me back in my writing program.

    Liked by 1 person

    • shanakarnes December 11, 2015 at 9:45 am Reply

      Hey Dana! I think Write Like This and Readicide helped me most. They helped me shape and refine my foundational thinking about these issues. However, just buying all of his books would be a terrific investment and are definitely a great use of your time!!

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  4. shanakarnes December 9, 2015 at 5:57 pm Reply

    Hey, Alan! Thanks for the comment.

    Personal writing is a third of my curriculum, argument writing is another third, and informative writing makes up the rest. I stated above that students use narrative technique in those kinds of writing. Tom Newkirk convinced me of the value of that when I read Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive texts.

    I don’t think narrative writing, personal writing, or writing about feelings and interesting ideas are the same thing. Narrative is a way for a writer to harness story to help a reader understand an idea, or to connect to an idea on their own. Personal writing is writing that is important to an individual–like my writing here on TTT. Thoughts and feelings writing is its own entity, separate from what my students work to revise and strengthen in our time together.

    I wholeheartedly agree that writing about content area ideas is integral to developing a complex understanding of those texts. That’s why my students do lots of independent reading to build fluency, so they can read other content areas’ texts independently, and not just the whole-class texts we read together. That’s also why I try to get them writing about issues that are not always focused on literature, like our current unit on political rhetoric, or the unit we began the year with when we studied the Cold War and read history texts to help us better understand Alan Moore’s Watchmen. I also am excited to try something next semester that I heard presented on at NCTE, which was having students engage in science writing while in English class.

    I think NCTE and all who advocate for quality writing instruction know that English teachers are essential to helping our students become literate, capable citizens who can decipher complex texts and discourse about them intelligently. That’s certainly one of my main motivators when I encourage fluency in reading and writing.

    Thanks, as always, for helping me to clarify and refine my thinking, Alan!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Alan December 9, 2015 at 4:48 pm Reply

    Personal writing has a place but no more than 1/3 of student writing. More important (and not surprisingly, more difficult) is writing in the content areas – writing about science, history, math, health, and literature. Writing is an important and necessary way of learning. It is much more than a way of expressing feelings and interesting ideas. Content area writing teaches students how to organize their ideas and helps them become intelligent readers of content area texts. When is NCTE and the people who advocate writing instruction going to learn that English teachers have a critical role in supporting students’ learning in all their classes all day long not just during English class?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. jhuber2015 December 9, 2015 at 8:26 am Reply

    I love to do small little writing assignments with the novels and classics that we read. It could be something as simple as writing a letter or writing a scene that wasn’t in the book. I do “bookmarks” instead of quizzes which are just short little responses about the chapter/s read that day. We work on ideas like character alerts, personal connections, summarizing, forming opinions and predicting. This is some “care-free” writing for the students in response to literature.

    Liked by 2 people

    • shanakarnes December 9, 2015 at 10:56 am Reply

      I love the bookmark idea!! And care-free is such a great play on words to describe the flow we can achieve when reading and writing.

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