Blogstitute Week 7: An Unlikely Writing Group

We end our Summer Writing Blogstitute with an entry by teacher educator Maureen Barbieri. After working as a teacher, principal, and literacy coach for many years, Maureen currently teaches literacy courses at the University of New Hampshire, volunteers at a local elementary school, and takes care of two young grandchildren every week.

This is your last week to purchase our special summer writing package at a reduced price of $80 — a savings of $28!

We hope you enjoyed our Blogstitute and that the posts helped you prepare for a new year of writing and teaching writing. We hope you will join us for future blog events — until then keep commenting and keep writing!

Expect the Unexpected: An Unlikely Writing Group

Years ago, when I moved away from New Hampshire, Donald Graves made me a promise: “Wherever you go,” he said, “you’ll find other literate people.” Sure enough, in Cleveland, South Carolina, and New York City, I was blessed with friends who loved what I love.

When I came back to New England in 2008, it was heart wrenching to leave my job at NYU. My husband had retired, and, as a result of what turned out to be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, full-time work eluded me. During those months of adjusting, there was one constant in my life: daily exercise at a local women’s gym. In a small room, women worked the machines in a circuit, so it was hard to avoid other people. But surely these women’s lives were unlike my own. Many spent winters in Florida, while others spoke of playing golf, quilting, or gardening. I kept my head down and did my exercises in silence.

One day I overheard a woman named Kerry describe how much she admired her mother for raising four children alone. When Kerry turned thirty, she had hired a private detective and tracked her father down. Fascinated with her story, I blurted out, “You really should write about that.”

“Write?” she asked. “I’m not really a writer.”

“Well,” I told her, “I had a teacher who used to say, ‘Everyone should write her own story.’” My friend Don Murray believed that writing lets us discover meaning in experience.

A week later, another one of the women at the gym was eager to tell me she had found Murray’s Boston Globe columns online. “He’s a great writer,” she said. I gave her his books My Twice-Lived Life and The Lively Shadow. Thus began my friendship with Beth, sharing reactions to books, chatting about our families.

Slowly, the gym took on new dimensions. A year passed, we continued to talk books on a regular basis, and then several things seemed to coalesce. Beth was itching to try writing. Kerry’s mom became ill, her memory faltered, and Kerry lamented stories left untold. She wondered if she should write down some of her own recollections for her daughter. Nancy, an accomplished journalist, wanted to try memoir and was looking for advice. Michelle, the mother of two boys, one severely handicapped, wanted to write about them.

We began our writing group with trepidation, holding our first meeting at the local library where Beth was a trustee. New to writing for an audience, the women were nervous and unsure of what to expect. Though I’ve taught writing and worked with new writers for years, I felt rusty, not having written anything personal in a while. What if I had nothing to say?  I remembered that Murray always saw himself as a student at the writer’s desk, ready to be surprised by whatever appeared on the page. His spirit propelled me forward. Kerry’s husband baked madeleines for our first meeting and—partly because good food builds community and helps break down barriers—the tension eased. We spoke about what we wanted from the group:  an audience for our stories; gentle, supportive feedback; questions.

Now we gather at each other’s houses once a month. The anxiety has lessened with each meeting, and stories have emerged: the courage of sick friends; memories of parents, siblings, and teachers; the heartache of first jobs, leaving home, and the rigors of getting older. Sometimes we try prompts, but mostly we write for our own purposes:  Kerry, a eulogy for a beloved friend and a tribute to a colleague of twenty-five years; Michelle, blog posts about motherhood; Nancy, reflections on being a bone marrow donor for her brother.

Our meetings run late. Friends now, we hate to say goodnight, but there’s something else. The stories have become richer, more textured, and replete with the “revealing specifics” Murray prized. Because we consider each other “audience,” we respect deadlines and strive to be more effective.

As I spend time with grandchildren, students, or my husband, part of me assumes the role of spectator-participant, and the writing yields new attention to ordinary days. A boy I worked with in Chinatown years ago observed, “Most of the things that happen in your everyday life aren’t very important, but when you write about them, you make them important.”

We tell students that writing is a way to communicate, but it is so much more. Writing allows us to discover what our lives have been, are now, and may yet be. What would happen if busy teachers made time for this kind of exploration on a regular basis?  To write about life and work, and then to meet with people eager to listen, seems a worthy endeavor. Literate people find each other, yes; and, in the sharing of stories, we sustain each other too.

12 comments August 22nd, 2011

Blogstitute Week 6: A creative alternative to the research paper

This week’s blogstitute entry comes from David Somoza, coauthor of Writing to Explore: Discovering Adventure in the Research Paper, 3-8. He and author Peter Lourie demonstrate how to teach adventure writing, which integrates nonfiction and fiction and motivates students to write with imagination, curiosity, and a hunger to learn everything about their topic.

Coming next week: a BONUS blogstitute entry from Maureen Barbieri on how she found friendship and writing inspiration in an unlikely place.

Don’t forget to leave a comment or ask a question to be entered to win a package of five writing books. You can also purchase the package for a special, reduced price — for a limited time only!

The Adventure Essay: A Creative Alternative to the Research Paper

David Somoza and Peter Lourie

At some point all of us have either written a research paper or taught students how to write one. My experience, from both perspectives, brings up feelings of dread. I may be way off, but I bet others have similar feelings. And yet, when you think about why we teach students to write research papers, some great reasons come to mind. The skills that kids get from the process are important ones: from learning how to research a subject in depth, to being able to understand text and rewrite it in a meaningful way, to learning how to organize ideas into a cohesive essay. All of these skills are valuable, but more often than not there’s little or no opportunity for creativity in the process, and that’s the downfall. There’s also no personal attachment or purpose to the writing itself. It’s the tedious and laborious work in the absence of imaginative thought that leads to the feelings of dread when someone mentions the words research paper.

Recently I stumbled upon a way to instill imagination and purpose into the process of writing the research paper—and it all revolves around adventure.

After multiple failed attempts to make research paper writing more engaging for my students and myself, I began reading some of Peter Lourie’s nonfiction books. I found them full of factual information yet very engaging. The difference between his books and my students’ research papers was the creative element. Pete describes his passion for nonfiction adventure writing this way: “Research is exploration. Whether you’re exploring a subject by traveling to a place, or studying history in a book, or talking to experts, it’s all about discovery. Once I’m engaged in a journey or adventure, then everything I learn is possible material to weave into the adventure.” Pete develops a narrative thread that often places him at the heart of the subject matter. Whether he’s hiking through a jungle in search of Mayan ruins or talking with a gold miner in the Amazon, it’s through his eyes that we journey forward; inadvertently, we learn about the subject matter as he learns it himself when he travels. This, I realized, was the kind of writing I hoped to get from my students.

Through many conversations with Pete, I began to understand his process of writing, which I’ve tried to replicate with my fifth graders. Essentially it involves two unique elements that must come together seamlessly: the research element and the narrative element. Because I can’t take my students to the jungle before they write about it, they need to take virtual journeys, adding an element of fiction to an otherwise nonfiction research paper. The narrative is driven by the adventure that each student chooses to take.

We begin with research. Through the research process, students gain a deep understanding of the topic. In addition to facts and figures, they find photos, maps, and even video clips to strengthen their understanding of the place where they intend to travel. Once they have a solid grasp on the subject, they begin to plan their adventure. This is the fun part; they love to imagine themselves traveling and heading out on exciting adventures.

When a solid plan is in place, we dive in. Where will you go? How will you get there? What will you do? Where will you sleep? These kinds of questions tend to jar their imaginations and make them realize that we’ve gone from simply researching a subject to engaging with it. Kids have the best imaginations, and they’re eager to learn the details of places, history, and people.

This is where the two streams come together—the stream of research and the stream of imagination. As the imaginative stream continues, it gains its strength from the details in the research, and vice versa. In other words, the learning is woven into the fabric of the story to ground it and make it realistic. As teachers, we facilitate this back-and-forth process by encouraging students to do more research or expand their adventure narrative.

This process of alternating between the imagined journey and the actual research maintains all the best teachings of the research paper but also calls on students to be imaginatively engaged with their topic. Pete and I have found that this adventure writing model works in many settings. I use it with my fifth graders when they study the U.S. states and again when they learn about Latin America. Pete uses the same model with his students at Middlebury College, where he teaches adventure writing and digital storytelling.

As a departure from the traditional research paper, this adventure-based approach integrates student research with aspects of creative writing. The process of taking an imagined adventure can be more engaging, more personally relevant, and more rewarding for students. Their final projects represent not only their research but also their self-expression.

I’m sure this idea can be used as an alternative to a variety of research projects that we haven’t thought of yet. How might you use it in your own classroom with your own students?

7 comments August 15th, 2011

Blogstitute Week 5: Making time for your own writing

We can all come up with lots and lots of great excuses why we don’t have time to write. In this week’s Blogstitute entry author Carolyn Coman shares how to quiet those negative voices and get serious about your own writing. Carolyn is the author of Writing Stories: Ideas, Exercises, and Encouragement for Teachers and Writers of All Ages. She is a Newbery Honor Book and National Book Award Finalist for What Jamie Saw, and Many Stones, and the author of The Memory Bank.

Next week’s post will come from David Somoza and Peter Lourie, author of Writing to Explore: Discovering Adventure in the Research Paper, 3-8.

Don’t forget to order the Summer Blogstitute special package of five books on writing!

Making and Taking Time for Your Own Writing

A few months ago I had the privilege of spending two weeks at Hedgebrook, a remarkable writers’ colony for women located on Whidbey Island in Washington State. In a cottage all my own, with delicious meals prepared for me, I had all the time in the world to give to my work-in-progress, nourished by a community that was founded on and deeply committed to supporting writers. It was, in many ways, a dream-come-true, and my stay there was tremendously rewarding.  Early on, though, I felt a bit overwhelmed by it all. I battled feelings of not being worthy, worried that I wouldn’t produce enough to justify the incredible gift of time I’d been given. (After all these years of writing, the mean voice still knows exactly how to insinuate itself into my thinking.) My time at Hedgebrook reminded me how essential, important, powerful, and complex the whole business of making and taking time for your own writing can be.

After I returned from Hedgebrook, I led a workshop in rural Pennsylvania, working with a group of eight writers who had managed to carve out an entire week from their otherwise full lives to concentrate on revising their novels. Their presence at the workshop was an act of faith in their stories and in their development as writers. I watched the participants make remarkable breakthroughs as they settled into uninterrupted time and space—despite battling daily worries about whether a husband would remember to pack a certain item in a child’s lunchbox, or about the “other” job they would be returning to after the workshop, or that they would not live up to expectations (their own or others’) of how much they would accomplish.

I see from both sides—as writer and as teacher—that the business of making and taking time for our own writing persists as an abiding challenge, wherever we are in our careers and our lives.

We all bring all sorts of stuff to the table when we sit down to write—whether it’s for twenty minutes or an hour or a day or a week, whether we do our writing at the crack of dawn before the kids wake up or have extended days and weeks to give to it. There are always competing tugs that try to pull us away—circumstantial, psychological, physical. But the simple fact remains that if we do not make and take some time in which to put those opposing forces aside and get down to writing, we will not write. If we do not write, our stories—the ones only we can tell—will not be written.

Shouldn’t writing teachers know this better than anyone, we who spend so much time and energy encouraging others to write, creating schedules that make writing possible for them, checking in to read a work-in-progress and ask questions, offering feedback and encouragement? Perhaps. Yet, at least in my experience, it doesn’t always work that way. We kid ourselves that teaching writing is the same as doing our own writing. It’s not. We feel that having put in our time teaching means we have put in our time writing. We have not. We give others the time and space and environment conducive to writing, but we withhold those very things from ourselves.

I’ve reckoned with these inconsistencies time and time again over the years, and I’m sure I will again, because the need to make and take time for writing is something that will never go away. My ways of answering the challenge have evolved and changed along with my age and life circumstances. For years I wrote early in the morning, before my family woke up. To work on my first novel, I hired a babysitter and worked on it in two-hour sessions twice a week. I wrote another novel in fifteen-minute spurts in my journal until I had finally accumulated enough material to see I had a story. These days, with kids grown and teaching intermittent, I have the luxury of many more hours to write. But I still need to pull up the calendar, look at the week ahead, and commit to which hours of what days will be for writing. And then I have to show up for them, for better or for worse.

Sometimes, when I become aware that the mean voice in my head is once again nattering at me, trying to undermine my writing, I remind myself that I would never speak that way to another writer. I ask myself to extend to myself the same compassion and kindness and encouragement that I extend—and genuinely feel—toward my students. Maybe we could try the same approach when it comes to making and taking time for writing—giving to ourselves what we give to others—because without time there will be no writing.

Are you making sure to take the time you can to write? Have you slipped into a habit of making time for everything but writing? Choose writing over something else. Make an act of faith in yourself and the stories you have to tell.

6 comments August 8th, 2011

Blogstitute Week 4: Get Real!

In this week’s Blogstitute entry, teacher and author Julie D. Ramsay (“Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?) discusses why it’s important for students to have real reasons for writing and to connect with other student writers. “…providing my students with a real reason to write — and a real audience (besides me) to read that writing — completely changed my students’ perspective of writing,” Julie says.

Weigh in with your own experiences and questions and you will be entered to win a package of five writing books. Next week (August 8) you will hear from Carolyn Coman, author of Writing Stories, on how to make time for your own writing.

Get Real!

Now that another school year has ended, most of us are already contemplating the changes that we want to make for our upcoming students. Quite often I hear from teachers, “I don’t know how to teach writing” or “I feel my writing instruction is nonexistent.” In the school system where I’m currently teaching, we have such a rigid schedule that writing is often left for the last few minutes of the day—which means we have no time for writing workshop and very little time for structured writing lessons.

In spite of that, when I reflect on what has made the biggest difference in my students’ enthusiasm and drive to become expert writers, I have to say that providing my students with a real reason to write—and a real audience (besides me) to read that writing—completely changed my students’ perspective of writing.

The evolution of new technology tools has given us access to the world at our fingertips. Although providing an authentic audience for our students may take a bit of time to set up, if you know where to look this summer, you can make the connections necessary to provide your students with a plethora of real writing opportunities for the upcoming school year. These connections will prove invaluable to our students, regardless of grade level, ability level, or content area. They will become so excited about writing that they will beg to have more time during the day to write. Following are some ways to help make this happen.

1.    Find teachers with similar writing goals. “How do I do this?” is often the first question people ask. Many of us will spend at least some of our summer pursuing professional development opportunities, whether these are in our own districts, at national conferences, or via webinars attended at home. While you are there and chatting with other educators (whether face-to-face or online, keep in mind that all of these people can provide potential writing partners for your classroom. If you feel that certain people might be a good match for you and your students, ask them if they are interested in having their students connect with your students through their writing. Be sure to get a feel for their expectations up front so that your students won’t lose their writing partners halfway through a project.

Another great way to connect with other educators is through Twitter, where you can find a large contingent of educators learning from one another and participating in a constant flow of conversation, sharing, and connecting. If you are unfamiliar with how to use Twitter, here is a blog post that I wrote for the Alabama NBCT Network about how to get started. Through Twitter, I have discovered many like-minded educators who feel passionate about giving our students the kinds of opportunities they crave in the classroom today. I have connected with other teachers and formed yearlong connections between our students, providing both sets of students the opportunity to write and teach one another through an ongoing project.

When your students know that other students are the ones who will be reading what they’ve written, they take what they write much more seriously. They realize that their audience is depending on them to communicate clearly through their writing.

2.    Collaboratively publish. Now that you’ve made some connections, your students need to publish their writing for and with their new writing partners. My students are currently engaged in a yearlong collaborative project with students from across the United States. All 300 of these students create and publish an online digital journal that the students named The Coast to Coast Chronicles. They collaboratively publish four editions; each edition has a theme that the students collectively choose. They publish and house all of their work on Wikispaces, a free tool that is fairly intuitive to use. If you’ve ever used word processing software or written any e-mails, Wikispaces will be right up your alley. You can set the security parameters to meet the needs of your projects, and it’s easy to add URL links, photos, and files (including audio files, PowerPoint presentations, and Word documents) and to embed actual projects into a page.

Another tool that is very useful when students want to collaboratively publish their work is Voice Thread. Voice Thread not only allows users to set up viewing and editing parameters, but collaborators can work on it from anywhere. With Voice Thread, you can upload files and record comments via voice, text, doodle, or video. Then the friends you’ve invited to edit can go in and make comments of their own. As one of my students commented, “The more you add to it, the better it gets.” When students know that a much wider audience is going to not only see and hear their writing, but also learn from and comment on it, it changes the assignment from something that is static to something that is alive and growing. There is a real purpose to what they are collaboratively publishing, and their partners are depending on them to create quality writing for the final project. You can see an example of a project that my students published with their collaborative partners here.

3.    Bring experts into the classroom. How many of us want our students to really connect with the importance of writing? What better way than to actually get to talk to experts and then spend time sharpening their own craft? Today, our students can easily do this with professionals from around the world by using Skype. There are many authors and writers out there who are more than happy to speak to your students. If you let your guests know what your students are practicing, they can weave it into their lesson and make it interactive for your students.

These experts don’t necessarily have to be writers for your students to gain a perspective of how important communicating with others can be to them, both inside and outside of the classroom. Although my students enjoy their conversations with the professional experts, their favorite experts were a group of older students. We had the opportunity this year to Skype with astronomy and anatomy students. My students were learning real things from real students and applying them to their lives. Then they were using their newfound knowledge to write and create new projects for their real audience. Their enthusiasm was infectious. You know you’ve hit on something remarkable when students are diligently writing late on a Friday afternoon and complain when it’s time to go home.

4.    Encourage self-reflection.  What better way for students to really connect with their learning than by reflecting through their writing on what they’ve learned? I begin this practice the first day of school. My students understand that it is their responsibility to share what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown, and to set goals for the future. Although they are writing for themselves, they know that their learning can impact others.

An excellent way for students to reflect is through blogging. After some extensive modeling and exploring of blogs (good, bad, and ugly), my students set up the basic criteria for blogging. A tool like Kidblog allows teachers control over what is published and what is not. This is also an excellent venue to connect with another class; students from each class can comment on one another’s posts. This gives the students a real audience and a real reason to share their learning through their writing.

So this summer, while you’re discovering new professional practices, keep in mind the idea of connecting your students with others, which will provide them with a real reason to write and create. You’ll be amazed at how much your students will crave writing when they know they have a real audience to read what they’ve written. Before you know it, you’ll have your students begging to skip lunch so that they can keep writing.

8 comments August 1st, 2011

Blogstitute Week 3: How to critique writing

“Offering feedback to another writer is a learned skill,” writes children’s author and teacher Kate Messner (Real Revision) in this week’s Blogstitute entry. Kate shares a real letter she received from her editor as she was working on her book The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., and walks through specific steps of what feedback should look like.

Next week’s Blogstitute post will come from Julie D. Ramsay, author of “Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?” Remember to leave comments and questions to be entered to win a package of five writing books!

How to critique writing

As a middle school English teacher and a published author, I find myself on all sides of the critique fence—giving critiques myself, teaching kids how to critique one another’s work, and receiving constructive critiques from my writing group members and my editors.

Offering feedback to another writer is a learned skill. You want to be supportive, but not so supportive that there’s no real constructive criticism. You want to be critical, but not so critical that the writer is plunged into fits of despair. You want to offer feedback while still leaving ownership of the piece and the responsibility for improving it squarely in the hands of the writer.

I’m an extremely fortunate writer; the editors with whom I’ve worked have turned constructive criticism into an art, and I think writers of all ages can learn a lot from studying an editor’s strategies for nudging an author to revise. Here are some quotes from the editorial letter that Bloomsbury/Walker editor Mary Kate Castellani sent me when we were beginning to work together on my middle-grades novel The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., along with some lessons on critiquing I’ve pulled from her model.

Dear Kate,

Four pencil nubbins and half a Pink Pearl eraser later, I’m finally returning your revision. I so enjoyed re-immersing myself in this story. In fact I got so into the story that any time someone approached my desk I jumped out of my chair because I forgot there was an outside world (or in this case . . . office). The changes you’ve made are just right and I am loving the funny parts of Gee’s voice. It’s been so much fun to reread and work on.

Lesson #1: Say something positive first.

Simple advice, but this paragraph puts me in the right frame of mind to appreciate Mary Kate’s suggestions and to believe in myself as a writer so that I’m ready to tackle the revision.

First, I want to make sure that the project’s obstacles evolve clearly and don’t feel episodic. I’ve sort of outlined them as I see them:

1.    At first Gianna is her own worst enemy by being a slightly disorganized procrastinator, better at the creative side of things and not very good at minding deadlines.
2.    Then Bianca proves to be an even worse enemy as she tries to ruin Gianna’s chances of completing her project.
3.    Then things out of her control, such as Nonna’s doctor’s visit and disappearance, take up her precious free time, really and truly making it impossible for her to finish her project.

Lesson #2: Tell the reader what you’re taking away from your reading of the manuscript.

If what Mary Kate read here isn’t what I intended, then I know I have some work to do in terms of getting my ideas across.

Gianna is foiled at almost every turn, but I wonder if her reactions at times seem a bit too mild. Her brand of stoicism and her ability to roll with things are part of her personality, but I wished she had stronger reactions when she suffers the most serious of setbacks: a) when all her leaves get thrown away (page 90) and b) when Bianca ruins all her identification cards in a super mean act of sabotage (page 105). I wonder, if Gee’s reactions are stronger, whether it will be easier to understand why she isn’t making any progress, and then later when it’s all put in perspective by Nonna’s illness it will all be even more complete. Does that make sense?

Lesson #3: Be specific in your feedback.

Here, Mary Kate doesn’t simply say that Gianna’s character needs to be developed. (If she had, I may have struggled with where to start on that momentous and vague task.)  Instead, she points out very specific instances where there are opportunities for me to make Gianna’s reactions to her situation feel more authentic.

I’m wondering if it is possible to inject more Vermont/New England. It’s sort of funny when you think of how most people romantically associate New England in the fall with mountains and the turning of the leaves and the gorgeous colors—when they are actually the bane of our main character’s existence. The scenes are there, but I found myself wishing for more of the region’s flavor.

Lesson #4: Note places where the writer may want to add sensory details.

This request from Mary Kate led to some of my favorite descriptions in the book, and students often write to me about the setting of this novel, telling me they really felt like they were experiencing autumn in Vermont. Sensory details—including those that go beyond sight—make a huge difference.

And lastly, I feel like Zig and Gianna’s “relationship” still needs just a bit of finessing. Nonna’s “prediction” emerges at an odd time when they are crouched in the classroom during a drill. I’d rather have it come right from Nonna with Zig and Gee present so that they can be thoroughly embarrassed and have that make them both realize that something might be changing between them. Then all the awkward little moments alluding to this will make sense to the reader (and to Gee as she narrates). As this situation goes from being confusing and weird for Zig and Gee to clear feelings of affection, I think it would be a more satisfying evolution. Does that make sense?

Lesson #5: Don’t be afraid to point out where things don’t make sense.

This explanation of one of the situations that didn’t feel natural to Mary Kate helped me to look at that particular relationship in the book through a wider lens and see how it could be better developed throughout. Before all was said and done during the revision of The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., the book lost its first three chapters; got a new first chapter, two new middle chapters, and a new last chapter; and underwent many smaller changes.

I think just a bit more finessing will make an already strong story even better. I’ve been having the best time working on this book, and poor Stacy has had to listen to me stop and read parts out loud so that I can share my favorite moments with someone else. She’s been very patient with me.

Lesson #6:  Wrap up on a positive note.

Again, this puts the writer in the right frame of mind to get back to work. And finally . . .

After you’ve had a chance to look this over, let me know if you think these suggestions make sense, and we can go from there.

Lesson #7: Follow up written comments with a conversation when possible.

After I receive an editorial letter, Mary Kate and I often chat on the phone so that I can ask questions and she can clarify her suggestions. Sometimes, that conversation leads to a brainstorming session that produces more out-of-the-box ideas than I might have come up with on my own. This works with students, too. Whenever possible, try to follow up a critique-writing session with a personal conference, leaving ample time for questions and brainstorming.

Remember, real revision takes time, and it can be messy, but the results are well worth the long trail of marked-up manuscripts and sticky notes they leave behind!

18 comments July 25th, 2011

Blogstitute Week 2: Celebrating Writers — Including You!

We continue our Summer Writing Blogstitute with an entry by Ruth Ayres, coauthor of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. If you ever found yourself wondering why on earth you write when it’s just so hard, this post will help you — and your students — push through those difficult times.

The next installment in our Blogstitute will appear next Monday, July 25. Kate Messner will talk about how to teach students to critique writing. Don’t forget to leave a comment to be entered for a chance to win a package of five writing books at the end of the Blogstitute. You can also order this great package of resources at a special discounted price!

Celebrating Writers — Including YOU!

The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.

—Oprah Winfrey

The more I write, the more I realize the importance of celebrating the steps of the journey. Writing is challenging, and often I want to walk away from the hard work of putting words on a page. I know our students feel the same way. They get up to sharpen their pencils, drink some water, and visit the supply center eight times in ten minutes. When the challenging work of writing becomes overwhelming, we find reasons to avoid the sweat.

Which makes me wonder, Why do I keep at it on the really tough days? And then, How can I help students to keep writing on the really tough days? It comes down to remembering the days when writing is rewarding. The days when the words flow and I write several pages of a draft. The times when I rewrite an ending and love it. The joy when someone tells me my words impacted them. I write because I’m addicted to the rush of my words going out into the world and making a difference in other people’s lives.

The small steps on the journey make the final step of publication possible for a writer. If we don’t celebrate the small steps often, we run out of stamina to make it to the final step. Here are some ways to celebrate the journey writers take in writing workshop:

  • Open Share Time: At the end of writing workshop, invite students to share the things they are feeling good about as writers. Leave the invitation wide open by asking, “What is working well for you as a writer today?” They may share a cover to their most recent book, a revised lead, or the way they edited for capitalization.
  • Process Groups: About a year ago I joined a writing group. Each month I meet with four other writers and we listen, encourage, and give feedback. More than anything else, though, we celebrate our writing lives. The e-mails between meetings are regular and usually based on celebrating the small steps we are taking as writers. This makes me realize the importance of honoring the process. By dividing students into small groups and inviting them to talk about the process of writing, they are given this same opportunity. To help this succeed, consider modeling the kind of talk you expect. Share with them your recent writing. Then listen as students talk about their writing work, and offer specific feedback and encouragement. As students begin listening and talking in their small groups, be vigilant in listening to the tone of their conversations. A positive tone should be used to celebrate individual writing processes.
  • Before and After: When I look at my writing from long ago and compare it to my writing today, I’m pleased with my improvement. Sometimes I don’t even have to wait for time to pass to feel proud of the improvement. When I revise a scene to make the dialogue more realistic or when I craft the language in an essay to make it read more smoothly, I feel good when I look at the initial draft and the revised version. Providing opportunities for students to look at their before-and-after work and reflect on their growth is another way to celebrate their writing lives. I like to encourage students to write their realizations on fancy paper or a cutout and then post their reflections on a bulletin board so others can celebrate their writing journeys too.

Celebration is about so much more than a final copy of a piece of writing. Celebrating the small steps on the road to being a writer gives us the energy to keep writing, even on the tough days. As you celebrate your writing life alongside your students, may you be pleasantly surprised to find more and more motivation to put words on the page.

33 comments July 18th, 2011

Blogstitute Week 1: Student-initiated writing conferences

We kick off the Stenhouse Summer Writing Blogstitute with a post from Stacey Shubitz, coauthor of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. Stacey, who is also one of the Two Writing Teachers, writes that teaching students to recognize when they need help during the writing process is an important skill. Make sure you leave a question or comment to be entered to win a package of five writing books. The next entry in our blogstitute series will appear Monday, July 18.

Student-Initiated Writing Conferences
In late April my daughter, Isabelle, attempted to roll over. I noticed her back would arch when she’d try to flip from her back to her belly. She’d make a funny sound whenever she was about to attempt the feat. Every time Isabelle tried to roll over on the floor, she’d get stuck on her right arm. No matter how hard she tried in the beginning, she was unable to roll over.

I went to a mom’s group and asked other mothers for their opinion. I was told to move her arm and give her a push to help her get to her belly. I thought about this deeply and discussed it with my husband, who wanted our daughter to roll over as much as I did. We decided we’d put up with the back arching and shrieking until Isabelle was able to initiate the rollover on her own, so that it would feel natural to her. On May 2, after lots of crying, shrieking, and yelling, Isabelle rolled onto her belly. The best part of her accomplishment was that my husband and I were sitting on the floor next to her when the big moment arrived.

In writing workshop, we don’t want our students to be dependent on us coming over to them to have a writing conference. If you teach writing workshop to a large class of students, you probably have a system for meeting with everyone. Perhaps you have a class conferring manifest you keep on top of your conferring notebook to help keep track of when you meet with each student. In fact, you should do that so you ensure all students are conferring with you on a regular basis.

Although teacher-initiated writing conferences are important, and should make up the majority of your conferring time, students need to learn when and how to request a writing conference with you. When you’re setting up your launching unit for writing workshop this year, consider adding a day where you teach your students how and why to approach you for a writing conference. Here are some of the potential opportunities for students to initiate a writing conference with you:

  • Author’s Craft Conference: One of your young writers notices an author’s craft in a book she is reading and wants to try out that craft move on her own, but she needs a little insight on how to do it well.
  • Brainstorming Conference: We don’t want our students to rely on us to help them come up with ideas for writing. That being said, there are times when students are engaged in a piece of writing and may need assistance thinking of other ways to get their point across, say something differently, or make a character come alive.
  • Editing Conference: While a writer may have learned a variety of strategies for editing his piece in your mini-lessons, he could still have editing-related issues. Therefore, he may wish to set up an editing conference with you. Rather than using a red pen to mark up his paper, you might try conducting this conference as if you were a tutor in a college writing center, allowing the student to point out the conventional problems with his writing so he is in the driver’s seat when it comes to editing his own work.
  • Revision Conference: As you know, many writers struggle with revision. Sometimes young writers need help fleshing out which parts of their writing are best to omit and which parts should be fleshed out. If a student is toying with different ways to revise a piece of writing, she might choose to seek out your help by asking for a revision conference.
  • Sense-Making Conference: Sometimes a writer needs an adult’s eyes on his writing to ask, “Does this make sense?” Sometimes teachers can help a child realize how to clarify a point or when to elaborate.

We want to remind students that student-initiated conferences shouldn’t be for asking “Is this good?”  When I taught full-time, I banned that question from the classroom because good is in the eyes of the beholder. Rather than asking for approval, I believe we need to teach students to ask other people for assistance when it comes to specific writing-related items they wish to improve upon.

Just as Isabelle took her time to roll over independently, it’s important that we allow students time to initiate a writing conference when they are ready to approach us. If you teach students how to initiate writing conferences, in time they will come to realize that as a writer it’s their duty to seek out assistance when it’s needed.

53 comments July 6th, 2011

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