What are you working on this summer? During the school year, it’s easy to get bogged down in our day-to-day to-do lists. Big ideas, big projects languish in desk drawers for months — maybe forever. In this guest post, author Dave Somoza shares how a summer writing institute helped him focus on his big ideas, connect with like-minded colleagues, and helped him write a professional development book, Writing to Explore.
How a Summer Writing Institute Inspired a Book for Teachers
By Dave Somoza
It was a crazy time in my life. I had two small kids at home, I had recently started a new teaching job, and I was returning to school at night to complete my master’s degree. I was talking with my graduate advisor on a spring afternoon when I asked about class opportunities for the summer. I told him how much I loved teaching writing and how I’d wanted to find a way to steer my classes in that direction. He jumped up and grabbed a flyer from his secretary’s desk. He told me excitedly about a summer writing institute that I could still join, which would allow me to write about what I was discovering in my teaching, meet with many other enthusiastic teachers, and become part of a writing community. Oh, and I’d receive graduate credits too! It sounded perfect. When I told my friends about it, they thought I was crazy—why would you go to class in the summer to meet with other teachers and write? It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made, for my teaching and for myself. And it led to a book on writing for teachers, something I never thought I’d do.
Around that time my friend and author/college professor Pete Lourie visited often—his daughter was attending college in the town where I lived. We would get together for coffee and talk for hours about writing and teaching, and the more we talked the more we found we had in common. One morning Pete said, “Dave, we have to write a book together!” I remember laughing and explaining that I wasn’t a writer and never would be. But that idea came up again when I started the summer writing institute. I was spending time with incredible teachers from around the area who were all so passionate about writing and had so much to write about. I began to focus on how I teach writing and on the beautiful ideas that the kids were coming up with in my classes. So I wrote—not a lot, just some small chunks—bits of ideas that seemed to explain my thinking. Later, I would compile these bits into larger sections and eventually even chapters. But it was sitting with this group of dedicated teachers at the institute and listening to their ideas about teaching and writing that inspired me. At first it was just fun to get a few of these ideas, which had long been floating around in my head, down on paper. Eventually I decided that maybe Pete was right; maybe we could actually write a book together in two voices—the teacher and the professional writer.
Now when I think back on the summer institute and why it worked so well, I realize that teachers—all teachers—have so many great ideas, big ideas, and teaching philosophies. But the way that we work often forces us to focus on the small details, the to-do list of insignificant items we have to complete in order to make it through the day: call John’s mom about upcoming IEP meeting, meet with Sarah at recess to go over subtracting mixed numerals, e-mail colleagues to confirm field trip, eat lunch while checking e-mail, pee. It’s crazy how busy we get. It’s an insane job, and it’s the hectic schedule that tends to suppress our best ideas. Yet all of these great ideas are mulling around just behind the to-do list. Often it’s not until we put ourselves in a new situation, purposely, with really interesting people that our best ideas come to the surface. Sometimes, if we take the time to sit alone and think and write, these ideas can blossom.
A summer writing institute is exactly that kind of place. When mine started I walked in slowly, feeling a bit like an imposter for even being there. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t a writer, like all the others. I was just there for the credits. The room filled up, and I imagined that the other attendees were all brilliant teachers who knew exactly what they were there to do: hone their skills. I started thinking this may have been a bad idea. But a cool thing happened that first day. Our instructors, who were wonderful and bright and down-to-earth people, were able to somehow draw us all out of our selves. They started group discussions about the teaching of writing, which we could all relate to, and pretty soon all of those ideas and philosophies that we had about teaching and learning and living and writing began to bubble up and flow out of us. Then we broke into small working groups, which was another great idea. Here we talked more privately and more openly about ourselves, about our work, just getting to know one another. I learned that we were all in the same boat, trying to figure out what we hoped to get out of this experience.
It’s been almost ten years now, and I still remember every member of that group. We met every day, bounced ideas around, and shared our writing, which we were all self-conscious about at first. Every day we also had time to ourselves to think and write alone, knowing that the next morning we’d be back together and we’d need to have something to share. The range of topics our group wrote about was beautifully varied, from personal narratives about childhood experiences to more philosophical ideas about life and learning. I focused on how I teach writing. Between the talks about writing we shared ideas about teaching—things that had worked and things that hadn’t. I realized something else while I was there: teachers are so open. They want to share ideas, and they want to listen and learn from others. It’s such a non-competitive field where we can all imagine ourselves in the other’s place and can work together to help one another. By the end of the summer, our group had a powerful connection. By sharing ideas that were personal and professional, we had opened up to one another in a way that usually takes years between friends, and here we had done it in weeks between strangers. I’ll never forget those teachers, and I’m so grateful to have joined in.
After the institute, I was on fire. I now had a great start on my writing, and the ideas just kept flowing. I wanted to write each day, which I often did before work—just a bit at a time, one idea, one lesson, one student’s writing that had inspired me. Pete and I talked almost daily, and he was working like mad too, describing what his life was like as an adventure writer who travels the world turning his detailed journals into published books. We e-mailed ideas back and forth, edited each other’s writing, and inspired each other to continue. This was collaboration, too, somewhat similar to the group work at the institute. When we felt we had a clear idea of where we wanted to go, we started looking for a publisher.
Our book, Writing to Explore, is written in two voices and talks about the writing projects we’ve done with our students, how students have responded over the years, how teachers can incorporate research and technology into the writing process, and how adventure writing can become a vehicle for exploration in both fiction and nonfiction writing. We both still teach and write, but we also travel to conferences and summer institutes across the country, talking to teachers about writing. It has been an incredible ride!
As summer arrives, some of you may be attending summer writing institutes. I’m sure you’ll have a great experience too. Sometimes summer institutes don’t fill up right away, so there may still be time to get into one. And if you feel passionate about an idea that you’re doing with your students and have considered writing a book, reach out to Stenhouse.
Take a bite out of the Better Answer Sandwich with this article from author Ardith Cole, who argues that “sugar can be found inside the Common Core State Standards” and shares her ideas for teaching students to write authentic, real-world responses. Her book, Better Answers: Written Performance That Looks Good and Sounds Smart is full of methods, references, prompts, and other resources. The Better Answers process is easy to grasp and uses a gradual-release instructional framework that begins with teacher modeling, invites increasing amounts of student participation, and eventually moves students into independent response writing.
Turning Lemons into Lemonade
Is it possible to eliminate our national testing system? Maybe. In the meantime, let’s find some sugar and make lemonade!
Believe it or not, sugar can be found inside the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). For instance, ELA guidelines say response writing is a needed skill. Is it? Students do need response experiences to participate in a democratic society, don’t they? After all, if we eliminate all experiencesin response writing, we’ll contribute to silencing our next generation’s voices. Why not replacetesting’s lifeless prompts with authentic living prompts. Don’t even mention the word tests until an important one is looming!
Consider this ELA guideline: “Standards call on students to practice applying mathematical [or scientific, artistic, literary] ways of thinking to real-world issues and challenges.” Standards such as this one feel less fake, more akin to the “organic sugar” that we’d prefer to use. When curriculum is organic, it doesn’t pollute the classroom or the world. However, it does have the potential to effect change.
So let’s do it! Let’s invite students into projects where they will use written response inside an authentic task. My bookBetter Answers: Written Performance That Looks Good and Sounds Smart, Second Edition (Stenhouse, 2009) was initially developed by referencing those living responses and their prompts. The accompanying CD is full of such references, live links, methods, and structures. You’ll find prompt-and-response examples from newspapers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ira Flatow’s NPR interviews with scientists, World Wildlife Fund’s website, and so many others. Wouldn’t Common Core want students to make those inspiring world connections?
It’s good to know that the organizational structure of Common Core’s Writing Standards is in synch with my book’s protocols, steps, and lesson plans. Yet missing from Common Core, but included in Better Answers, are an abundance of explicit methods, strategies, and examples.
My book even offers a key prewriting step that CCSS omitted! It’s a step that those of us inside the real world—including most employees—know is an absolute must. I discuss that overlooked step at the end of this article.
The Better Answers protocol supports writers who are responding to a friend’s request for directions, an opinion on a blog site, their boss’s e-mails, an Amazon book review, dissatisfaction with merchandise purchased, as well as test prompts. Do any of those writing experiences sound familiar? Many of us compose some kind of response several times a week! So why not begin right there? Use a real response that you or one of your students recently needed to write.
Suppose you’ve been asked to write a newspaper ad for your local community garage sale or maybe an ad to encourage adoption for a homeless dog. Would you know where to begin? What would you say? Would you worry about how it would be perceived by friends and family? What would you do first?
I’d ask myself, “Now where would I find this kind of written response? What does it sound like, look like?” It seems best to experience one. Brain researchers say that’s how we learn: we mirror. Whose real-world responses would you like your students to mirror? You’ll find some inside Better Answers. Share some of thosetext-based and self-based responses with your students using my book’s CD. The Internet, too, overflows with examples—but select carefully.
Common Core’s Writing Guidelines suggest we teach informative, persuasive, and opinion texts and writing. Better Answers shows how. For example, to begin a response, CCSS advises writers should “introduce the topic or text . . . and create an organizational structure.” This CCSS structure matches that of the Better Answer Sandwich, whose first step (the top bun) is: “Introduction: Restate the question or prompt and add a gist.” Restating guides students toward a prompt’s acceptable answer. The gist sums up the details into one main idea. Those details are explained in the middle layers of the sandwich. This structure helps writers to assemble the pieces of their thinking into a cogent whole.
The Better Answer Sandwich
For their next step, CCSS says response writers need to “provide reasons that support the opinion [or gist].” Accordingly, Better Answers directs writers to “provide detailed evidence for your answer.” This section describes how to do this.
CCSS tells writers to “use linking words and phrases to connect” sentences and paragraphs. My book and CD have charted lists of all the transitional or linking words/phrases (e.g., conjunctions). The handy Transitions Sandwich even groups these linking words to their most appropriate placement within a response structure. For example, some transitions call the reader into the introduction (e.g., first, a major factor, in the beginning). Others connect the middle layers more fluently to one another (e.g., next, then, whereas, on the other hand). Still others transition the reader of the response toward a finalized-sounding conclusion (e.g., finally, therefore, in conclusion).
Common Core’s final suggestion for informative, informational, and opinion writing is to “provide concluding statement or section,” which is identical to Better Answers’ bottom bun. Lesson plans for all sections are included on the book’s jam-packed CD. PowerPoint slides, visuals, lists, and other references support teachers and their students along the way.
CCSS does add one more genre, narratives, “to develop real and imagined experiences.” Some parts of Better Answers will be applicable to some narratives—for example, narrative nonfiction. Within this subgenre, “research, real world, and review all come together perfectly” advises Lee Gutkind. However, narratives often involve a more creative approach in which writers follow their imaginations rather than a map or a tight structure.
And what of that newly soured subject, assessment? Better Answers includes that, too. It offers assessment rubrics with easily understood descriptors, as well as student/writer self-assessments, such as Sign-off Response Checklists for each response section. It also has Class Monitoring Spreadsheets, indicating whole-group progress in each area. And the entire implementation is steeped in group and partner sharing—and remains rooted in the real world.
Responding to teachers’ cries for help, I’ve added an entire section to the books’ second edition, aptly titled “What to Do When . . .” So if you run out of support ideas, try this section.
Now, what about that important piece CCSS omitted? Marsha Ratzel, a middle-grades math and science teacher who reviewed Better Answers, Second Edition for the Teacher Leaders Network, described it this way: “Here is where Better Answers really shines. Students in the first step tear apart the prompt so they can figure out what it is asking . . . This step transforms the prewriting stage into an analysis stage that helps students understand what kind of response they need to produce and gives them strategies for crafting the beginning part of their answer.” Whether it’s an e-mail from our boss or a challenge from our teacher, we should always do one thing before beginning our response: analyze the prompt. It’s so crucial for response success that I devote an entire chapter to it.
Some of that same sugar we constructivist teachers have used for decades to sweeten our curriculum can be found in the CCSS Standards. So let’s continue to invite small groups and partner collaboration, project learning, writing for a variety of purposes, reading all kinds of exemplary writing, and researching exciting ideas—but let’s use living prompts from the real world. I bet CCSS would celebrate right alongside us as students self-publish, offer passionate responses to leaders, present TED videos, and even use this genre to submit successful patent grants. It’s amazing what we can learn from our students themselves! Let go and invite the kids into the real world of prompts and responses. Let them help sweeten those sour lemons we’ve been handed.
We are excited to start a new blog series this month with Stenhouse author (A Place for Wonder with Georgia Heard) and first-grade teacher Jen McDonough. Jen will share stories and strategies from her classroom every couple of weeks, so be sure to check back often. We’ll start off the series with some ideas for streamlining writing conferences using the 3 F’s: frequency, focus, and follow-up.
Conferring with Young Writers
It can be overwhelming at times when we sit down with kids to talk about their writing. So much to say, so many different directions we can go. One thing I know for sure is that too much teaching in a conference leads to an overwhelmed writer. As I go about working with young writers now, I try to keep what I call the “3 Fs” in mind: frequency, focus, and follow-up. These three things have streamlined my writing conferences with kids and helped make them more successful. So, what are the “3 Fs”?
I am constantly trying to come up with ways to make sure I meet with my young writers more frequently. What I have found is that in order for me to do so, I have to make sure certain things are in place during writing workshop. Management has to be in place. The kids need to know what is expected of them during writing time. We create a class expectations chart together at the beginning of the year and leave it up all year long as a reference for anyone who might be off task. When the kids are on task, I can get working with small groups or individual students.
The classroom also has to be organized. The materials the children will need to get writing work done need to be organized and accessible. I want to spend my time working with writers, not helping kids find a new pencil if one breaks. Keeping conferences short and on point also helps me see more kids, which leads me to the second F.
It is important, when meeting with young writers, not to overwhelm them with too many suggestions about how to improve their writing. Teaching too many strategies at once can leave a child struggling to do any of them independently once I walk away. One way I focus my conferences is to think about the qualities of good writing: structure, conventions, focus, voice, and elaboration. No matter what genre the writer is working on, I can always go back to these qualities to help lift the level of the writing. Instead of teaching one strategy one day and then another the next time we meet, I can help the writer set goals using one of the qualities and work on that for a bit before moving on to something else. For example, a child can set a goal for trying to elaborate more, and I can teach strategies for doing that no matter what the writer is writing about the day we meet. By staying focused on quality for a while, the conferences are more focused, move quicker, and allow the student more practice before moving on to something else.
The third F I think about when it comes to conferring is follow-up. Using the idea of frequency, I want to see writers as often as possible. When I follow up with a writer, I am always sure to compliment what is going well since our last meeting and then quickly talk about the big goal the writer has set. I ask the child to show me places in the writing where goals are being met to hold him or her accountable for what is being taught. If it is not there, I know I need to go back and reteach the strategy. If the writer is making progress, we can move on to another strategy that will help the child reach his or her writing goal. It is important to follow up and make sure that the teaching is sticking and the child is growing as a writer.
By using the “3 Fs” as overarching goals for myself as I confer with young writers, I have found that I feel more confident. The writers in my classroom know what will happen when I sit down with them and therefore feel more comfortable to discuss and work on their writing pieces.
If you need some writing inspiration in these last, dark days of winter or if you need something to jump-start your writing routine, you are in luck! The Two Writing Teachers (Stenhouse author Stacey Shubitz and her group of bloggers) will begin their Slice of Life Writing Challenge March 1, 2014, and everyone is invited to participate.
Just like last year, there is an individual challenge open for everyone who has a blog, and a classroom challenge for teachers and their students. The most important part is that you sit down and write every day, for 31 days. And who knows? This might become a habit that will be hard to kick after March.
For more information, visit the Two Writing Teachers blog. There you will find information on how to start your own blog, how to participate in Slice of Life Tuesdays as well as the month-long challenge, and guidelines for classroom participation.
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.
In his new book 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know, Jeff Anderson focuses on developing the concepts and application of ten essential aspects of good writing: motion, models, focus, detail, form, frames, cohesion, energy, words, and clutter. In our new video conversation with Jeff he talks about why he felt it was important to “zoom back” from the sentence level of writing and look at the bigger picture of what makes writing work.
Teacher and author Julie D. Ramsay was recently interviewed by her local radio station in Alabama. During the interview Julie talks about her new book, “Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing” and shares her strategies for getting students excited about writing.
Listening to the interview you will get a really nice picture of Julie’s classroom and the motivation behind writing her book. Julie says that the interview was a fun experience for her as well, and she got some great sound editing tips from radio experts.
“Books are meant to be read in different ways,” they write, “and this one isn’t necessarily a book you’ll sit down and read cover to cover (like a mystery novel) prior to using it. Begin Everyday Editing by reading the Introduction plus the first three chapters. This much, Part I, sets the stage for setting up lessons, and will help you understand the premise of the book–which is to invite students into the world of editing through literature and fascinating examples.”
The review then offers 10 steps for making the most of Jeff’s book.
“Why would we spend time tediously correcting errors that just happen to pop up in students’ writing when we could engage our writers in dynamic discussions about real writing, sparked by brilliant examples from today’s best writers,” the reviewers ask in the conclusion. “Thanks to Jeff Anderson for inviting us on an incredible journey that virtually electrifies editing instruction. Don’t miss this book.”
Are the students in your school writing enough to develop into skilled writers? Will their writing be good enough to get a desirable job and participate in civic life? What can you do to give writing the attention it deserves?
In his new book, Write Like This:Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts, Kelly Gallagher addresses the alarming discrepancy between the importance of writing and the low achievement demonstrated by the majority of the country’s adolescent writers. He argues that students need to be stretched beyond the types of writing required by most standards and tests to include real-world purposes and authentic models.
Write Like This shows you how to get students to buy into writing as a valuable and relevant skill, and provides practical ways to model for your students as they write to:
express and reflect;
inform and explain;
evaluate and judge;
inquire and explore;
analyze and interpret;
take a stand/propose a solution.
Kelly includes mentor texts throughout the book—professional samples and models he has written in front of his students—as well as a chapter on meaningful revision and editing.
Preview the entire book online now and then listen to a podcast with Kelly Gallagher and Franki Sibberson on the ChoiceLiteracy website.