Independent Writing — a Mid-Year Update

Happy EnglishLanguage Day to thee!You might remember that this fall, on a whim, I jumped into a year long independent writing routine with my students. I did it because I know that students needed more time to pursue their own writing interests, because I know it will build students’ writing muscles, because I know some of my own teacher heroes do it.

But I didn’t quite know how I would manage it. Or what the outcomes would be.

We’ve been doing this for months now — long enough to both form habits and fall into slumps. Here’s where we are mid-year:

What’s Working

  • Routine

    I wanted a routine, and we’ve got one! That routine is probably a little stronger for some students than for others, but students are now used to the regular assignment of working  on independent writing for 20 minutes at home, 5 nights per week.  Image-1 (2).pngThey come into class each day and record their nightly writing on the wall o’ charts (pictured in my first post on this topic).

    Building In Time For Other Writing

An unexpected fringe benefit has been that students now have built-in time to work on the extracurricular writing that might come up in their lives. My 8th graders are applying to high schools, and high school essay writing abounds. Many students participate in Model UN, and they use some of this time to work on position papers.

Initially, I paused at this “double-dipping”. While not for a particular class, should they be allowed to use independent writing time for other official kinds of writing they need to do? Is that really the spirit of the assignment?

I think YES! Students are spending outside-of-class time building writing skills. That’s what I am aiming for. And so, whether that’s planning for an application essay or preparing for a Model UN debate, they are writing. And the writing is the thing.

Building in the time for independent writing, however they use it, validates that our lives are filled with all kinds of writing tasks everyday. And hopefully, it becomes a writing habit that sticks.

  • Polishing Independent Writing in Workshop

The biggest highlight of our independent writing journeys has been students’ eagerness to polish and perfect some of their own work through a workshop study. In fact, it has worked so well that I’ve begun to wonder if every writing study should be independent. Because it always feels like the more freedom I give students, the deeper their focus, the more authentic their process, the more engaged their effort. When we limit their choices at all — even limiting it to a certain genre — we seem to limit some of that natural buy-in and ownership. (I haven’t answered this question yet or figured out what that might look like in my classroom. But I keep thinking about it.)

Students have written graphic novels and pieces of sports analysis and a commentary about the failings of a new video game and mini-novels-in-verse and album reviews and short stories and fan fiction. All the things. And they have been more loved than any other writing we’ve done in writing workshop this year.

What’s NotImage-1.png

  • Fake Writing

For all that love and passion, there is still fake writing happening. I know it. I don’t know exactly who (though I have my guesses) and I don’t know how much, but I am certain that every piece of writing recorded on our independent writing sheets isn’t real. Just like I know that every student who shows me that she has met her reading goal for the week probably hasn’t. That’s part and parcel of teaching my students, trusting them to do the real stuff of reading and writing (which is always the hard stuff), and building levels of independence that will live on past my class.

So, sure, there is probably some fake writing happening. I don’t know how to change that. I’m not sure there is a way to change that. I’m trying to make the right kind of peace with it.

  • Conferring about Nightly Writing

In my head when I started this thing, I envisioned regularly dipping in to confer with students not just about our whole-class unit of writing study but also their independent writing? I’d ask open-ended questions like, “Tell me what you’ve been working on recently? How is it going?” and I’d offer sage wisdom beginning with, “You know, a lot of times when writers are doing this kind of work, they try …”

Truth: I haven’t conferred with a single writer on nightly writing.

have conferred with them when they choose a piece to take to publication in a workshop but not on regular, ordinary nightly writing. I want it to happen — I think it would build in meaningful accountability while also helping students continue to move their writing forward. I just don’t know when it would happen. This is a problem to figure out.

Image-1 (1)What I’m Tweaking

  • Breaking Writing Slumps

If I were conferring with my writers regularly about the things they are working on after-hours, I would probably be able to help them out of their writing slumps. While some students have certainly found momentum in longterm projects during independent writing, many others have fallen into a monotonous slump.

I have tried to remedy this by reminding students all the different kinds of writing activities they could do during this time. Not just writing in sentences, but also brainstorming, writing off the page, annotating a mentor text, outlining a piece of writing, revising past writing, extending notebook time.

Intentionally and regularly introducing writers to different kinds of writing would also help if I remembered to do it. This semester, I have introduced Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week. I need to talk with students about how writers could do this kind of writing on their own.

  • Moving More Writing Into Workshop

Like I said, the thing that is going best is asking students to take something from their nightly writing and developing it into a “best draft”. So, I need to do more of this. In fact, I’m thinking that we might need to do MOSTLY this, and punctuate these free-choice writing studies with whole-class genre studies (instead of the other way around). I would love for students to be able to write three more pieces like this before the end of the year.

  • Periodic Nightly Writing Portfolios

To build in accountability and reflection, I am asking students to turn in a portfolio of nightly writing every so often. (Depending on how it goes, I’m thinking this might be a regular staple of independent writing).

Here’s what I’m asking students to do:

  • Choose 10 pieces of nightly writing (or writing that represents 10 different nights of writing work).
  • Move these into a new Google Folder called “Nightly Writing Portfolio”. (If the work happened on paper — in your notebook or on a mentor text — take a picture of that artifact and then put that picture in the Google folder.)
  • Add a document to the folder called “Nightly Writing Portfolio Reflection”.  In this document, explain why you chose each item for the portfolio, what is shows about you as a writer, and where you want these pieces to go next (Extend the work? Combine it with other writing? Abandon?)

I think these portfolios might help less-enthusiastic students take the work more seriously and also let students who ARE enthusiastic about their nightly writing feel like they are really doing something with all of it. We could share these in small groups to share ideas.

Okay — do you have ideas for me? How do you manage independent writing in YOUR classroom? What questions do you have about my classroom? Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter (@RebekahODell1), or on Facebook

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