I acknowledge that learning to really craft writing on demand (rather than brain-dumping on demand) is an important skill for our students to cultivate. They will all engage in some kind of timed, test-like writing situation in their academic lives. And after that, they will still be asked to compose something on-the-spot in job interviews and assessments.
But that doesn’t mean I ever want to give one minute of writing workshop to it.
We know how hard it is to find and make and carve out the time for the things that really matter in our classrooms. We fight for time to let our students write on topics and in genres of their own choosing. Handing that time back over to test prep is incredibly unappealing.
What if every writing study of the year in your workshop could double as on-demand writing test preparation?
Inspired by a session with Mary Ehrenworth and Lucy Calkins at NCTE 16, this is my new routine — one that allows students to practice on-demand writing regularly without compromising the integrity or routines of my writing workshop:
Allow me to explain and show you how this worked itself out in one writing study with my 8th graders this year!
Step One: On-Demand Flash Draft
At the beginning of a writing unit, I give my students a basic definition of the new kind of writing they will do or the technique we will focus on. I give them a few minutes to brainstorm or talk out ideas with their peers, and then I give them the rest of the class period to write.
For instance, upon starting a study of opinion writing, I said, “We are about to begin a new kind of writing which focuses on stating and supporting our opinions. This is the kind of writing you might find on someone’s blog, but more often in a newspaper or website. Typically, people use this kind of writing to share their opinion when they know that others are likely to disagree with them. So backing up your thinking with examples and other support is important. So, today, I want you to spend the rest of this class period writing about an opinion you feeling strongly about and explaining why you feel that way.”
And then they were off!
What? you exclaim. What if they don’t have ideas? What if they aren’t ready? What if they don’t know what they’re doing?
Truth to tell, my students have always done this in a way — I call it a flash draft. (Want to know more about flash drafting? Read here and here.) The difference now is that I use this flash draft. While students are moving preliminary ideas from brain to paper, they are also writing within a time limit and showing me what they can do before any instruction has taken place. Mary Ehrenworth and Lucy Calkins recommend this on-demand-beginning-of-a-study writing as a way to assess what our students already know. Which is brilliant!
At the end of the class, I collect flash draft and skim them, looking for:
- Individual strengths and weaknesses — I record these on my conferring charts to help guide individual writing conferences later.
- Common problems or misunderstandings — These will become my mini-lessons.
- Ways I can group students according to need — If three students are writing in single, giant blob paragraphs, I’ll gather just those three for a quick refresher on paragraphing.
I do not formally assess these flash drafts or even really comment on them; they benefit all of us without the need for feedback or grades in a gradebook.
By the end of step one, students have practiced a simulation of a writing test, and I have gathered information I need to teach the kids sitting in front of me this year — full of different strengths, abilities, and needs than my students last year.
Step Two: Writing Workshop Processed Revisions
Georgia Heard asserts that all writing is revision. This is even more true when students have a flash draft (or “junk draft” or “down draft”) to work from. The focus shifts. No longer is our goal to get words on the page; now our goal is to improve, polish, and nurture the words that are already there.
(Sometimes students still end up throwing away an entire flash draft that wasn’t working to start anew … but without that draft, they wouldn’t have made that discovery until the end of the writing study.)
Now that I have a list of mini-lessons I need to teach, some groups pre-identified for small group work, and a lead on my writing conferences, we are ready to launch into workshop as usual: I teach a writing technique or craft move, students jump back into their flash drafts and revise accordingly.
With my 8th graders’ opinion writing, their flash drafts revealed a few important things:
- They were already good at making claims across the board. With the exception of two students who argued both sides of an issue rather than arguing one side, they all clearly stated an opinion.
- Few students used specific support and evidence. Instead, they relied on generalities.
- They didn’t know how to start or how to finish.
- They were used to writing to formulas.
With this knowledge in hand, I taught the following mini-lessons:
- Gathering information to use as support
- Finding the best place for a claim
- Conclusions that resonate
- Selecting and formatting a pull quote
In a few key small groups, I worked with students on organization and paragraphing and concision.
By the time our writing study is finished, I hope that students have used the techniques we studied together during mini-lessons. But, most of all, I hope that their work has progressed, evolved. I hope they can write more successfully in this genre than they could before.
I do formally assess the writing after this step and leave lots of written or recorded feedback for students. In my class, students revise pieces all year long, so this feedback is used to take the piece to the next level down the road.
Step Three: On-Demand Writing, 2.0
After a few weeks in this writing study, students have learned, grown, and shown what they can do in this genre or using this technique. But in many real-world contexts (like testing), writing doesn’t have the luxury of taking place over the course of weeks. So, can my students apply what they’ve just learned to a new topic in an on-demand writing situation?
In other words, will what we just learned stick?
So, after our writing study concludes, we spend a few minutes debriefing and discussing how our new understanding and craft moves might translate to timed writing.
In the case of opinion writing, we decided that the essentials (writing a compelling and not-cliched lead, a resonant conclusion, a clear claim, the need for evidence) would remain the same in an on-demand writing context. However, something we might need to reconsider is our use of evidence. When we are writing slowly, over time, we can research and use facts, data, statistics, hyperlinks to support our ideas. But we won’t have those resources during a test. So, in those situations, we have to rely on stories and specific examples as evidence.
Then, we take another class period to try another, different sample of on-demand writing in the same genre or focusing on the same technique. During our opinion writing study, I offered students two topics (I pulled from The New York Times‘ Room for Debate series to make this as authentic as possible) — should all participants in a sport receive a trophy or should parents help kids with homework? I gave them another 45-minute class period to show me their best opinion writing in a timed (and, thus, slightly more stressful) setting.
Like the first flash drafts, I read these, but I don’t formally assess them or give much feedback. Maybe a “Wow!” here and a “You’ve come a long way!” there. Now, I’m looking for what skills stuck (and which didn’t — I’ll want to go back and address that, reteaching in small groups as needed, etc.) and growth from the first flash draft.
I’ve used this loop for a semester now through four writing studies, and I’m really excited about it. Yes, students now receive two opportunities to hone their timed-writing skills in every writing study. And, I haven’t compromised the way I teach writing or reduced the number of writing studies we do.
But most of all, this loop has made me a better teacher. I am better able to target my mini-lessons to my current students. I am better able to group students according to need. I am better able to track their growth … and I am better able to share that growth with my colleagues, my administrators, and students’ parents. It is so much more powerful to show them the evolution of three similar pieces written within three weeks.
Could this loop help you live in the best of both teaching worlds — the one where you prepare students for the writing they will need to do on tests and the one where you teach writing in the way you know to be best for students? How do you see this playing out in your classroom?
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