Talking to Teachers: Reflecting on a Writing Process Unit (Non-Genre Specific)

This is a follow-up conversation with Caitlin Wingers, a grade 3 teacher in Jubail, Saudi Arabia (The initial conversation, that occurred in October, can be found here). This time around, Caitlin reflects on the unit she implemented at the start of the year — a Writing Process Unit that was Non-Genre Specific. A unit that was all about having students FEEL like writers. This has authenticity and relevancy oozing out of it from every corner — and as you listen to Caitlin, you will see that she had these two concepts at the heart of this unit from the start (even if she didn’t know it!).

DISCLAIMER: Yes, Caitlin teaches grade 3; however, most of the processes and strategies we discuss I could easily have applied into a high school context (even an IB or AP classroom). She doesn’t just talk about how to teach writing in a grade 3 classroom, she talks about best practice.

The video runs for 11 minutes and 30 seconds. Below is a breakdown of the main topics we covered so that you can zoom in on a specific topic, if you so choose. After the video I reflect on the conversation and link to some of the resources mentioned.

  • :48 Caitlin reviews the concept of her writing process unit that was non-genre specific
  • 1:34 Caitlin talks about the increased level of motivation and engagement of her students during the unit.
  • 3:17 Caitlin discusses how her conferring with students shifted with this unit and allowed students to own their craft
  • 5:20 Caitlin reveals why her second genre specific unit was better than usual this year in terms of engagement and space for differentiation and growth
  • 6:50 Caitlin reflects on the success of doing a process (non-genre specific) unit at the beginning of the year

Reflection Point #1 — Student Engagement

When Caitlin and I spoke in October, her little grade 3’ers were still in the brainstorming stage of their first unit of the year. And although engagement was high, it was still early on. I was curious to hear if their excitement continued or dropped off.

Even with my suspenseful previous paragraph, I don’t think it is a surprise that motivation did, in fact, remain high (this post would be extremely anti-climatic if it didn’t – ha!). Caitlin attributes this to:

  1. Autonomy — students were given choice of topic, genre, product, and audience.
  2. Self-pacing — students were given a mini-lesson menu; they could choose what they wanted to learn about for each part of the writing process.

It was the self-pacing aspect that Caitlin found very powerful and allowed for individualized learning to take place. This reminded me of a webinar by Dr. Yong Zhao I watched through the International Literacy Association (ILA). It was titled Speaking a Different Language: Changing the Grammar of Schools & Students as Co-Owners. Dr. Zhao stated that “an education crisis is a terrible thing to waste” … “we are stuck in the industrial model of schools where we receive a diverse group of students and we try to school them to be the same” (This truth of this last line made me feel very uncomfortable). He went on to say that “not only are students different, they are ALIVE and they have opinions. Yet, we expect to teach them all at the same pace and to learn at the same rate”. It was this that reminded me of Caitlin and how her main focus is to differentiate he students learning.

Remote learning isn’t learning from home, it is the ability to learn from anywhere.”

Dr. Yong Zhao

Because, although Caitlin first saw remote learning as an obstacle, she quickly shifted to see it as having infinite possibilities. And instead of schooling her students to all be the same, she is schooling them to be more self-directed—facilitating and curating a learning context where they have more control over their experience.

High engagement was not the only data point that Caitlin used to measure the success of this Writing Process Unit…there were other aspects that contributed, too. The most telling was the conferences she had with individual students when they turned in their final product. By focusing the conference on the process they went through, students were able to take ownership over their learning/final product. And this, Caitlin said, allowed for goal setting to take place: What did they want to focus on next time…What other author’s craft choices did they want to learn…How would they do things the same/differently…Did they feel like a writer now?

Caitlin’s Writing Process Unit (with her mini-lesson menu for self-pacing) provided a framework that helped students to see themselves as writers. It was the overarching sense of autonomy that fostered a curiosity of what writer’s do in real life.

If you are curious…here is a link to her student’s final products.

A Wondering…

The Hidden Brain podcast recently put out an episode titled Creatures of Habit. In it, psychologist Wendy Wood discusses that it isn’t will power that makes something become a habit (a common misconception), it is actually that an individual creates a context where there is less friction (struggle). When an individual can create a context that reduces some of the struggle involved in creating a habit, they are more likely to stick to it.

I wonder if this is what Caitlin is doing — reducing some of the struggle that students can feel when it comes to the writing process. All too often we see students procrastinate to the 11th hour before starting a piece of writing, and by not going through the process, they turn in, what Anne Lemott calls, a shitty first draft. Caitlin provided a context that reduced some of the friction — she gave students a framework that helped them to self-pace and have choice. By playing with the variables in successive units, she should be able to help students build the habit of using the WRITING PROCESS to their advantage…to see the VALUE of it. And this should, hopefully, continue as they move forward in their academic journey.

Reflection Point #2 — Transferring into Genre Specific Units

Me: “Did completing the Writing Process Unit (non-genre specific) at the start of the year transfer well to your next unit, a genre specific writing unit?”

Caitlin: “Definitely.”

Caitlin fully admits that the prep work for the self-paced lessons is A LOT…that she barely slept while getting it all ready. But that in the end it is well worth it and can be used again and again. In her second unit, Caitlin continued to provide autonomy by allowing choice in topic and which genre they were going to use between narrative and informational. This goes back to what Dr. Zhao was connecting to…that students are all different and they have opinions and at any given time they, too, have ideas they want to talk about and research.

Spoiler alert: Just because we get excited about a book or a topic, does not automatically transfer into them getting excited about it!) And thus is our job to give them opportunities to explore their own ideas in meaningful ways.

Caitlin was over-generous and allowed me to share her genre mini-lesson menus, too!

A Pondering…

After teaching both the IB and AP curriculum, I am well aware of the constraints of the assessments for each. However, I also know that within both courses we can provide frameworks and give choice to help reduce the friction in students writing lives And it would seem that the IB is already on this path when they revised the Lit. and Lang./Lit. courses with the changes that took place recently — by giving students more choice in their topics and content for some of their assessments.

Main takeaway

Over the last few years of teaching grade 10, my final unit of the year was just what Caitlin did at the start of hers. And I don’t know why I never made the shift and put it at the beginning of they year? Especially with the engagement and growth I saw in students across the board — it was always my favourite…and theirs! I think I had the backwards thinking that they were capable of it at the start of the year…that I had to TEACH them all the things first. Sigh…if only I could go back and get a redo on those students.

Because what it comes down to is that children are natural learners, they are diverse learners, and they seek independence. We need to find ways to nurture these dispositions, not school it out of them.

Where else in the IB and AP courses are you helping to reduce the friction for students writing lives? Have you had success with a Writing Process Unit? Tell me about it! How do you get students to feel like writers? You can connect with me on Twitter @readwritemore and my website

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