Helping Students Think About Who They Are as a Writer from Day 1

Have you been able to take a deep breath yet? I hope so. Cause I don’t know about you, but it feels as though this past year happened to me — too much time spent being reactive. And now I need to just take some deep breaths — a lot of them. Because before I can consolidate what this past year has taken away and what it has given, I need to take some time and space to just be. John Spencer has written a post specifically about this time of rest — of finding your own way of processing and moving forward. (The visual below is from his post)

But… at some point, you are going to need to start thinking about the next year school year and I am hoping that you will bookmark this page and come back to it when you are ready to do all of that ‘next year thinking’.

This post is in connection to an article that I read recently by Daniel T. Willingham titled “Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Why Do Students Remember Everything That’s on Television and Forget Everything I Say?” I will start by giving you the gist of the article and then segue into how this connects to writing instruction/a student’s writing life.

The Gist

We begin with the most poignant ideas from the article: “Students remember what they think about.” Very explicit, very simple. So simple, in fact, that when I first read it I just thought: yeah, of course, duh. But sometimes it’s those simple ideas taken granted that turn out to have a significant impact.

Because when I think about writing I always go back to it being a basic skill and like every skill, it needs to be developed over time by forming new habits. In order to form those new habits, students not only need time to work on their writing, but they also need time to think about their writing process. If we start this type of thinking at the very beginning of the year, we offer students the best opportunity to grow in skill and confidence with their writing.

On the very first day of the school year, I get students to do a quick write on the following topic: “Who am I as a writer?” I do it, too. And I talk about it. They talk about it with their peers. There is a lot of discomfort and confusion — to be expected. But if you focus on this question throughout the year and have them answer it again at the end, their answers will be much different in so many beautiful ways. On a side note…if you are looking to amplify your quickwrite game or even just get started on it…Linda Rief’s book is a great resource.

Students remember what they think about.

Daniel T. Willingham

Keeping It Simple

Let’s go back and focus on the article for a minute more to get a bit more context. In it, Willingham discusses the notion of how we learn:

“We can’t store everything we experience in memory. Too much happens. So what should the memory system tuck away? How can the memory system know what you’ll need to remember later? Your memory system lays its bets this way: if you think about something carefully, you’ll probably have to think about it again, so it should be stored. Thus your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it’s a product of what you think about.”

Willingham goes on to state the obvious: if students aren’t paying attention, they won’t be able to learn. He adds to this statement by saying that it is more than just attention that is needed, and wonders considers the role of emotion and repetition in the learning process. However, not everything can be made to be emotionally appealing, nor can we just will ourselves to learn everything through repeated action.

There was a missing ingredient. Willingham realized that it wasn’t good enough that students were just paying attention, what mattered was what they were paying attention to.

The article also discusses the “obvious implication for teachers is that they must design lessons that will ensure that students are thinking about the meaning of the materialand goes on to suggest that we look to stories as a way of organizing a lesson to help students create meaning since stories are “treated differently in memory than other types of material.” (Willingham)

I recommend you read the entirety of Willingham’s article for some concrete examples of how to apply this story lesson plan idea — it’s intriguing and very doable.

However, I want to take this idea of students remember what they think about and connect it to the writing process — so let’s alter our trajectory a little.

Thinking About Writing

Who am I as a writer? It is this question that I ask on day one of class because what we give time for shows what we value. I want my students to both value the question AND the process of finding their own answer. And to do that, they need the consistency of time and the opportunities to think about who they are as a writer.

This exploration could be:

  • showing examples of what we do in our writing process
  • showing what professional writer’s do
  • experimenting with different ways of brainstorming, of writing a first draft, of revising, of using mentor texts
  • providing time to talk about their process with others
  • providing time to reflect on their process individually
  • conferring and providing feedback on their process

I know that peer discussion is not new, we all do it. But I believe we are more apt to give time for students to discuss in groups the what of their writing and less likely to give them time to discuss the how of it. This is probably due to the fact that they need to be taught how to talk about the how of writing as they don’t usually have the language or understanding of what it looks like — which takes time and practice. And I think there is a lot of value in taking the time to model and practice this skill set from the very start of the year because it (1) builds up a students capacity to have such conversations and (2) reinforces internal metacognitive awareness (metacognition = thinking about thinking).

Kate Chaterdon and Marist College in their article, “Writing Into Awareness: How Metacognitive Awareness Can Be Encouraged Through Contemplative Teaching Practices” note the impact of both external and internal reflection (metacognition) in developing writing skills.

External reflection gets students thinking about aspects such as genre, audience, and rhetorical situation. Internal reflection gets students thinking about the choices they made for the external topics. Some examples of questions that invite this type of internal contemplation are: What moves do I make, as a writer, to meet the needs of my audience or genre? Am I effective at meeting their needs? Are there things I could do differently? What do I do well as a writer?

Chaterdon and Colleges cite that it is the combination of both external and internal thinking of the writing process as well as the “consistent and embodied performance of reflection, that can help students become more engaged, thoughtful writers.”

Opportunity for Internal Reflection

I know that before I was forced into a remote learning context, I consistently gave more time to external reflection and typically with a little at the beginning and most of it at the end of a unit. It was the shift online to both synchronous and asynchronous learning that helped increase the time my students spent doing internal reflection about their writing throughout the process.

Yes, it was not ideal moving online. However, I found that one gift it did provide was way more formative feedback for every student. Because I was no longer able to talk with my students face to face, it became my goal to ask at least one internal reflection question every time I was in a student’s Google doc. It was my way of connecting with them and creating an opportunity for a dialogue to begin in an asynchronous space. The questions were about their choices as a writer — here are a few examples:

  • Why did you use __________ example/quote?
  • Why did you use a pathos appeal to begin your introduction?
  • What is one choice you made regarding how you organized/sequenced the end of your piece?
  • What did you hope to accomplish for the reader by making __________ choice? How effective do you think it was?
  • Explain your use of language in paragraph _____. What words were intentionally chosen and why?
  • How does your piece show your understanding of _______________ standard?
  • What did you do to create a persuasive tone in your conclusion?

So often the responses I would get back were thoughtful and nuanced and intentional. (They weren’t great all the time, but even those one’s got better!)

And the most surprising thing was that over time students were starting to discuss their choices with me or other students without being prompted. The thinking about their writing was transferring from unit to unit — they were remembering what they were given time to think about and they were exploring who they were as writers.

End note: When I was thinking about the idea for this post I was explaining it to a friend/colleague and after I was done she said: “So they become the hero of their own writing story.” Yes, that is exactly what they are doing.


How do you get students thinking about their writing? How do you provide time for reflection throughout the writing process? Who are you as a writer? You can connect with me on Twitter @readwritemore and my website www.readmorewritemore.org

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1 Comment

  1. Wow, your post today is great. You open many connections to me for my work as a teacher. I will be sharing this with my department and looking at it as I plan next year.

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