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.
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!