One of my favorites things about the end of the school year—aside from summer vacation, of course—is the opportunity to reflect on another year gone by. And as I look back on this particular year, I see many bumps in the road: lessons gone awry, students I didn’t quite reach, and material I didn’t get a chance to cover. That said, I also see my students, and I think about the relationships I was able to build, the times we’ve learned and laughed together this year—and I feel lucky to be their teacher.
As I look back at this year and the last fifteen years—I think crystal is the traditional gift for a 15 year anniversary, right?—one truth stands out. When we give students choices in their reading and writing lives, our teaching becomes more powerful. Giving students choice, in other words, doesn’t relinquish teacher control so much as it empowers student learning.
When I first started teaching, the only writing that my students ever did was literary analysis. I spent those early years, and too many subsequent ones, teaching with a 4×4 type approach, described by Kelly Gallagher as 4 major works, one each quarter, and each followed by a major (literary analysis) essay. As Gallagher points out, such an approach simply doesn’t allow for the volume of reading and writing that students need to do in order to substantially improve as readers and writers.
I’d say it also doesn’t allow us to get to know our students very well, either.
Choice reading as a first step
A few years ago, when I started building in more time for independent reading and student choice, I began to notice how much better I was getting to know my students. I noticed what their interests were, what their reading lives were like. Soon I began to curate a classroom library that met my students’ many individual needs. Now, during the course of the year, I try to find a way to approach each student with the phrase, “I think you’d like this book,” and then gently place a title into his hands.
What about writing?
While choice reading has certainly made a huge difference in my relationships with my students—and thus, my effectiveness as a teacher—I would still be teaching with one hand tied behind my back if I didn’t also offer student choice in writing. And I don’t mean “Choose one of the following three prompts and answer in a 5-paragraph essay.” That was the type of (teacher-driven) choice I used to give—and only give—during my first few years of teaching. Instead, I now try as much as possible to give students more ownership over their writing. How? By allowing them to compose their own essay questions and to choose the topics that are meaningful for them as writers.
Once I started to allow students to write in genres beyond literary analysis, students became more engaged in the writing process. Students could see that writing could be more than a tool for expressing their ideas, but also as a process for discovering those ideas. Writing to discover, to explore, to wonder, to figure out—these were important benefits of writing that students could now more fully experience. And just as I got to know my students better when I could see the choices they were making for independent reading, I got to know a whole other side of my students when they had the freedom to write about what they cared about—what they chose to write about.
Putting it All Together: Six Traits
That said, even though I started to include more opportunities for authentic writing, I knew I wasn’t doing things as well as I could. My instruction felt fragmented. For example, when my students and I were working on a memoir essay, I used one process for instruction. When we worked on a book review, we used another process. Each time, I focused on a different set of requirements—requirements that were genre-specific—and then used a different rubric for assessment.
While each genre of writing follows its own conventions, the problem with approaching each assignment as a distinct form of writing meant that my students felt like they were starting from scratch each time. I wasn’t seeing the skills students were developing in one writing assignment transferred to the next.
After many years of tinkering with the process, however, this past year I finally had the a-ha moment I was waiting for when I came across Vicki Spandel’s book Creating Writers: 6 Traits, Process, Workshop, and Literature. I had heard of the Six Traits for years, but only ever in the context of elementary school writing. Without knowing much about the Six Traits, I tended to think of Six Traits not as a model of authentic instruction, but as a writing program, one that was formal and rigid. After all, how authentic could the Six Traits be if you could buy ready-made kits?
My local writing project site, however, held a mini-conference on the Six Traits, and so I decided to learn more. I quickly read through Spandel’s book and discovered that the approach was far from the type of prescribed program that I had mistaken it for. Instead, as the name suggests, the model emphasizes looking at writing through the lens of six distinct traits of effective writing. These traits are content & ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions.
Like I said, I was skeptical of the Six Traits, suspicious that the teaching of writing could be reduced to six categories. No matter how hard I tried, however, I couldn’t deny how comprehensive the traits were, and I’m ashamed I wasn’t open to learning about the Six Traits earlier in my career, that I had relegated them to what elementary school teachers do (on a related note, the longer I teach, the more I realize how much secondary teachers could really learn from our elementary colleagues). And because I’m willing to try almost anything out with my students, I decided to introduce the traits to my students to see what they thought. It was then that I quickly realized that the six traits didn’t reduce or limit the way I taught writing, but instead expanded and synthesized my approach.
The first benefit I found when working with the Six Traits was that the traits provide us with a common language to use when my students and I talk about writing. Because each trait covers a distinct aspect of writing, we could take a look at any piece of writing—no matter the genre—and discuss its strengths and weaknesses relative to that trait.
For example, when I confer with students, we can talk about how a piece of writing may be filled with great content and ideas, but that the weak organization holds the piece back. Or we can look at the ways the sentences are varied, but that the overall piece still lacks the details and examples—the content—necessary to support the thesis.
The other advantage I found with using the Six Traits approach was the way the traits worked together naturally as a process. “All writing,” I often tell students, “begins with our ideas.” Students brainstorm possible content, play with main ideas and possible thesis statements, and compose an initial draft focused on getting those ideas down. In Teaching Adolescent Writers, this is what Kelly Gallagher calls the “down draft.”
Next, after we have our ideas down, students can then think about how to best organize those ideas. When I used to teach the five-paragraph essay, this stage of the process was already done for students. After all, they were simply inserting content into a ready-made template. By focusing first on their ideas, however, students can then consider the best order of those ideas. At this stage, students compose an “up draft,” building their essay back up and giving it shape through the organizational decisions they make.
At the same time students are shaping their ideas and organizing them, they also consider voice. Personally, I love that the Six Traits framework includes voice as one of the key elements of effective writing. It’s when we know that a person, and not a computer, is behind the words on the page that we can connect with a writer. I ask students to think of voice as the persona they adopt in a particular piece of writing. Are they speaking as daughters? students? teenagers? athletes? scholars? Who is the audience? Depending on what they decide, students may need to rethink their content and organization.
I consider the next three traits as part of a second stage in the writing process, one focused more on revision. At this stage, writing can then be clarified for word choice, sentence structures, and conventions.
Though I worked through the traits in the order above, by no means is this process linear. Sometimes a piece of writing starts with voice—with the writer’s desire to try out a persona or take on a point of view. Or sometimes voice comes before organization, and it’s the voice a writer decides to use that actually determines the organization. And of course, it goes without saying that the last three traits can be tackled in any order—or even be the inspiration of a piece of writing. After all, sometimes the sound of a single, beautiful line can be the spark that inspires an essay.
Still, while writing is a recursive, sometimes messy process, it’s still a process, one that we can help our students see more clearly when we use shared language and talk through our thinking at each step of the way. For me, the Six Traits just make sense. I could create mini-lessons with the traits in mind. I put each trait on a large piece of chart paper that I hang on the walls of my classroom—charts that I can point to every time we begin another assignment or work through a mini-lesson. We can even add to the charts as our understanding of effective writing deepens. My students and I can use the traits to guide our writing processes throughout the entire year.
Because the traits are universal, they are also useful when students and I read mentor texts together. For example, I have started to collect “go to” mentor texts when I want to talk to students about content, while I may have other mentor texts I reach for when we focus on revising writing for word choice or sentence variety.
Of course, I also love using a single mentor text to showcase each of the traits. For example, my juniors are currently finishing up their final essays for the year—an inquiry paper on a topic of their own choosing. As part of our mentor text study, I had students read the wonderful essay, “Just One More Game” by Sam Anderson, published in New York Times Magazine in 2012.
Anderson’s essay explores the value of “stupid games” in our culture, from Tetris to Angry Birds. I love this essay for its versatility and its strength in each of the six traits (and really, it’s just a great piece of writing). In the essay, Anderson uses a variety of content, including historical information, expert opinion, and personal experiences, among others. My students and I talk about the essay’s organization—how Anderson begins with the story of how Tetris was born, and then connects Tetris via compare/contrast to other games he discusses later in the rest of the essay. We then examine Anderson’s voice—at times, he is the curious scholar, but when he recounts his own personal experiences, he takes on an almost embarrassed gamer persona.
The writing itself is also remarkably lively and thoughtful. When students and I read the essay together—this year, we actually read the entire thing “popcorn” style aloud—I love to point out Anderson’s attention to the smallest detail, how each word matters, how the sentences build, and how the punctuation pulls it all together. Take this excerpt in which Anderson chronicles his “stupid games” habit:
Inevitably, my high-minded detachment didn’t last long. About a year ago, unable to resist the rising cultural tide and wanting (I convinced myself) a camera with which to take pictures of my children, I gave in and bought an iPhone. For a while I used it only to read, to e-mail and to take pictures. Then I downloaded chess, which seemed wholesome enough — the PBS of time-wasters. But chess turned out to be a gateway game. Once I formed the habit of finding reliable game joy in my omnipresent pocket-window, my inner 13-year-old reasserted himself. I downloaded horribly titled games like Bix (in which you steer a dot in a box between other dots in a box) and MiZoo (in which you make patterns out of exotic cartoon animal heads). These led to better, more time-consuming games — Orbital, Bejeweled, Touch Physics, Anodia — which led to even better games: Peggle, Little Wings. One tiny masterpiece, Plants vs. Zombies, ate up, I’m going to guess, a full “Anna Karenina” of my leisure time. One day while I was playing it (I think I had just discovered that if you set up your garlic and your money-flowers exactly right, you could sit there racking up coins all day), my wife reminded me of my old joke about the iPaddle.
This made me inexplicably angry.
We discuss Anderson’s decision to use the specific names of each game, even if audiences aren’t completely familiar with them. We look at the slightly humorous tone that the information in parentheses helps to create. We think about the difference between the use of em-dashes and colons. Finally, we talk about that wonderfully dramatic one-sentence paragraph. And though here I focus on the traits of word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions, as I reread, it’s easy to see the conversations about content, organization, and voice that are possible even in this brief excerpt.
If this post sounds like a commercial for the Six Traits, I don’t mean it to be—truly. That said, since discovering the way that Six Traits approach can give both my students and me a common language, embedded in a process approach, everything has clicked into place.
How do you talk about the qualities of effective writing with your students? Do you have a process approach to teaching writing that works for you? I’d love to hear about it. Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or connect with me on Twitter at @triciaebarvia.