FAQ: Teaching Skills in Writing Workshop


In my series this fall, I have been looking at ways that any teacher in any classroom in any school can wade into writing workshop or take their existing workshop to the next level. Most recently, I wrote about teaching writing skills in the workshop — something that can be very hard for teachers to wrap their minds around. Today, I’m answering some frequently asked questions from readers and secondary English teachers about how we isolate and teach discrete writing skills within the workshop setting.

How do you know where to start and what skills are appropriate for each grade level? I feel like when I do this I end up repeating myself over and over and NOT in a good way….

This wonderful, honest question gets to the heart of what can be challenging about this approach — which skills? And when?

The big answer to this is the simplest one: you are an expert on your students this year. No matter what anyone else says, you teach what they need.

While that would make a great teacher tote bag mantra, here are some questions to ask  to help figure out what those kids sitting in front of you need:

  • What do you have to teach? 

Almost all of us are beholden to some kind of curriculum — one dictated by ye olde history of our department (“Since this school opened, we’ve been known for teaching _____”), one dictated by our district, one dictated by state or national standards (more on this in a minute), and all of these curricula have some guidelines for what writers need to know at each grade. So, that’s where I start.

Pull up your standards, open your notebook. Remove the verbiage and distill the discrete writing skills embedded inside.

Let me show you. Here’s an example from the Common Core 9th grade writing standards for argumentative writing:

Use words, phrases, and clauses to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims.

In my notebook, I would write: “Teach strategies for transitioning  between parts of the argument.” That’s one skill I have to teach.

How will I teach it? I’ll look in my mentor texts. I will ask myself, “How are these argument writers transitioning between parts of the argument?”. I’ll distill their processes into a couple of tricks for my students and teach them. The kids will try it. We all win.

  • What does the mentor text reveal?

As I discussed in the previous post, the mentor texts show me what to teach. My students just studied three narrative mentor texts, looked for patterns, and developed a list of “Musts” — elements a narrative has to have: IMG_2505.jpg

As a teacher, I do this same thing as I prepare to teach a writing unit. I ask myself, “What do my students have to do to be successful in this piece of writing?” Then, I consider what I know they can already do on their own, and make a short list (5-8) of skills to teach them.

For example, in the narrative unit above, you’ll notice “Writers of narrative scenes MUST use figurative language to make the reader understand something they haven’t experienced.” Now, I think my students are already capable of tossing in a simile or two. What I know they can’t do yet, is use surprising, unusual figurative language. So, that’s a skill I’m teaching them.

  • What do my kids need? What are they ready for?

To decide which skills to teach, I need to think about these kids. Not last year’s kids. Not the kids that I expect to teach at my grade level. Nope, I need to reckon with the ones I’m given right now. So, sometimes the skills I choose to teach are based on the needs of my students based on peeking over their shoulders as they write in notebooks and looking at previous writing.

Even if writing a claim appears on last year’s standards and all students “should” know how to write one when they enter myclass, if they can’t in reality, I need to teach them.

  • Where are they coming from? Where will they go?

I don’t really believe in teaching kids this year based on what they will “need” in coming years. Maybe I’ll write my rant about that someday. But for today, here’s what I’ll say: teach what feels responsible, developmentally-appropriate, and in the best interest of your students.

In my 12th grade IB English classes, students had a big end-of-course test on which the writing was entirely literary analysis. While I wanted them to write in a variety of genres (and a variety of analytical genres), I knew that I would be doing them a disservice as people if I didn’t prepare them for that test by giving them oodles of opportunities to practice analyzing literature in writing.

But I also knew that they would be going to college where they would need to write reading responses, write about research, write about nonfiction articles. So, to honor them, we needed to practice those skills, too. We wrote responses to our reading and responses to current events and played around with writing about data. And because they were whole human people, not just student robots, they also needed opportunities to do “fun” writing. So we wrote food memoirs, too. Paige knew her students would need to write killer resumes. So she taught them how to do that.

What writing skills will honor your writers — as students? As well-rounded, multi-dimensional humans?

How many skills do I teach? When I look at a mentor text, I see hundreds of things I could teach.

I like to whittle those possibilities down to 5-8 skills per unit. Depending on my students, this feels like a manageable number of skills for students to focus on. Too few and their writing might lack depth. Too many and they might drown.

This is also a reasonable number of skills to fit comfortably in a 3-ish week writing unit, which is about how long a writing unit should last. Within that unit, students also need time to do other writerly things: develop and explore ideas, root around in the mentor texts for inspiration, have free all-writing days, have writing conferences and get feedback.

But what about my standards? How can I use mentor texts to teach skills when I have standards demanding my attention, too?

The beauty of good writing is that it’s fairly universal — good writing is good writing, and you can find the traits of good writing in all kinds of writing. Remember that unusual figurative language I’m planning to teach in my narrative unit? I also see newspaper Op-Ed columnists like Leonard Pitts using unusual figurative language to help his readers understand his ideas.  And of course poets do this in spades. So, if I needed to teach students how to use figurative language to add detail, I could use all kind of different mentor texts in different writing genres to demonstrate that to students. Even better, students can have multiple opportunities to practice that skills as they work toward mastery — in our narrative unit, in our argument unit, in our poetry unit.

Take a look at these three Common Core standards for 9th grade informative/explanatory writing as an example:

Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to manage the complexity of the topic.
Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.
Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the information or explanation presented
I can absolutely show my students professional writers achieving these skills through a variety of techniques. Any informational text I use as a mentor text should have precise, domain-specific language, an objective tone, and some kind of conclusion.
And then, when we move into another genre — perhaps analysis — I can show how writers of analysis also use these skills (like precise language, domain-specific jargon, conclusions), and how writers in a different genres transform some of these skills (like tone and objectivity).
With this frame — that the traits of good writing appear in almost all good writing in some way and we can use mentor texts to reveal this to students — we’re actually teaching the standards better. We’re making the learning stickier because we’re building neural connections for students — from technique to text and then between texts and then between genres.
If you still have questions about how we teach skills in writing workshop, ask away! You can leave a comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet at me @RebekahODell1! I’d love to answer! 

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