Hi, my name is Kristin and I’m a recovering assigner.
I can easily blame the system that taught me. Numerous years of forced writing assignments, inauthentic essay prompts, and unfair expectations with little to no chance to confer.
What I am describing is not just my own experience of high school in the mid to late 90’s but even my own classroom (I’m a work in progress). It wasn’t until this group of wonderful educators and the amazing work of Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher did I even begin to understand there was more to writing than the pattern of assigning, “teaching”, and correcting. It started slowly last year through personalized writer’s notebooks, engaging quick writes, and dabbling in mentor texts to help us grow readers and writers. But I still didn’t feel “there”– I didn’t feel ready for the complete jump into writer’s workshop.
Fast forward to March– State testing is winding down and I have Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s new book, 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents in my hands.
Their recent book takes a look at the question “How do you fit it all in?” but does it with such thoughtfulness, insight, and in a way that makes their readers stop and think about their own practice. For me, it really made me think about how I needed to move from assigning narrative writing to immersing my students in the art of narrative writing.
After reading 180 Days the first time (I’m planning on rereading with my PLC as a book study), I was struck by how Penny and Kelly take different laps during their writing units, with each lap building off the last until students have shown a deeper level of development of their writing than our traditional 4×4 setup (read a book, take a test, write a paper, and repeat each term) allows us to do.
So, how has my life changed?
What my narrative unit was before:
- I would diligently create a beautiful assignment, even including criteria for success so the students knew exactly what was needed in their narrative.
- Students were given some choice in what they wrote (but it was choice in disguise–it still had to connect to the novel we recently read)
- I gave students time in class to work and would start each day with a mini-lesson but it was based on what I thought needed to be taught, not in a responsive way through conferring or using a baseline assessment.
- Usually five days later, the narrative was due. Some students used their 43 minutes each day to stare at a blank screen and eventually passed in an attempt at a story. Some loved this type of activity but passed in a narrative that was underdeveloped or without any organization. Some didn’t pass in anything at all–they would rather take the zero than take the risk.
- While they were writing, I spent my time catching up with my grading and walking the room, begging my reluctant writers to get something on the page.
What my narrative unit is now/moving towards:
- We started last week with multiple low-stake narrative activities in their writer’s notebooks using engaging mentor texts like “Hands” by Sarah Kay, 36-word stories using Visa commercials (Amy R. wrote about a very similar activity here), and writing alongside excerpts from some great young adult books from our classroom library.
- This week, students will choose which pieces they want to work with and during our work time to expand them based on the day’s mini-lesson and practice revision skills (especially since my students think their first draft in their only draft–still trying to break this habit). We’ll also continue using mentor texts but use them for imitation work– “borrowing” great lines or ideas from actual writers!
- After a well-deserved spring break, we will take a final lap with narratives the last week of April. I’m still deciding this piece– I want to see how the beginning of this week goes and see where we need to go next as we move towards the break. I’m trying to be more responsive as a teacher, which is hard as a Type A planner. At the same time, I think this will benefit both myself and my students because I’m teaching the kids and skills in front of me versus just assigning the same narrative prompt year after year.
Although it’s only been a week in, these are some of the things I know so far:
- My students have never been this engaged (in terms of their writing lives). How do I know this? Their notebooks are out and ready to go each class. They are passing their notebooks around the room, asking their peers to read what they worked on in class. We end our classes with “beautiful words” and they fight over who gets to share this time.
- My closeted writers are finally finding their space in my classroom. They are sharing their work with others, giving advice to their peers, and even sharing their personal work with me (I had tears in my eyes when one of my painfully shy students handed me her poetry journal she brought from home–she thought I would like to read them this weekend. Be still, my teacher heart!).
- Where my students are! Skimming through their notebooks has helped me see where they are starting and where we need to go. In the past, I wasn’t seeing their work until the end, which Kelly Gallagher calls gotcha grading. Now, I know where I want to and need to go to help my students with this type of writing.
- And the best part- I’m writing. Whatever the students are writing, I’m writing alongside them and using my document camera to show my students my typos, my revisions, and myself. Narrative writing can be so personal. To see my struggle but also share parts of myself and my life has helped us connect in ways only stories can.
Although I still have a long way to go to shed the title of assigner, I feel so much hope that I am finally moving in the direction I’ve watched so many other teachers move towards. I’m reminded of what a wise educator has said about teaching– it’s making your practice 5% better each year. In this little way, I feel that my practice is becoming better because of the resources I have at my fingertips (like this group) and finally making the jump into the deep end of the workshop pool.
What are some of your favorite things to engage and move your narrative writers? What advice do you have for those who are moving from assigners towards writer’s workshop?
Kristin Seed has been teaching for ten years at both the middle school and high school level in Massachusetts. Her passion is reading and leaving piles of books in every room of her house. You can find her chasing after her five-year-old son and now a 13 week old Golden Retriever, Abby. Follow her adventures on Twitter @Eatbooks4brkfst.