“We didn’t have to spoon feed them!” The teacher beamed as we read the student writing hanging in the hallway.
Two months ago, the experience had been a little different. It was time for informational writing and students researched spiders. With class input, teachers wrote the spider report on chart paper. When it was time for students to write, 95% of them copied the report the teacher had written.
We realized that this kind of writing wasn’t honoring the students and all they know how to do.
Where we started
In my role as a literacy coach, I support teachers in lots of ways. This year one district is in the first year of implementing a writing workshop curriculum (after piloting and lots of teacher input, they decided on the Collaborative Classroom Being a Writer).
Some teachers, though, feel like this new curriculum takes away a chance to do “fun” writing that they enjoyed in the past. So we face the question of how to support students in transferring the rich skills they’re learning in workshop to other tasks. In other words, how could we take the things they’d done in the past and workshop-ize them?
We started by naming what students could do as writers, and then thinking about the implications:
Teachers tried again with another informational writing unit. We began by showing students an image as a provocation:
We used the See/Think/Wonder protocol to get the conversation going, a strategy I first learned from Tanny McGregor. First, we asked students to list the things they see in the image. After discussion, we then asked them to talk about what they think is happening in this image. This step encourages students to make inferences. After discussing our predictions, we then explained the origin of the image (this one is a photograph of monarchs migrating).
Then we moved to the Wonder step. Here we ask students to capture all the questions they have about this topic. From there, we might go in a few directions:
- give students a set amount of time to find as many answers to as many questions (the shorter the better — we want students to see how much they can learn in a short time).
- provide students with a shared text and ask them to annotate the text every time they find answers to their questions.
- ask students to trade questions with a classmate and find the answers.
Once students built their schema around the topic, we stopped and talked about what they could do next as writers. We showed them several ways that writers write about information:
Students noticed that writers can use pictures and labels, or write a story, or even have a fact-based informational paragraph. And if writers did that, then they can too. Now students were ready to write. And they soared.
They wrote stories and poems and fact-based writing. One student wrote an opinion. Another wrote a story with characters. The best part was that we saw them transferring skills from other writing units to this one.
What does this have to do with secondary students?
You may have noticed by now that the writers I’ve been talking about are first graders. Why would I be sharing what first grade teachers are doing on a blog that’s meant for secondary teachers? Because, as I’ve written about before, I think secondary teachers have much to learn from what students are doing in elementary school.
Can our middle and high school students do this too? I’d argue that yes, those writers can make these same kinds of moves. What would happen if instead of giving our older writers graphic organizers and fill-in-the-blank essay templates, we instead give them a chance to write in ways that stretch them?
Let’s workshop-ize the writing that’s happening in all our classrooms. Let’s make space for all the writers to soar.
Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. You can follow her on Twitter @WordNerd