Tag Archives: effective writing instruction

Becoming a Writer — Guest Post by Austin Darrow

On a late summer night, as the new school year looms on the horizon, my wife and I re-watch Heath Ledger’s comedic masterpiece A Knight’s Tale for the umpteenth time. As Ledger’s character William makes the decision to bravely follow his true calling and stand as a knight, knowing he will be arrested, Roland proclaims the old adage, “Well boys, all good things must come to an end.”

As all teachers oft do, I took this as a metaphor. It’s time for summer to come to an end, to don my armor, pursue my calling, boldly face the new year. In response, my wife said to stop being so melodramatic and watch the movie.

With her reminder, I did put an end to these flairs. Sure, summer–with its days of sleeping in, its weeks to simply and blissfully read for hours, catch up with old friends, its endless possibilities–would have to make way for something more structured. But I also felt a change this time around. The nervousness, the butterflies, the back-to-school nightmares (mostly) gave way to a new feeling: excitement. This would be a great year.

You see, last year, my second year in this profession, was a furnace for me.

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The Image by zephylwer0 from Pixabay

Conditions were just right: the heat was cranked up by my peer Charles Moore, who constantly challenged me to grow through conversations, mentor text wars, an anchor chart “hall of fame”, and an endless pursuit of authenticity in our shared love of teaching literacy; a mold was given to me by my mentor, Helen Becker, who showed me concrete strategies to make these things work while always reminding me to read, write, and cut out all the extra “stuff” that could allow impurities to ruin my work; Megan Thompson was the hand that guided the hammer, refining the techniques I tried, inviting me into her classroom and her thoughts, and modeling an unconditional love for students that requires a strong will; lastly, the students were the anvil, always giving me a sturdy base on which I could hone my edges and continue growing and shaping.

Without “further gilding the lily” as Chaucer would say in A Knight’s Tale, I learned and grew so much in this forge through the strong students, mentors, peers, colleagues, and I daresay friends that were willing to walk the walk with me.

Our North star–our central focus–at the heart of this growth was always learning how to make the literacy experiences for our students more authentic.

As I continue to reflect on these experiences, I realize that our greatest growth was in writing instruction. As our students walked in the door for the first time last year, we quickly realized many had gaps in their writing instruction. But perhaps a more alarming assessment was that most students, even those “proficient” by any state standards, had no love or purpose for writing.

And so our work began.

We tried many things–increasing the amount of formative data we would look at in team meetings to help guide our planning; shifting what and how we assessed and graded with rubrics and scales that would be more authentic; changing the pacing and length of our mini-lessons to get out of the way of these young writers; and so much more. Each of our adjustments were tried, refined, and often ditched and replaced, and I believe that each warrants further reflection. But one adjustment stood above the rest: when we as teachers became writers too.

In Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This, he proclaims: “Of all the strategies I have learned over the years, there is one that stands far above the rest when it comes to improving my students’ writing: the teacher should model by writing–and think out loud while writing–in front of the class” (15).

Nearly all teachers of writing have heard something along these lines at some point in their career. Many have been brave and vulnerable enough to try it.

But this past year, I learned that there is a difference between writing in front of your students and becoming a writer.

A writer is a person who keeps journals and notebooks and endless Word documents, filled with ideas and drafts and revisions in a smorgasbord of conditions. A writer is an artist who pursues and experiments with their craft to get it just right. A writer is a dreamer filled with goals and purpose that can only be met through careful, meticulous, arduous effort.

With this working definition, I quickly realized that I was not a writer. Are you? I also questioned myself:  How could I authentically ask my students to become the writers that I have qualified here if I hadn’t become a writer yet myself? How could I expect them to give what I was not willing to give myself?

So I set out to become a writer. At first, I wrote the same essays and assignments that I tasked my students with. Then I said yes to sponsoring our school’s Poetry Corner and shared my own work at our weekly meetings. I wrote letters to family and friends, and love notes to my (at the time) fiancé. I wrote reviews of products I had purchased and services I had received, application letters to conferences I wished to attend, thank-you cards to wedding guests, and much more.

As I climbed each of these mountains of literacy, I shared my writing experiences with students. I wrote many of these pieces with them, inviting their feedback and giving mine in return. I became a writer and watched as my students became writers, too.

In a recent conversation with the aforementioned colleagues and friends, we created an anchor chart of reasons why everybody–students and teachers alike–benefit when the teacher becomes a writer:

  • Foresight to specific struggles students might have
  • Better understanding of what skills to teach in mini-lessons
  • Concrete conferring questions to ask student writers
  • Empathy for students struggling with the writing process
  • Equity in creating assessment scales and rubrics
  • Modeling vulnerability, struggle, and craft for the students
  • Modeling authenticity and purpose as a writer

I’m certain there is more to unpack here, but with these benefits alone, I am convinced: the most essential “tool” of writing instruction is when the teacher becomes a writer, too.

So as I glimpse into the year ahead, the usual back-to-school nerves have been replaced with sheer excitement. I am excited to step into the classroom, share my writing territories with students, and coach them as they create their own. I am excited to write alongside them, receive their feedback, and watch as they grow. I am excited for our next Poetry Corner meeting, where old students and new are so electrified by their literacy that they have to come and share. I have so much to learn still about writing instruction, and I am excited to step back into the furnace.

Austin Darrow has now begun his third year as a teacher and self-proclaimed literacy advocate. He teaches English I, AP Lit, and coaches the Academic Decathlon at Clear Creek High School. He is trying to grow and refine his voice of advocacy, so follow him on Twitter @darrowatcreek.

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I’m Teaching Writing to the Whole 5th Grade — Now What?!

I received this note in a Facebook message:  I had big changes in my classroom assignment this year… moved from 2nd grade to 5th… turns out… after getting there I got the assignment of teaching writing to the entire 5th grade…. not what I really signed up for…. I have not only NEVER formally taught writing (as a process) beyond complete sentences… and moving toward paragraphs…. but I never even had a class in in it in college….. any suggestions on where to start and where to go with it? I will have 4 units of 12 days each during the year with each of the 5th grade classes….. suggestions?

Say you had to analyze the tone, what adjective would you use? concerned? riled? desperate? beseeching?

Let’s look at the clues:  “big changes,” “turns out,” “entire,” “not what I really signed up for,” “NEVER,” and all those “…..”

I could write an entire post on why the kind of changes this teacher has had thrust upon her is so disrespectful to her as an educator, as a professional. But I won’t. I just needed to say that.

Of course, I answered, and I will offer support and help any way I can. You would, too.

Maybe others have similar experiences and are new at teaching writing. Here’s how I answered my friend:

Yes, I have suggestions! Haha. Tons of them. You know I teach AP Language and Composition, right? Just writeThat’s juniors in high school, but good writing is good writing. Your instruction with your 5th graders can look very similar to mine. (And I hope it will.)

Here’s the non-negotiables in my writing class:

Writer’s notebooks. I use the black composition notebooks. Students cover them, personalize them, and make them mean something other than just a notebook for school. We write in them every day as a way to explore our thinking. I might give a prompt, or read a poem, or watch a news clip…whatever, and then I ask students to think and respond. These quickwrites become places to mine for ideas for topics we might develop into more formal pieces. Writer’s notebooks are required and loved in writing classes where students have choice and autonomy, two important components of effective writing instruction.

Mentor Texts. Mentors are texts that look like the writing I want students to practice. For example, if we are writing narrative, I want students to read good narrative writing. If we are writing book reviews, we need to study the structure of book reviews, etc. The authors of these mentors become our “writing coaches.” We study the moves the writers make, and then we try to make those moves in our own writing. Students learn from good models. They do not learn from poor, fix-the-grammar-and-punctuation worksheets or anything of that ilk. Research on that is plentiful.

Choice. When students have choice in the topics they write about, they are more apt to take ownership and care about their writing. Just like you and me — we do not want told what books we have to read, TV shows we have to watch, or essays we must write that show we learned something from pd. Topics matter so much to the effort students will put into their writing. We have to let students choose what they want to spend their time focusing on. Sometimes we need to nudge them. Sometimes we need to help them narrow the topic. But they need to always have a choice if we want to really teach them anything about writing. Save the formal test-like prompts for practice after students learn how to mine for ideas and develop those ideas in writing they want to do. Test writing can serve as a genre in itself later.

Time. Schedule time within the school day for kids to write. Let them know you are there to help. When they write with us, 1) we know they are writing and not a friend or parent, 2) we see their process and know where the struggles are.

Conferences. Meet with writers throughout the writing process, beginning, middle, and end. Ask questions that provoke their thinking. Let them talk about their ideas. Avoid giving advice, rather validate the students’ ideas and speak to them as writers. (Focus on the writer and his needs over the writing and what it needs — avoid the red pen at all costs.)

Modeling. Write in front of your students. This is probably the most effective instructional tool you have. Students need to see the messiness of the writing process. They need to know it is hard — even for a teacher. I try to write every assignment I ask my students to write. I start writing in front of them and let them see my thinking, my errors, my revision, my re-organization, all of it. Too many student writers think they should be able to write well in a one shot in the dark deal. That’s why they refuse to revise. We have to show them that writing is difficult and confusing and time consuming. We have to give them opportunities to see the struggle, so we can convince them that the work is worth it when we’ve finally been able to say what we want and need to say in our writing.

Talking. “Writing floats on a sea of talk,” I heard Penny Kittle say. Talk with students about their ideas, their process, their everything concerning writing. Encourage them to talk with one another. Talk and Write. Read and Talk and Write. Talking works to stimulate thinking and provoke the pen to action.

Celebrating. Feedback matters, even at the sentence level. Invite students to share their writing. This can be a sentence or a complete piece. Celebrating good writing along the way is a more effective feedback tool than a grade at the end of publication. Whips Around the Room that invite all students to share a favorite sentence or passage, Author’s Chairs that invite students to read a best draft, Posting on Blogs and inviting students to read one another’s work and leave comments, are all ways to celebrate writing — and help students understand the importance of audience.
Some of my favorite RESOURCES:

National Writing Project — Resources page

Read Write Reflect — Katherine  Sokolowski’s blog — the reflective practices inside a 5th grade classroom

The Nerdy Book Club — a community of readers (and teachers of readers) — read about books, reading, writing, and more!

Two Writing Teachers blog — more tips on teaching young writers that you can digest in one sitting

Moving Writers blog — Rachel and Allison show they are the best mentor text finders on the planet

And of course, my own blog: Three Teachers Talk where we write about Readers and Writers Workshop

Lucy Calkins quoteBOOKS you will consider life savers:

In the Middle by Nancie Atwell

Read Write Teach by Linda Reif
Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle

And I haven’t read this one yet, but who doesn’t want to be unstoppable? The Unstoppable Writing Teacher by Colleen Cruz
I imagine you are overwhelmed. No, I cannot really imagine. I do know that you are smart though, and you love children and teaching. You will do a wonderful job inspiring students to write — that is half the battle.

The learning comes from doing. Get your students writing. The more they write the better they will write. I see it every year.

Best blessings,

Amy

Did I leave anything out? What advice do you have for this emerging writing teacher?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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