Maternity leave has given me a huge gift — the excuse to teach all writing all the time when I return to school in January. That might sound daunting or boring (writing every day? five days a week?), but for me it’s an enormous mental relief. Let’s be honest: the absolute most challenging part about teaching writing and teaching it well is finding the time.
Leaving reading and literature instruction to my sub in the first semester has eliminated half of what I normally try to find a way to squeeze in alongside writing workshop. The reading part of class will still be important to us in the second semester — they will continue their independent reading, and they will use all of the close and distant reading skills on a daily basis as we study mentor texts and write about the things we have read. But, delightfully, as I sit back and plan, I feel like I get to teach this writing thing exactly the way I would want to teach it if I had all the time in the world. Because, to an extent, I do. (And when does that happen in teaching?!)
So, today I thought I would share some of my intentions with you — the big, broad strokes I am drawing to conceive of a whole semester of writing instruction.
A Sequence & A Rationale
I seem to alter the sequence of our writing studies every year, always convinced that I can do it better and achieve the ultimate plan that will seamlessly propel my students to their best writing ever.
Truthfully, I suspect there is no magic sequence that makes all other writing endeavors possible. But here are some changes I’m making this time that I hope will have a great effect:
Switching up my first units
This is the biggest change I’m making, and I can’t wait to see the results. In the past, I have always started with critical review or narrative scene. This time around I am beginning with a study of mentor texts themselves. I ended the year with this last year, but given how extensively and immersively I used mentor texts in my class, I think it makes sense to start here so that students are ready for all the mentor text work they will do for the rest of the year.
After students have studied mentor texts and how they can impact their own writing, we will take Nancie Atwell’s advice and do a poetry study. Atwell begins with a poetry workshop because she says all of the stuff of writing is in it. After studying poetry, students will be poised to make myriad writerly choices throughout the other studies of the semester. Here I am very excited and very nervous. I have taught the analysis of poetry a lot and the writing of poetry none. Atwell’s rationale makes perfect sense, though, and I am excited to push myself out of my comfort zone and teach a brand new kind of workshop.
Periodically adding technique studies
My ninth graders need to do genre studies because they aren’t familiar with all of the genres of writing. But, periodically, after introducing them to some genres, we will take a break to do a technique workshop instead. Rather than teaching editorial or narrative or literary analysis writing, students will get to choose any topic and write about it in any genre while studying an element of craft that appears in all genres.
This is important for so many reasons. Technique studies give students the ultimate choice in the topic and genre they wish to write. And while knowing and understanding the features of different genres is important, technique study is the most transferrable workshop model we can adopt. When we teach students about an element of good craft that is present in every genre, they can easily use it in any and every piece of writing they ever write.
Last year my students did one technique study of evidence, supporting and proving the point you are trying to make in your writing. I chose this technique because my students were struggling here across the board. So, I don’t know which craft elements we will study yet. I’ll find out when I see my students’ work and step back to assess where they are succeeding and where they could use more focused instruction.
Ending in memoir
I have always taught memoir in the fall, following narrative scene. And they have never knocked my socks off. Even though students have the hang of writing narrative scenes, stringing them together around a central theme and “so what?” is very challenging. So, I’m pushing it to the very end — when my ninth graders are older, wiser almost-tenth-graders. Hopefully by walking through all of the other writing studies, students will have what it takes to make the meaningful connections needed for successful memoir.
Plus, May doesn’t seem to be the most ideal time for finding the kind of focus necessitated by the writing of literary analysis.
Here’s what I would like to teach:
- Mentor Text Study
- Territory (Technique Workshop)
- Feature Article
- Film Analysis
- Territory (Technique Workshop)
- Lit Analysis
There will be 20 weeks of school before exams upon my return — so there is no way that all of this will be possible. Some things are non-negotiable — the mentor text and poetry studies, literary analysis (important for our students as they move on to future English courses).
What will I get rid of? Again, I’ll wait and see how my students are doing and what they are showing they need most. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping my eye out for new mentor texts that would work in each of these studies and collecting them for later.
Ongoing Portfolio Work
This time around, I want students to work on a portfolio as we go rather than at the end of the semester. This should make the publication piece of the writing process more immediate. While my students always write and submit through Google Docs, their portfolios will live in WordPress — their work space should be different than their publication space. Their writing reflections will also be in their portfolio space.
These portfolios will be assessed every five weeks.
(At-Home) Student-Led Writing Conferences
When? How? Tell me more about these portfolio assessments!
Students will lead a conference with me about their work and reflections. They will prepare in advance using some guiding questions that I will develop. Their goal — to show me they have learned elements of craft and meaningfully incorporated them into their own writing, and to demonstrate that they are growing as writers.
I want parents to also be able to articulate how their child is growing as a writer, so after they have shared their portfolio with me, students will lead their parents through a conference as well.
If you had the luxury of only teaching writing, what big changes would you make? What would you work to implement? Share with me in the comments or find us on Twitter @Rebekahodell1 and @Allisonmarchett. Use #movingwriters.