F.A.Q. (Or How to Take Ownership of Writing)

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photo via imdb.com

At my school district in Michigan, we’re in the home stretch. Just a few more days of instruction, and then we’ll be on our final exam schedule. So, for this post, I planned to write about creative lessons that will keep your class engaged and fresh throughout these dog days.


From my past tense, though, you can probably tell by now that I’ve failed miserably in that endeavor. I’m at that point in the school year where I feel like I’m just barely making it through the school day. Creativity? What kind of crazy pie-in-the-sky teacher did I think I was? I’m trying my hardest just to maintain the basics: confer, revise, read, reflect.

Come to think of it, it’s the basics that have me so exhausted this year. I think it’s because I took on a new challenge this year at our district’s alternative high school. Instead of two semesters during each of which we teach half of a consecutive, year-long course, we teach four terms of non-consecutive classes. So, in the past, at this point in the year, I’d be in my final weeks with kids I’d known since September or, at worst, January. Now, I get a new class full of fresh faces every 10 weeks. I’ve known my current students since the end of April. The end of April! That’s when, as a teacher, I used to return from spring break and state testing, put my feet up (figuratively, of course), and settle in to cruise through into summer. This was the point of the year when I realized I was really reaping the benefits of a well-established classroom culture. Now, it feels like we’re still working on getting to know each other, yet I have to be ready to assess them and send them on to their next step.

Part of the reason why this is so exhausting to me is because I refuse to treat my classes like credit recovery. Instead of powering through content and assignments, I work to establish trust and relationships, notebooks, reading goals, intrinsic motivation, and growth mindset. I love a good ice breaker as much as anybody, but man, this is tiring!

Which leads me to my point: As I gear up for next year, I want to do more (okay, hopefully not more, but let’s say better) in getting kids to own the classroom values.

I usually teach my discussion norms while engaging kids in conversation around principles of growth mindset as they reflect on a variety of texts. I’ve used an unlikely valedictorian speech, an article from The Atlantic, videos, and more to start their reflective discussions. They determine what they personally value in education, then they tell me, and we co-create some norms. Two terms in, I still felt like some of the kids didn’t see how this would impact how the class runs, so I wrote them a letter in which I introduced myself, told them what they can expect from me, and what I expect from them in return. Then, I asked them to write letters in response back to me.

Even then, I’d have some students ask me things like, “how many points is this worth?” or “if I don’t do this, how much will it my grade go down?” Not many, but some. And since questions like that make me want to tear my hair out, some is still too many.

By the end of the year, I’ve heard those tear-your-hair-out kinds of questions so many times, I’m tempted to tattoo my answers to them on my face. (Heck, if I’m going to tear all my hair out, I’ll at least have more room for it.)

While a tattoo probably isn’t the most practical solution, I do wonder how I can better help my students understand some of the guiding principles of this class, which just so happen to pop up over and over again in the form of my dreaded, frequently asked questions. There are several of them, but two big ones really stand out each term:

Q: How long does this have to be?

A: As long as it needs to be. Have you said everything you needed to say? Are you saying it the way you hoped? Is there anything else that your audience might need? We don’t start a conversation by thinking, “today I’m going to talk to this person for exactly fourteen minutes, and then I’m done.” Written communication shouldn’t be any different. If anything, since you usually don’t have an audience answering you back right away, you need to be even more sure that you’ve closed any holes and have fully achieved your purpose.

Q: Can I get extra credit?

A: I think what you’re really trying to ask is, “how can I get my grade up?” Edit. Revise. Consider the questions we discussed during our last conference. Read the notes on your draft. Go back to your mentor texts for some guidance. If you’re still not sure, let’s confer again. Rework that draft until you’re proud of it, then resubmit it for more points.

I will admit that I usually offer the carrot of extra credit in the form of submitting  writing for publication. If, for example, a student wrote a persuasive letter, I would offer extra credit if they actually send it. This is usually a moot point, though, because if a student is going to take enough ownership to send it, they take their piece through so many revisions that they feel proud of it and it gets a good grade in its own right, so they don’t even end up caring about any extra credit points.

So, here I am, at the end of the year, wondering if there is any way (other than constant, daily commitment) that I can help students own these practices. I’ve toyed with the idea of making an infographic or really slick-looking poster to share with them when the term begins next fall. I’ll admit that I see a fair amount of irony in that idea, though, since my first blog post of the school year was on taking down our classroom posters.

I suspect that there isn’t any quick fix to teach students these important ideals of success in authentic reading and writing, so I have a feeling that I’m going to become very familiar with this particular level of exhaustion, but in the end, it’s worth it. If students walk out of my class taking a little more ownership of the purpose behind their writing, then I know that it will have been energy well-spent.

– Megan

How do you establish a culture for ownership and authenticity? What are your own Frequently Asked Questions that you wish you could help students internalize better? Let’s connect and think through this together. Comment below or find me on Twitter @megankortlandt

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