Books That Move Us: Independent Writing by Colleen Cruz

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This past fall at NCTE, I think startled Colleen Cruz when I gasped and, like a true fangirl, exclaimed, “Ohmygosh! Independent Writing! I read it on the plane! That book is major. REALLY major.”

She was completely lovely to me but probably surprised to hear me raving about one of her older titles. I picked up Independent Reading after reading Colleen’s new title, Unstoppable Writing Teacher, which is a gem. In it, she references the independent writing projects she undertakes with elementary school students.

“Yessss,” I thought. “That’s exactly it. The thing I want my students to be able to do. Truly independent writing.” So, I ordered a copy and took it with me to NCTE.

By the time we landed in Minneapolis, I had five pages of notes in my notebook — written edge-to-edge and up the sides. And as Allison unpacked in our hotel room, I sat on the bed and read her every one.

Independent Writing fired me up, made me want to run back to Virginia to try new projects with my students, and turned me into an independent writing project evangelist.

60-Second Book Review

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Colleen Cruz looked around her fourth-grade-classroom and realized that while her students were creating strong writing in their workshop studies, they were never writing entirely for pleasure. Sure, her students were becoming good writers, but they didn’t see writing as a part of their daily, personal, outside-of-school lives. They didn’t yet see themselves as writers.

So, while still teaching whole-class genre studies, Cruz began loosening the reigns and opening the possibilities, allowing students to “make or write anything they wish[ed].”

In Independent Writing, Cruz walks readers through a year in her classroom, from introducing independent writing projects, to setting up the physical classroom space to support this work, to helping students use their notebooks and study mentor authors as inspiration for their own writing. This book is FULL of charts, calendars, sample student handouts and worksheets. Like the very best professional books, Independent Writing is practical in the extreme, ready for you to pick up and implement in your classroom tomorrow.

My Big Writing Takeaways

  • We need to help students see how writing fits into their daily lives.

Just like any skill, if we don’t explicitly teach it and we don’t give students opportunities to practice it, it will never truly stick. Teachers like Donalynn Miller and Penny Kittle have done a brilliant job at helping students develop individual, authentic, daily, and lasting lives as readers. But if we never bring the same freedom into writing, how will students become writers outside of the confines of our classrooms?

Students must be given opportunities to write whatever they want — to write purely for pleasure and out of their passions — if we want to move writers and not just writing. And this is every bit as true for high schoolers as it is for Cruz’s fourth graders

  • A much bigger portion of student writing should be for pleasure.

To that end, we might just need to flip the tables on how we view student writing and the place that whole-class writing study versus independent writing should have in our classrooms. I need to spend some time rethinking this balance in my own classroom. Is it possible to make a shift so that whole-class genre-based writing constitutes 30-40% of writing time, creating smaller, informal pieces (drafts) that could be polished in a portfolio? Meanwhile, 60-70% of writing is given to “pleasure-writing”?

  • There is always room to expand the vision and utility of the writer’s notebook.

In every new school year, one my consistent goals is to help students better use their writer’s notebooks. In Independent Writing, Cruz spends an entire chapter exploring how deepen students’ engagement with their notebooks — the “place to put anything that we think can be made into something.” We can do this by sharing notebooks more freely, encouraging students to find systems that work best for them (including multiple notebooks), modeling our own notebook-entrenched lives, conferring just about the notebook and its contents, and encouraging students to make them a part of life and not just a part of school.  

  • Independent writing projects might just be the path to nurturing a community of writers.

Cruz spends another chapter detailing how she helps students find their writing tribe. Out of these organic, self-formed communities comes writing partnerships and collaboration. As a writer who spends a large portion of her writing life working with a partner, I have always been curious and eager to help students write together. After all, they will almost certainly be forced to write with others in their professional lives, and negotiating a writing relationship takes practice.

This book gives wonderful ideas for helping students find meaningful writing relationships and then helping students manage those partnerships. When thinking about how to help students write collaboratively, I will return to Independent Writing for Cruz’s advice.

  • Truly independent writing occurs when student writers can be independent in myriad ways.

In Cruz’s class, students are not just choosing independent topics — they are doing everything independently. They are choosing their own partnerships, finding their own mentor authors, pitching their own ideas, gathering their own materials for writing, formatively assessing their own work, requesting their own mini-lessons, and even leading mini-lessons on topics on which they are experts. Independence isn’t a gimmick. It isn’t an add-on. Cruz shows that developing independent writers — writers with authentic writing lives that extend beyond the classroom — is a product of insisting on their teacher-supported independence in absolutely every phase of writing.

How I Hope to Use It

After reading Independent Writing in the fall, I read Donald Murray’s Learning By Teaching and A Writer Teaches Writing. In both works, he argues for a similarly independent approach to writing — one he likens to the newsroom he worked in. Students pitch ideas and strike out in the direction of their passions. I’m pretty convinced that this is the direction in which I need to go in my classroom.

Right now, Allison and I are trying a mini-version of this in which students are pitching ideas for analytical articles. They are writing about the NFL draft, about who the Class of 2020 should support in the 2016 presidential election, about the best body styles for the Ford Mustang, about a concert they recently saw in town, and the best ski resort, about the 2016 Summer Olympics, about 70s retro fashion trends, about the last book they read — to name just a few. While under the umbrella of analysis, each student is writing something wildly different based on their real life, outside-class interests. I hope to extend this, rethinking and shifting the entire balance of whole-class and independent writing in my classroom.

Should You Buy the Book?

Yes. If I could buy each of you a copy of this book, I would. That’s how strongly I feel about it. I think book is transformative, taking what we know about the very most effective kind of workshop instruction and applying it to the individual passions of our students.

In her foreword, Katie Wood Ray wrote that this book has the potential to change the conversation about writing instruction. I truly believe that it still does.

Have you read Independent Writing and tried some of Cruz’s techniques with your students? Let us know in the comments, on Facebook, or on Twitter @rebekahodell1.

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3 thoughts on “Books That Move Us: Independent Writing by Colleen Cruz

  1. Rebekah- I have a bit of an addiction to professional reading but have not yet read Independent Writing. How did I miss it?! I am looking forward to reading this. Thanks for your review!

    • Sally- I have been missing out on your blog! I just checked out this post and plan to share it with several teachers who will benefit from reading about your experience. Thanks for sharing!

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