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5 Things I Need to Remember When Teaching my Writers

I know we’ve been posting mini-lessons on Mondays on this blog for awhile now, but today marks the first day of my spring break, and since my students and I just finished a fairly complex writing task, this is a good time for reflection.

don-graves-quoteMy AP Language students wrote arguments as spoken-word poems, and then performed them in class. (Or if they produced their poems digitally, which was an option for publishing, they projected them.)

Our process included reading and studying several poems. We watched YouTube videos of spoken word poems by Shane Koyczan, Harry Baker, Marshal Davis Jones and more. We analyzed structure, craft, and theme. We pulled out lines we felt held the weight of the poem and wrote responses to them, hoping to find inspiration for our own writing. We reviewed the elements of argument. We discussed the claims the poets make and how they use evidence (or do not) to support these claims. We spent workshop time thinking, writing, and revising our poems. And my student teacher Zach and I spent hours talking to writers about their writing.

I’ll share some of the amazing poems my students produced in another post. For now, here are some things my students reminded me I need to do better so they can do better in our next round of writing:

  • Topics matter. If I want my students to produce well-written texts, they must select well-chosen topics. Too often my writers choose topics they might have a passion for, but they know little about. This leads to vague superficial writing.

I need to take more time on the front end of the writing process to make sure all of my writers choose a topic that they not only care about, but that is specific enough to the task at hand. One resource that will help as we choose topics for other writing tasks is this tutorial from University of Arizona Libraries. I need to remember to slow down on the front end and help students select narrow topics.

  • Clear feedback matters. For this writing project, I only left feedback once on student drafts. It was not enough. Or it might have been — if students had read it. (Please tell me I am not the only teacher with this issue:  Students ignoring feedback.)

The best feedback is not when I leave comments on Google docs like I did for this project, but when I talk to them face-to-face and answer their questions. Students need to see my response to the work they have done. They need to see if I like it. They often misread, or don’t read, my tone in written feedback. I must remember to give them a balance of both — and a lot of it all along the way.

  • Sometimes more explicit instruction matters. In more than one conference, when I asked students why I didn’t see application of the mini-lesson in their writing, they said: “Oh, I thought that was just a suggestion.” Well, yes. But what’s the point of a mini-lesson — designed to help students write better — if they refuse to at least try it?

I know that we must teach the writer and not the writing, but sometimes without a little push to make specific changes, my writers just do not improve. I need to remember that with some students I must be more explicit in my instruction.

  • Accountability throughout the process matters. I was out of the classroom several days when students had writing workshop time to work on their poems. (Someday I’ll tell you about the standards revision work I’ve done with the TEKS Review Committee in Austin this year.) Although my student teacher was there, and my substitute — a former teacher and a sub my students know well — too many of my students clearly wasted the time given them in class to write. They are teenagers after all:  give them an inch and they take a mile. And they are major procrastinators. I think they are finally understanding that good writing takes time, but many are still not taking the time to produce good writing.

I need to do a better job at holding them accountable for working during workshop time. More exit slips. More sharing a favorite line or passage they’ve written that day. More purposeful formative assessment and personal evaluation of their writing processes.

  • Conferring (more) matters. The two days students shared their poems were exciting. So many were fantastic. So many clearly showed their understanding of how to write an effective argument — and how to be clever and creative with poetic elements as they did so. But quite a few did not.

As Zach and I discussed each performance and each poem, matching the writing to our rubric and assigning a grade, we became clearly aware of which students we conferred with the most and which students we did not. One of us would say: “She did exactly what we discussed in our conference,” or “That was something he and I talked about in his conference.”

The students we conferred with the most not only fulfilled the requirements for the assignment the best, they produced the most creative and convincing argumentative and poetic writing. And they knew it. Their confidence as they performed their poems was evident, and they rocked the house with their beautiful and inspiring poetry.

Taking the time to confer with every student — whether they want to talk about their writing or not — must be a regular part of the writing workshop. Too often conferring becomes optional when I get too busy or spread myself too thin. I must remember to schedule conference time into the lesson plans and hold myself responsible for making them happen — not once but several times for each student.

How do you know when your writing workshop is working?  Please share your ideas in the comments.

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