Kids love to talk about their passions and tell stories about their experiences. How can you transfer this enthusiasm to writing? And how can you use other types of talk–one-on-one and in small groups–to build trust, inform revision, and develop confident writers?
Veteran instructional coach Mark Overmeyer gives you five useful structures for making the most of talk in writing workshop in his new book, Let’s Talk.
In addition to the classic one-on-one student-teacher conference, Mark guides teachers on how to incorporate teacher-led small-group conferences, teacher-led public conferences, peer conferences, and small-group peer review conferences. Along the way you will pick up dozens of tips and examples–effectively giving feedback, asking better questions, assessment, meeting the needs of ELLs, conference & record-keeping forms, and more–that will help you become a better writing teacher.
We are really excited to start a new occasional series on the Stenhouse blog with teacher, author, and blogger extraordinaire Franki Sibberson. In her first post Franki ponders what it means to be a writer and comes to the realization that it’s not just about notebooks and pens anymore.
I launched our fourth grade Writing Workshop as I had many times before—by sharing my life as a writer. I brought in notebooks from past and present, read a bit of notebook advice from Ralph Fletcher, gave kids time to write a few entries, and shared some of their process as writers. But at the end of the day, something just didn’t feel right. I felt like something was missing.
Yes, the students were writing happily in their new writers’ notebooks. Yes, there were good things to share and discuss. Yes, I felt that the introduction to writing workshop was authentic. But something seemed off. I came home that night and moved through my evening routine of checking email, reading blogs, updating Twitter, etc. It was then that I realized how much of my writing life I had not shared with my students. I realized that I had only shared a piece of my writing life and that my digital writing life had not been part of our conversations.
I had planned to talk to students about digital writing. We’ll have a class wiki and blog set up so I knew we’d get there. But I’d planned to start with notebook writing and go from there. In the four years since I left the classroom to become a teacher librarian, my life as a writer has changed incredibly. Not only has my life as a writer changed, but also the ways in which we define writing has expanded to mean more than just text creations. I was fooling myself to think that I could separate out the tools of writing and launch writing workshop as I always had.
So, on Wednesday, I started Writing Workshop with a mini-lesson about my life as a digital writer. I started out by sharing with students that I had shared my notebook writing with them, but that writers use lots of tools and I wanted to talk to them about the other tools I use as a writer.
I used the Interactive Whiteboard in my room to begin sharing my digital life as a writer. First, I took them to my blog: A Year of Reading (http://readingyear.blogspot.com). I talked to them about how Mary Lee Hahn and I write this blog together and I add to it a few times each week. I showed them some of my posts and talked about how the focus was on books and reading. I talked to them about the visitors we get and our audience in general.
Then I took them to my Slideshare account. I told them that I thought writing was about more than just words and that I sometimes “wrote” or created PowerPoint presentations to share with teachers at workshops. I showed them a few of these slideshows and talked about how much of my writing for these was about finding pictures that shared the message I wanted to share.
I showed them my Goodreads account where I log the books I read and those I want to read. I showed them the part of the page that lets me write quick reviews so I can let other people know what I thought of the book. I told them that I rely on review of people from all over the world to decide what to read next.
Finally, I took them to Choice Literacy where I showed them some articles for teachers that I wrote. I also took them to the podcasts and let them listen to the beginning of my podcast interview with Kevin Hodgson on digital writing. We talked about the idea of podcasts and they thought they seemed similar to audiobooks.
We spent the next several days exploring tools on computers and iPads that writers use. I wanted students to see computers and iPads as tools for creation right off in the school year. I wanted them to begin to think of writing in new ways and to begin to think about the possibilities ahead. We explored Keynote, Pages and Garageband on the computers. And we explored Explain Everything and Popplet on the iPads. Playing with each tool allowed students to further explore the idea of digital writing.
This was only the beginning of our conversation about what it is to be a writer. Since those first few days of school, we have continued to define as a class what it means to be a writer. I continue to overhear conversations in which students process the ways in which they might use various tools or the kinds of things they might create. This week we’ll continue to learn about keeping a writer’s notebook. We’ll also explore blogs from around the world. Students will most likely notice the ways in which movies, podcasts and images are embedded into these posts. They will start to see the various ways to publish and the various options they have as writers. As we move toward publishing on our class blog and wiki, these beginning conversations will come to life. Students will be able to use a variety of tools to write and publish.
Authenticity is key to any writing workshop and I learned this week that to keep the writing workshop authentic, I needed to share with students all that it meant to be a writer today.
I have been reading psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating new book Thinking, Fast and Slow, and I am surprised at how often his ideas have resonated with me as a writer and as a teacher of writing.
Early in the book, he defines the “priming effect” as the unconscious influences different associations create in our brains. In one experiment, college students were asked to complete a series of word association exercises. Students who were asked to work with words that evoked ideas about old age (e.g., forgetful, bald, gray, wrinkled) walked more slowly down the hall when compared to students who worked with words that did not evoke age. This idea of unconscious priming led to other studies, including one in which participants rated themselves as happier when they were asked to smile for a short time.
I began to wonder about how we can prime our students to be successful during the writing workshop. Here are some tips that may help you create a space where students want to write (or, as Kahneman might say, where your students will be primed to write):
1. Enthuse. Be enthusiastic when you begin your writing workshop. Let students know that you enjoy teaching writing, and that you like reading what your students write. I have become somewhat skeptical of the obsession with rubrics lately – though I do believe rubrics help us to assess students fairly, and I also believe they can help students understand what is expected of them, rubrics can also drain enthusiasm from a writing classroom. When you begin a conference with a student, wouldn’t it be much more meaningful to begin with honest praise rather than the sharing of a rubric score?
2. Model. I recently visited a fifth grade classroom in a school I have been working at for many years. One of the students, now 10 years old, asked about my cat Milo. She remembered my “Milo is a Lazy Cat” essay from when she was a third grader. Then she said: “I wrote about Skittles my ferret in third grade.” I was so excited to reconnect with Madison: “Skittles! I remember! The troublemaking ferret!” When we model our writing process for students, they remember. I only spent a few minutes several days in a row showing my thinking about how to craft an essay about Milo the Lazy Cat for Madison’s class, but she remembered it. When we model for students, we do not have to be perfect. It is better if we just honestly work through the process of developing ideas, framing a story, or revising an initial draft of a poem. We can prime students to want to write merely by showing them that we also write…
3. Laugh. Every writing workshop can be a place filled with laughter during appropriate units of study. During a poetry unit, fill the room with titles by Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky alongside books by Ralph Fletcher and Cynthia Rylant. During a personal narrative study, keep all the classic books you love from Patricia Polacco and Jane Yolen, but include excerpts from Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney and Knucklehead by Jon Sciezska. Check out this lead to one of Jon’s hilarious memories about growing up with five brothers:
“Watch your brothers!”
That’s what my mom used to tell me and Jim – “Watch your brothers.”
So we did.
We watched Jeff roll off the couch.
We watched Brian dig in the plants and eat the dirt.
We watched Gregg lift up the toilet lid on the toilet and splash around in the water.
Of course the writing workshop should be a place that allows for and welcomes all emotions. I have shed tears many times with students as they share memories of losing a pet, a grandparent, or a friend. These emotions are real and should be encouraged. I am just advocating here for priming our students to feel welcome in a place where they can tell their stories – even (and maybe especially) the funny ones.
4. Specify. The more specific I am during mini lessons and conferences, the more writing happens in my classroom. I try to keep in mind that the purpose of the writing workshop is to help everyone get better at writing, so I am as specific as I can be during mini-lessons. I might say: “Today, I am going to teach you how to make your personal narratives even better with dialogue that shows, and doesn’t just tell…” The other place to be specific is during a conference. Last spring, I had the opportunity to work with a fifth grade student as he revised his personal narrative, and I said: “VaShawn, you are the kind of writer who can tell a story with a great punchline. You had all of us laughing so hard when you told about the time you fought back at the petting zoo when an angry goat tried to butt you from behind. Since you are so good at coming up with an ending, I wonder if we could talk today for a few minutes about leads…”
Being specific forces us to have intentions as teachers of writing, just as we want our students to have intentions as writers. Intentional, specific teaching does not limit our students – it allows them to grow because it requires us to be very engaged as teachers. A classroom full of specific teaching points, clear model texts, and a course of action resulting from a goal setting conference primes students to see the workshop as a place where they can flourish as writers.
“Writing is hard work,” says Mark Overmeyer in his book When Writing Workshop Isn’t Working. To make teaching writing easier, Mark answers the tough questions about writing workshop: How can I help students who don’t know what to write about? How can I help my students organize their writing? How do I manage writing conferences? And how do I plan for writing instruction. For this week’s Quick Tip, we pulled a section from Mark’s book where he talks about planning writing instruction for a school year.
Planning for a year If certain units of study are going to be followed through the course of a year based on state, district, or school guidelines, setting deadlines for these units of study can be helpful when planning instruction.
For example, for many years when I taught fifth and sixth graders, my teammates and I ended the year with a unit that required students to create their own magazine. This project required students to use all of the writing strategies they had been working on all year, and the open-ended assignment allowed for maximum choice while still providing a tool for determining how much students had grown in the year. The magazine became a sort of community celebration as it continued over the years, and families looked forward to seeing what their students would create during this project. Since the magazine took approximately five weeks to complete, and it was one form of summative assessment, we placed it at the end of the school year. We worked backward from there, fitting in units that included research, narrative, memoir, and technical writing.
As we planned for the year, we noticed when we could fit writing in across the curriculum. For example, we could do a research unit closely connected to social studies topics. Students had a choice of what they wanted to research, but we connected it to our American history standards. Technical writing in the form of lab reports could happen in science class.Writing did not have to exist just in the domain of language arts, so if there were days when we would have to shorten our language arts block, we could plan accordingly and make sure to have writing happen in science or social studies.Writing in other content areas is not only a good idea in terms of planning and scheduling, but I think it is also good for students. Many of my reluctant writers in the past have loved science, and they were more than willing to write in the context of their favorite subject. They may have reluctantly completed a memoir, but then enthusiastically explained their thinking in science class.
Planning for a year is an excellent way to think backwards: once my teammates and I decided which type of writing would occur in each month, we could begin gathering our resources and planning for instruction.We knew what types of writing we would need to cover in order for students to be successful in each unit.
Though we knew we would have to adapt our ideas according to student need, having the plan created a strong scope and sequence that covered the requirements of our district curriculum. Organizing for the year ensured that we would give students ample opportunity to demonstrate their growth in writing.
All writing teachers are familiar with the “hamburger paragraph” and other well-intentioned but ultimately faulty systems to help students organize their writing. And while not all organizational structures are irrelevant, in this installment of Questions & Authors Jennifer Jacobson argues that helping students think of their audience and guiding them to discover writing structures and styles as they read their favorite books, are the foundations of better organized writing. Jennifer is the author of No More “I’m Done!” Fostering Independent Writers in the Primary Grades.
We’ve long accepted that learning to read is a developmental process. We know that, year by year, students will grow in their understanding of how print is constructed. They will increase their knowledge and application of reading strategies and comprehension. But when it comes to writing, we often fail to think developmentally. This is particularly true in the teaching of organization, where we provide lists of instructions or formulas to students so they can produce seemingly well-organized products. In many instances, the formulas are bogus, no more than fabrications designed by well-meaning educators to prompt students for a patterned (but often hollow) response.
The hamburger paragraph is one example of well-intentioned but faulty scaffolding. In this popular lesson, we teach students to begin each paragraph with a topic sentence, follow with three supporting sentences, and end with a concluding sentence. Imagine for a moment trying to write a letter, an essay, or a report this way. All paragraphs would be approximately five sentences long. Transitions from one paragraph to another would be a nightmare: all those conclusions, all those new openings. If you examine professional writing, you’ll discover that sometimes a topic sentence comes in the middle of the paragraph, sometimes at the end. (Years ago, when doing some writing for a textbook company, I had difficulty finding a mentor text that had even a single paragraph modeled after the hamburger.)
But, you say, once we started teaching the hamburger, our students scored higher on the state assessment! I’m not surprised. In some states, teachers who are enlisted to score state assessments have been taught to look for the hamburger structure in student responses. Another name for the hamburger paragraph, then, could be the Big Test Paragraph.
This is not to say that all of the structures we teach students—the compare-and-contrast essay, the persuasive essay, the rising action to climax in fiction, the haiku, or the sonnet, for example—are not relevant. They certainly are. However, we need to give students knowledge of and experience with different organizational patterns. And before we do that, we need to help them grow in their intrinsic understanding of organization. That is, we need to help them realize that organization serves a particular function, and that they—as writers—have important decisions to make.
How do we accomplish this?
We begin by building a sense of audience. When a writer shifts his purpose from writing for himself to writing with a reader in mind, he becomes increasingly aware of the need for structure. He first recognizes that organization is essential for clarity, and then grows to understand that by manipulating the organization he can better inform, persuade, entertain, or move the reader.
There are a myriad of positive ways that we can help young writers keep audience in mind. As your students leave the rug where you have gathered for your mini-lesson, ask, “What are you going to write about today?” And then, “What do you think the reader would like to know about (your cat, your trip to the Laundromat, your birthday party)?”
During writing conferences we can ask questions that help the writer keep the reader in mind:
• What is the purpose of your piece?
• What is the most important thing you wish to tell the reader?
• Do you have a lead that will hook the reader?
• Are there any places in your work that might confuse the reader? How could you make this part clearer?
• What does the reader learn in the middle of your piece?
• What do you think the reader will want to know at the end?
• How do you think the reader will react to this ending?
I conduct mini-lessons in which I model prewriting with audience in mind. I tell students my topic choice—for example, my dogs—and then ask, “What do you think the reader would like to know about them?” They provide me with a list of questions, which I record on the board. After the questions have been generated, we discuss which ones I should answer in the beginning of the piece (What are your dogs’ names? What do they look like?), those that should be answered in the middle of the piece (What do they like to do? Do they get into trouble?), and the questions that will serve the ending (How do you feel about your dogs?). Then I write a piece that includes the answers to all of the questions. I think out loud, indicating when it’s time to shift to another paragraph (for example, when I’m introducing a new idea about my subject).
Of course, the very best way to help students develop a sense of audience is to give them one (the teacher alone does not serve as an effective audience). Daily sharing of writing in the author’s chair; peer conferencing; and publishing student work in newsletters, podcasts, and collective anthologies all go a long way toward helping students keep listeners and readers in mind.
After they have developed a sense of audience, students need to understand that writers make choices about how to organize their work. When reading a mentor text to primary students, I often ask, “How did the author choose to organize this piece?” Many of the stories I read are chronological, so students say, “She told the story in the order it happened.” But I’m careful to read fiction and nonfiction that are organized around other structures as well. We read Carmine: A Little More Red by Melissa Sweet (2005), an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood that is organized as an alphabet book; The Great Blue House by Kate Banks (2005), which is organized according to the seasons; Previously by Allan Ahlberg (2008), a story told backward; Now and Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin by Gene Barretta (2006), which alternates between present and past; and many other books that allow us to examine different structural bones.
Once young students become familiar with the many organizational possibilities that exist, they often adapt them for their own purposes. As I mentioned in my book No More “I’m Done”: Fostering Independent Writers in the Primary Grades, it is a great feeling when a young student says, “Look! I’m using the Now and Ben pattern, only my book is Me as a Baby, Me Now.” Choosing their own organizational structure is a far more sophisticated approach than following a list of instructions.
Students can also examine the ways in which authors begin and end their pieces. In the not-so-distant past, I recommended providing students with a list of strategies that authors use. I now realize that an even more productive exercise is to invite students to conduct their own investigations of the techniques, and to provide their own names for these strategies. One group of students discovered that many writers begin a piece with a sentence that tells when:
• “When Owen’s granny heard he was a baby . . .” (Banjo Granny by Sarah Martin Busse and Jacqueline Briggs Martin )
• “Not so long ago, before she could even speak words . . .” (Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems )
• “When I was younger it was plain to me . . .” (A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant )
We know that with discovery comes ownership—not something that students are likely to forget.
Only when students truly understand the need and function for organization should we have them experiment with structures that are particularly useful to writers. I often begin by showing students the “pattern of three” that appears in some works of fiction: 1) a character wants something and tries to get it but fails, 2) he tries again and fails again, and 3) he tries a third time and either gets what he wants or changes his mind. Although fiction can be difficult, it is usually the genre children know best; therefore, they are able to apply a good deal of background knowledge. In addition, the pattern of three is a common organizational structure: the five-paragraph essay and the traditional persuasive essay are two familiar examples. Both essays begin with an introductory paragraph (equivalent to the opening of a story in which we are introduced to a character and what he wants), followed by three supporting paragraphs (the three tries), and a conclusion (the story’s resolution). Once students have developed a solid understanding of one of these formats, it’s easy to introduce the others.
When it comes to teaching writing, there is a constant tension between allowing students to practice the craft and rushing them to create a product that looks accomplished. With subjects such as mathematics or music, we accept that mastery will take hours and hours of exposure. Writing, on the other hand, we too often treat as a fill-in-the-blank exercise. Providing formulas too early not only stunts writing growth, it also interferes with the development of ideas, voice, and sentence fluency. Instead, we must encourage students to identify themselves as writers and to know that writers first ask themselves “What do I want to write about?” and then “How will I organize this piece?” Teaching students this foundational concept of the writing process will serve them well.
Teaching writing in a workshop setting is hard work. To plan mini-lessons, understand the diverse needs of a classroom of writers, and lift the level of each writer, while at the same time building confidence, is a tall order.
Ruth Ayers and Stacey Shubitz, creators of the popular blog Two Writing Teachers, have translated years of wisdom on writing instruction into a cornucopia of practical advice in their new book,
The 180 discussions are organized into 18 “cycles,” which in turn are grouped into chapters for each of the pillars of writing workshop: routines, mini-lessons, choice, mentors, conferring, and assessment. The book can be used as a quick reference for inspiration, as intensive professional development on a particular topic, or as a day-by-day guide to teaching writing workshop throughout the year. Questions throughout encourage reflective practice.
As Carl Anderson writes in the foreword, “This is a book that asks readers to take an active stance toward their learning, a stance that will reward them with new knowledge, new teaching points, and new techniques that become a part of their teaching repertoire.”