No Writer Left Behind: How Night Writing Can Help Your Students

Young writers often wonder about professional writer’s habits––if they use a special pen or sit at a special desk, if they speak their thoughts into a recording device first.

When writers choose to create — morning, afternoon, night, in small bursts or long stretches of time — is another point of interest for young writers who are trying to develop their own habits of work.

These students may enjoying studying an infographic, like this one, that depicts writers’ habits and preferences (one section shown below).

As I study this infographic, I can’t help but wonder: What are the habits of my writers that aren’t visible in my classroom? If each of my writers could design his/her own writing space, what would it look like?

My thoughts turn to students like Ryan, who really struggles during workshop. Every sentence is a chore. Would he be more productive in another kind of room? At another time of day? (Or night?)

How the School Day Nurtures (or Hinders) Writers

This year my school moved to an interesting modified block schedule that has each class meeting at a different time every day. For example, on Day 2, I see my 8th graders at noon, on Day 4, I see them at 2:10 PM, and on Day 6, I see them at 8:15 AM. This schedule allows students to explore their own habits of work more than a typical schedule because they are thinking and writing and “doing” at different times of day. In workshop, I know which of my  writers are most productive in the mornings, and which students prefer to write in the afternoons. But there’s still another group that isn’t served by this schedule — the night writers.

Remember when you used to do some of your best college paper writing at 2 AM? Well, we have writers in our classroom right now whose creativity is ignited by dusk –– whose productivity waxes and wanes with the moon. How can we structure writing time to accommodate these students?

Night Writing: What It Is and How It Works

Simply put, night writing is writing that happens after school, or at night. It can last as little or as long as the student wants it to — or for however long you assign it. It can extend class work, or start students on something new. It can include drawing or lists. It can build on the students’ current writing projects or allow them to take a break. What else can night writing be?

For night writing, students might…

  • Select a piece of writing to revise, and work on one small section.
  • Keep a running list of mentor text treasures in their notebook — spend time finding and writing from this list.
  • Add topics, obsessions, ideas to their writing territories list.
  • Select a few notebook time entries that seem to go together, and work to synthesize/combine/illuminate these entries by layering them.
  • Extend an “old” piece of notebook writing.

Night writing may seem like a “nice to have,” but I’m going to argue it’s essential. First, volume matters. We know that students need to write A LOT — far more than we grade — to get better at writing, but sometimes there just aren’t enough minutes in the day to write for an extended period of time. Asking students to write at night builds back in some of that time.

Second, students needs to practice. Can you imagine what might happen if math students who learned a complicated formula in class during the day, didn’t study or practice the formula for a full 24 hours? Is it any different with writing? Think about how much we lose when students go 24 or more hours without practicing writing. Night writing ensures this doesn’t happen.

And what about the students who don’t produce much during workshop? How are we helping them? Differentiation has been a buzzword in education for a long time now, but the buzzwords that stick around tend to be important. There are many ways to differentiate instruction for students, including how much practice you give, the kind of practice you give, and even when you give the practice. Some of your writers might do their most creative thinking and writing after school hours — they just might not know it yet.

Night writing isn’t a new idea. In her 1998 edition of In The Middle, Nancie Atwell writes that she assigns an hour’s worth of writing per week, done at the students’ discretion between Monday and Thursday. In an online webinar I attended last week,  Penny Kittle talked about using night writing to extend the writing invitations students are assigned in class.

When I first introduced night writing to students (in the second semester), I decided on 20 minutes a night, Monday through Friday. I kept it simple: work on your writing for 20 minutes tonight. Students wanted more. They didn’t like the vagueness of the 20 minutes rule. So we brainstormed a list of 20 things a student could try for night writing. Most students choose 1 or 2 of these things to do a night.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 10.03.02 PM

In addition to increasing volume, supporting our night owls, and extending our valuable time together, night writing has also become a powerful discussion starter for conferring the next day. My go-to question used to be (and still is), “How’s it going?” But now I can alternate with “What did you work on last night?” Or “What did you discover or make during night writing?”

What are some other writing activities your students might pursue at night? How else might we support writers who aren’t productive or inspired during the school day?

–Allison

Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett

 

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