Instructional Approaches for Teaching Writing Sin Miedo

Finding balance in the classroom is one of the most challenging aspects of instruction, especially now that time is even more valuable than before. And, every year at this time, conversations start about how teams of teachers are providing intervention and about what the data says in regards to which students are on track to pass their state assessments. Ultimately, the time-consuming conversation always comes back to, “What are we going to do in our classrooms to support students? What are we going to do to get them ready?”

While every tested subject teacher knows they have been doing supporting and preparing students all year to master the content and become an all-around successful student and human being, so many are still forced into this state-assessment driven conversation every year like clockwork. 

In last month’s article, I outlined the Anchors and Wings Matrix that addresses how the instructional choices we make hinge upon the concept of fear or courage when it comes to student writing. When we look at this Matrix and the examples, consider how much time is spent, in response to the yearly conversation about intervention, discussing instructional strategies that fit into the Negative Anchors category:

  • Formulaic writing with restrictive templates and easy or overly simplified prompts
  • Discouraging students from asking questions or changing their minds
  • Asking probing questions that are overly simple
  • Scare tactics that include reminders or threats of losing points or low grades

This month, let’s spend some time discussing what it might look like for us to spend out instructional time in the other three quadrants: Negative Wings, Positive Wings, and Positive Anchors. All of these activities stem from risks I have taken in the classroom but also focus on connecting with students through my journey with the English language. These examples and instructional strategies are not exhaustive, but reflect my experiences with teaching writing, so I encourage you to fill in your own matrix and consider what has given you courage to work through the fear of writing or what you and your team can do to help students work through the fear of writing.

Negative Wings are all about creating a safe space where failures and mistakes can be discussed openly and students can share attempts or drafts that aren’t perfect or their best work without fear of judgment or a bad grade. We can create this safe space by providing opportunities for our students to revisit their own previous writing and by demonstrating how to interact with their own writing by interacting and sharing our own previous writing from a young age. I still have writing ranging from 3rd grade to college and I love sharing my mistakes and risks with my students. If you still have some of your writing from a young age and are willing to be vulnerable with your students, here are some reflective questions to help you interact with your own writing and to help students develop a healthy relationship with and coping skills for their own mistakes and risks:

  • While you re-read, what is the first thought you have about your writing?
  • What risks did you take in your writing?
  • In what ways did you play it safe in this writing sample?
  • What patterns do you see in your writing?
  • How did you start each sentence?
  • How long was each sentence? What was the average length of each sentence?
  • If you were to re-write this, what would be some places for improvement?

Positive Wings provide students with the opportunity to work and write without the fear of failure being the primary motivator. They also provide writing opportunities full of freedom and independence. And, with all this talk about giving grace, providing opportunities for students to set their own due dates and ask for extensions, is the perfect way to combine structure and accountability with said grace. When setting up a project or long-term writing task, we have to have a final due date to ensure that we have enough time to process the assignment, the grade, and the feedback. All of that takes time–absolutely. However, if we involve the students in every part of the planning, and they involve us in the decision-making, the time we need at the end to grade and give feedback will be far less because we will have been doing that along the way instead of when it’s finished. 

To set up this process,

  1. discuss with each class the upcoming calendar for the campus and classroom
  2. invite them to review their personal calendars for athletic, music activities, personal events, other projects, etc… 
  3. have students identify their most ideal due date for the project
  4. provide students with an official deadline which represents the end of the extension opportunities or when the grades are due for the gradebook/posting period
  5. have students backwards plan and set daily or weekly goals for what they need to accomplish in order to finish the project according to their own due date
  6. set expectations on how and when students request formal feedback and an extension 
  7. students submit their proposed project idea and their due date on spreadsheet provided

Positive Anchors are strategies or instruction that ground students in the intricacies of any content while creating opportunities for students to discuss and learn the essentials in a way that drives curiosity and make connections beyond the content. I find that this is the most commonly skipped, frowned upon, and misunderstood quadrant because there has been a shift in teaching grammar and vocabulary in context, which is powerful and meaningful in students reading and writing. However, there is something to be said for breaking language down into its parts, especially for students who feel like English is just hard and doesn’t make any sense. Believe it or not, I like to start with cursive, even with my high school freshman. This might sound weird, but it’s all in the way that set the stage

  1. Like any other argument, I start with research, focusing on the benefits of cursive
  2. Open the floor to questions and light debate to make space for rebuttals and counterarguments

When it comes to teaching Latin roots, as a strategy for positively anchoring students in the wonders of the English language, simplicity and context is key. To ensure that the Latin roots selected for students to learn will have a connection to what we are currently reading  

  1. read ahead through the curriculum for that unit or section to skim for prefixes, suffixes, and roots that are integral to the understanding of key vocabulary and/or the readings as a whole
  2. Compile those prefixes, suffixes, and roots into a list for the students to uncover in a warm-up activity
  3. Each day, students have four or five roots (or prefixes and suffixes) that they must come up with words that contain those roots, prefixes, or suffixes
  4. Students are welcome to brainstorm individually or with those around them
  5. What matters the most is that the warm-up activity is treated like a challenge and puzzle for students to decipher
  6. As a class, discuss words that students came up, list them, and determine what they all have in common to create a definition for that root, prefix, or suffix
  7. Determine if there are any words that students came up with that do not fit the definition and eliminate words that do not belong and explain why
  8. For the closing activity that day (for block periods), or for the opener the next day (for short, 50-minute classes), challenge students to write a short paragraph using 5 or more of the words discussed over a topic that matches the curriculum or current reading assignment

At the end of these instructional approaches, I just want to end with a reminder that the goal here is balance and reflecting on our own practices that disrupt that balance. Writers need conventions and vocabulary, but they also need context and opportunities to take risks. I hope this provides a starting point for yourself or your team to reflect on current practices and improve the ways you meet writers where they are.

Send me your thoughts, reflections, and questions! =) Continue the conversation with me on Twitter @StarianBlake, on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters, or email me at starian.porchia@allenisd.org. At Moving Writers, we love sharing our materials with you, and we work hard to ensure we are posting high-quality work that is both innovative and practical. Please help us continue to make this possible by refraining from selling our intellectual property or presenting it as your own.

Thank you!
Starian Porchia

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