Managing Independent Writing

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I love a giant leap. A big swing.

I want to tell you that I carefully research, weigh, and plan each and every instructional decision that rolls forth from my desk. But I don’t.

More often than not, I don’t think all that much.  I come up with a wild “What if?”, jump, and see what happens. This is how “What If I Just Threw Away Everything I’ve Ever Done With Writing Before and Do This Writing Workshop Thing?” and “What If I Stopped Grading Individual Assignments?” were born.

(Note that these are particularly successful examples of this principle. These experiments are not always so successful. See: What If I Taught Pride & Prejudice To These Seniors? and What If My Students Wrote Letter Essays? and What If My Students Used Voxer for Book Clubs Across Classes? and What If I Wrote an Entire Chapter Comparing Literary Analysis to Both Pizza and Broccoli?)

This school year, in my brand new middle school classroom, there have been a lot of these giant leap moments as I feel my way through the days and weeks. I blame the biggest one on Colleen Cruz and Nancie Atwell. Last year, I read Colleen Cruz’s Independent Writing, and it completely knocked my socks off. (I very awkwardly and inarticulately told her so at a cocktail party. I hope she doesn’t remember.) This book reminded me that if students should be choosing anything they wish to read, they also need opportunities to choose anything they wish to write. As in, completely free choice writing. But, of course, not pages of random “free writes”. Rather the ultimate choice in writing workshops that are meticulously planned as the best genre study.

Of course, In the Middle has been on my bookshelf since college — the very first professional text I owned.  And Nancie Atwell is the best teacher in the world. So, when she assigns 20 minutes of outside-of-class writing to her students each night, who am I to argue?

And thus I made a giant leap, a big swing, and told my students that this year they would write independently for 20 minutes outside of class each day on completely free choice, independent writing.

They balked. I spent a week trying to generate good PR with parents and students about my writing plans. We generated lists and lists of 20-minutes-of-writing ideas. (Here you go: 20 Minutes of Writing- Ideas)

And then I panicked, wondering, “How in the world will I manage all of this writing?” Because beyond the simple and beautiful act of regular writing, there were some other things I needed:

  • I needed to teach the rest of my curriculum. Although throwing out everything and doing only independent writing all year is a little bit appealing, it’s just not realistic. (Yet.)
  • I wanted my students to share what they were writing — as publication, as community-building, as a source of ideas and inspiration for one another.
  • I hoped for positive peer pressure to keep writers on track and truly writing (rather than fake writing).
  • And if I was going to walk out on this limb, I knew I needed to do something with this writing. More specifically, parents wanted to know how I would assess it. So I needed a plan.

One day, after a lot of thinking and even more texting with Allison, I devised a plan:

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I went full A Beautiful Mind -meets –Tricia Ebarvia and wallpapered a white board with charts where students record their nightly writing work. This has helped accomplish a few things for me:

  • Students feel they are being held accountable — whether or not I’m carefully scrutinizing each entry (I’m not), students feel like they are “doing something” with their writing immediately. That is, recording it. Each week, students earn five points per night for writing. This adds ups to a nice little homework grade. If you miss one night, you lose 5 points. It’s very concrete, it takes me about 10 minutes tops, and both parents and students easily understand the “assessment”. (Students will soon use and develop this writing. But more on this later.)

Let me hasten to add that in order for this to work, I had to quickly let go of the same chest-tightening need-for-control that has so often threatened to consume their independent reading. Some kids will fake this. Even with a vigorous honor code, some students will lie. A handful will find clever work-arounds and loop-holes and fail to honor the spirit of the assignment. Just like they do with independent reading. To do what is right for all students, I have to be okay with knowing that I will not be able to micromanage every student.  We need to take a deep breath — it will be alright.

  • The charts let me do a quick check to assess student progress & make plans — Casually glancing at the charts last week told me that I probably need to chat with Mary (who has been writing a “log of my day” every day for the last three weeks) and Caden (who has missed at least two nights of writing each week). They could probably use some topic-brainstorming help or strategies for squeezing in time for writing.  It also told me that most of my students are writing fiction — short stories, novels, even a graphic novel — so, I did a quick mini-lesson on other genres (argument! persuasion!) to help them branch out if they are ready.  Six students are writing in partnerships! I know a little something about this, and Ways to Write with a Buddy might be great fodder for a mini-lesson down the road!
  • Students love spying on the charts & stealing ideas — Since we have not yet gotten to the point of polishing and publishing any of this work, these charts are as close as we get. But every day, I hear murmurs from the board: “Cool! I want to write about my soccer game!” and “Man! I didn’t know we could write comics” or “Oh yeah, I need to write some thank you notes, too.” Students are sharing ideas and running with the inspiration they take from the charts.

IMG_6229So, What’s Next?

Like Notebook Time, this rhythm of nightly writing would be good for my writers even if they never did another thing with it. The muscles built through regular writing are a worthy end in themselves. I hope that this will make writing such a normal part of each student’s day that they will find themselves a little bit lost without it when school ends. And then they’ll find their writer’s notebook and start again.

I’ve always thought about beginning the school-year with a brief Tour of Writing Genres. This little experiment has almost certainly given me the nudge I need to do it next fall.  But I have noticed that students don’t seem to know how many different kinds of writing are available to them in the world. So, I also intend to use this writing work as a reason to intentionally introduce students to different genres of writing. This can be a great way for students to preview genres we will hit down the road ( Op-ed, perhaps?) or explore genres that we just won’t get to this year (historical fiction or “how to” writing).  I’m planning a regular (every 2 weeks or so?) Genre Spotlight during which I can quickly introduce students to the purpose of a given genre, where it lives in the real world, and a couple of mentor texts to glance at.

But, of course, we are going to use this independent writing for something bigger. At least some of it.

Like Colleen Cruz, I plan to soon launch a whole independent writing study — helping students find their own personalized mentor texts and encouraging them to sign up to teach mini-lessons on techniques at which they are an “expert”. While I am not as brave as Colleen and don’t think I can yet manage whole class writing + whole class reading + independent writing + independent reading simultaneously, I do hope to punctuate our regularly-scheduled writing studies with independent writing studies throughout the year. In fact, I’m thinking this could make a great “exam” when I am forced to give one! (And if you haven’t read Colleen’s amazing book, you have time to read it while I tinker! I’ll update you on how this plays out.)

Do you assign your students nightly writing work? If so, how do you use it? How might you use the ideas shared here? How do your students engage with independent writing? Leave us some ideas (or questions) below, on Facebook, or Twitter @rebekahodell1. 

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Have Tos & Mights: Making Mentor Text Noticings Concrete

Last year, I began to notice a curious but recurring pattern — students’ final papers lacked many of the elements we noticed in the mentor texts.

It was as though students had  forgotten that we studied the mentor texts for days and days and made grand lists of noticings. It was as though they had never flipped back in their notebook to consult the techniques we discussed. It was as though we had never done it at all!

Here’s what was happening:

Continue reading

Punctuation Study: A 5-Day Writing Study to Set the Tone for the Year

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This year, I am teaching two new grades in a new classroom in a new school with new colleagues and a new schedule. And with all that comes the delightful insecurity that comes with every new school year to some degree — the feeling that I’ve never taught anyone anything before, the fear that I won’t know what to say, the general conviction that I have no idea what I’m doing.

And sometimes that isn’t a bad thing.

Teacher insecurity can breed productive reflection and experimentation and letting go. Often, not knowing what’s going to happen next leads us to something new.

This month, after a few weeks of getting-to-know-you-and-getting-to-know-mentor-texts, not knowing what was going to happen next lead me to a new writing study that I’ve long wanted to try but never before attempted: a whole study just about punctuation.

Here’s what I taught, what students did, how I assessed it, what students thought, and why this worked so well:

Continue reading

Behind the Scenes: One Notebook to Rule them All

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Zoom in on Henry, an eighth grader whose desk sits in the far right corner of the room. The other students sit down, pull out their notebooks and pencils, jot down the homework; Henry is frantic. Where it is? Please don’t tell me I’ve lost it! Noooooo! he silently panics.

He opens his binder, closes his binder, dumps the contents of his backpack on the floor beside his desk, kneels beside the mountain of stuff in the floor, and starts throwing one wadded-up paper ball after another over his shoulder as he searches fruitlessly. Defeated, tears well up in his eyes, and he slowly crawls back into his seat. Henry silently shakes his fist at the sky as the camera zooms back out. 

***

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Hard at work gathering ideas in the notebook.

Okay so, this didn’t happen last week, but this is one of my dearest school fantasies. I dream every year that each student’s notebook will becomes so precious, so valuable to them that they would dissolve into tears at the mere thought of losing it.

 

We teachers know that notebooks are a powerful storehouse of student thinking and bits of writing. We know that it is the foundation for the writerly habits that will actually help our students evolve into writers, not just students who submit technically perfect writing products. In many ways, the notebook is the answer to so many of the hows that come up in our writing pedagogy:

How do we help our students identify as writers? Regular, risk-free work in their notebook.

How do we help our student writers develop writing stamina? Dedicated class time to work in their notebook.

How do we help our students gather, curate, and develop ideas for writing? Notebook play.

How do we help our students track writing progress over time? Use the notebook as a writing archive of idea development, information gathering, and drafting.

So, then, how do we organize these all-important notebooks? How do we set them up to best establish their importance? It’s a conversation a few of us have been having on Twitter over the last few weeks, and one teachers get very passionate about.

I have two central goals for my students’ notebooks. I want them to be useful (as in easily useable), and I want them to be important to my students. 

So, in practical terms this means:

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Notes from a mini-lesson gallery walk go in students’ notebooks.

My students will have more success with their notebooks when I relinquish control of them.

I wish I could take credit for this idea, but it goes to Ralph Fletcher who shared it at the All Write! Conference in 2016. Ralph told stories of teachers who had specific instructions for each page of a notebook, restricting and constricting them to the point that all of the life was sucked out of them and the joy of writing way gone.

He said, “Students care about their notebooks to the degree we stop controlling them.”

Whoa.

And, truly, this seems to be a central lesson to workshop teaching in general, doesn’t it? We get nervous about control — How will I know they are putting the right thing in their notebook? How will I know they will be able to find them later? How will I know they are complete? But when we impose OUR logic, our order, our need to hold the reigns over our students’, we will never guide them toward success. Is our goal for them to have perfectly ordered notebooks or to be able to engage in the rhythms and practices of real writers? Is our goal for our students to churn out products in the image we have cast for them or to do the real, hard work of real writers?

So, I don’t do much dictating any more about what goes in the notebook in what order. In fact, I don’t even dictate what kind of notebook my students should have. I simply ask that it be a bound notebook rather than a spiral notebook. (Spiral notebooks say “school” and “rip out my pages”, a bound notebook — even a composition book — has a completely different feeling.)

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One of the few required items in my students’ notebooks — a reading rate tracker (a la Penny Kittle’s Book Love) for Reading Workshop. 

My students glue some reading workshop materials in the back of their notebook (a reading ladder, a reading rates tracker, and a TBR list), but other than that, I simply ask them to  start filling the notebook.

 

Over the years, I have found that students’ notebooks are not easily useable when I dictate special sections, elaborate tables of contents, rules and regulations. Now, I make suggestions and show students models of others’ notebooks, but then I let them find organizational systems that work for them to make their notebooks useful in the most personal way.

Everything needs to go in the notebook.

Notice I said the notebook. Not “the notebook or the binder”. Not “one of the notebooks” or “either the reading notebook, the writing notebook, or the grammar notebook.” To be useful and to be important, notebooks need to be simple. Not only do students not need multiple notebooks to keep track of, but the very optics of a single notebook sends a powerful message: everything important goes in here, so this is important.

To the largest extent humanly possible, I do not give my students pieces of paper that Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 9.18.32 PMwill not be permanently glued or taped into their notebooks (the one notable exception to this is mentor texts, for which my students each have a special Mentor Text Folder.) Notes, ideas, jottings, notebook times, drafts, conference notes, group work, doodles, research — everything goes in the notebook. My students know that unless I direct them to write on something different (say, a piece of looseleaf to be turned in), their default is to go into their notebook. (Because of this, most of my students will fill two notebooks in a year.)

This is what makes the notebook important, significant, life-or-death. This ensures that the notebook goes home, and gets pulled out on the school bus, and sits on the student’s nightstand, and becomes worn and full and loved. Students need it and use it all day long for myriad reasons — and so all the stuff of their brains and their hearts gets captured there.

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 9.20.48 PM.pngRemember Allison’s first post in this series? She suggested that we plan our first days and weeks and months of the new school year by … not planning. Friends, after many years of micromanaging notebooks (only to find them stuffed into trashcans in the hallway on the last day of school), I have found that the way to organize student notebooks is to … not organize them.

A notebook is a malleable, lifelong tool we gift to students when they are in our class. We wouldn’t give our best friend a gift and then dictate how she uses it (“You can use it between this hour and this hour and only for the following purpose …”). Students need a place to hold the thinking they will do in our classes — let’s step back, give up control, and let them discover its usefulness, its significance, its power.

I know you have your favorite ways to organize student notebooks — what are they? What organizational tips have been especially helpful to your students over the year? Leave a comment here to join the conversation, find me on Twitter @rebekahodell1, or find us on Facebook.

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: 3 Reasons Literary Analysis Must Be Authentic

There is a a common thread that runs through many of our most-popular posts from the 2016-2017 school year: authentic analysis.  We are all hungry for something more. For something more than poorly-crafted already-been-said-before five-paragraph essays about the same old topics. And if your and your students’ disdain for reading and writing these kinds of essays isn’t enough of a reason to abolish them, Rebekah explores three other reasons why the literary analysis we teach must be as authentic and real world as any other genre of writing we teach. 

 

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Hello, friends! Oh, how we have missed you!

Allison and I are still in the midst of finishing our new book on teaching analytical writing, but we couldn’t resist a quick check-in with you to share some of what we have been up to!

Yesterday we had the great fun of doing an hour of virtual professional development  via Google Hangout with a department of teachers from Farmington High School who are searching for better, deeper, more meaningful ways to engage their students in writing literary analysis.

We all know that traditional, academic literary analysis — the kind of 5-paragraph themes you and I wrote in high school — don’t really work. Students hate writing them. We hate reading them. At best, students have successfully followed a formula that has allowed them to regurgitate what they have heard and discussed in class. At worst, students limp through the motions, inserting ideas pilfered from Spark Notes and badly-written Internet essays.

So, that doesn’t work. What does? Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Mentor Texts for the First Week of School

One of the best ways to show our students the value that mentor texts have for their writing is to let it be the first thing they hear about on the first day of school — to put a mentor text in their hands, tell them that a mentor text is a piece of writing that guides and inspires us, and let them dig in. In this post, Rebekah offers some tried-and-true mentor texts for kicking off your writing year! 

Are you ready to start planning for the first week of school?

We use mentor texts in our classes from the very first day of school. We want to lay down a strong foundation and also some strong expectations that mentor texts will be our go-to source for inspiring our work, giving us how-tos, and answering our writing questions all year long.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have fun. The mentor texts we use the first week of school are visually engaging and meet our high school students right where they are as they walk in the door.

In our mentor text countdown this week, we are giving you a two-for-one: two very different approaches to using mentor texts in the very first week of school to help you students get to know one another while also learning the fundamentals of mentor text work!

Get out your planner! We are helping you get ready to get back to school! Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

Whether we are teaching poetry or memoir or literary analysis, the requirements for mentor texts are the same: they must be accessible and relevant for students, and they should be richly crafted. And while poetry and memoir texts are ubiquitous, many of us struggle to find literary analysis mentor texts that are developmentally appropriate and engaging for our students. In this post, Rebekah gives two ways of thinking about the mentor text search for literary analysis that will leave you eager to get your hands on some of the great analytical writing out there.

 

When we are choosing genres to teach in workshop, one consideration is always at the forefront: is this real writing? Is this writing real writers do? Can I find authentic examples of it out in the world? Generally, if the answer is “no”, we don’t teach it.

With one notable exception: literary analysis.

In our mentor text explorations, we have yet to find an example of pure, academic literary analysis roaming around the real world. And yet, we acknowledge the need for students to work in this genre.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 9.56.45 AMBut, maybe not for the reasons that you think.

In many — maybe most — high school English classrooms, literary analysis is the primary mode of writing. It’s the whole shebang. There are many reasons for this, but I think the most potent one is simply this: it’s tradition. It’s what you and I did when we were high school English students. And we enjoyed it. And we were good at it. And that’s why we became English majors. And then English teachers.

But literary analysis is one star in a vast universe of analytical writing. The traditional high school English classroom makes it the sun.

While you won’t find a literary analysis feature article in The New Yorker, analytical writing is everywhere. Political analysis of the 2018 Presidential election. Personal analysis in essays and memoirs.  Sports analysis. Analysis of Furious 7 and Mad Men. And, yes, in its way, analysis of literature in book reviews. Analysis is everywhere.

So, in our view, students should be writing analysis — lots of it — but analysis of all kinds, not just literary analysis. The skills are the same. And if students can skillfully analyze their favorite movie and the effectiveness of the new iPhone and the significance of an important event on their life and the theme of a poem, they will be fantastic, well-rounded  analytical writers who are much more prepared to enter the real world of writing than those students who have only written essays about literature.

Where does this leave us on the mentor text issue?

Like all genre studies, we give students real-world, hot-off-the-press examples of analysis — showing them that the skills they are learning to make a claim about a piece of literature are the same skills that professional writers are using to analyze all sorts of things in the world around them.

Our requirements remain the same — our mentor texts should be accessible and relevant for students, they should be well-written, they should be rich with craft. Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: Information Writing That’s NOT “The Research Paper”

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Dear Larken,

On a recent trip back from Texas, we sat behind a couple of teenagers who were having the most incredibly mature, well-rounded, rich conversation about everything from politics to travel to education. As the plane prepared to land, and their conversation came to a close, the 15-year-old boy said to his new plane mate: All education needs to do is teach kids to love learning.

Our hearts leapt out of our chests and sunk at the same time. This statement was so hopeful and profound and somehow freeing, yet it also implied a failure on our part as educators…

How do we teach kids to love learning?

In three words: keep it real.

Make it authentic.

Less like school.

More like life. Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: What does a writing unit look like?

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We are spending Mondays this summer answering reader questions in a series called Ask Moving Writers. If these reading our answers sparks yet more questions, please feel free to ask below and join the conversation! 

Here’s our first question: 

Dear Moving Writers,

Hi, Sylvia, Continue reading

A New Approach to Literary Essays in Middle School: Part II

Today’s guest post is part of a series on changing the way we think about literary essays in middle school. In Part 2, Beth Toerner (@btoerner) will share how she moved students from thinking about texts in interesting, fresh ways to actually producing polished pieces of literary writing! 

#socialmediaday

Earlier this week, I shared the beginning of my journey with literary essays this year, ending with the creation of an assignment asking my students to write essays that answered the question “What does reading teach us?” So far, we had created lists inspired by the mentor text “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”.

After making these lists, we moved onto work with our next two mentor texts, which showed two different ways to write about personal experiences with reading. “Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later” is the perfect text to model writing about the impact that different characters have on us as readers. Plus, it’s written by Lois Lowry, so the students have a bit of background knowledge as they begin. Once again, we had to spend some time reviewing the basic concept behind Lord of the Flies, but this essay has no major spoilers in it.

Following reading and discussion, students completed an activity in which they highlighted every sentence that shows a personal connection in one color and every sentence that showed text-based evidence in another color. (Spoiler alert: everything was highlighted!) This helped students to outline a pattern they could easily follow: write about something in the book, explain how it relates to you; write about something in the book, explain how it relates to you; repeat, repeat, repeat.

In the mentor text, Lois Lowry writes about the immediate connection she had with Ralph as a reader. She highlights the admirable qualities that she identified in him, such as leadership and a sense of humor. She notes that even though she didn’t necessarily possess those qualities, she wished she did.

And then — yes, this appealed to me greatly — he took charge. He established order, made rules, saw to everyone’s well-being and, with very little opposition, was chosen to be chief. Me? I was a follower, always, not a leader; but I secretly yearned to be the kind of kid who would be chosen as chief.

Then, she went on to discuss Piggy, acknowledging the fact that although he was less likeable, she saw parts of herself in him- traits of which she was not exactly proud

“Now, as a young student at a very large university, I felt as vulnerable as Piggy and disliked him for that reason — he revealed too much about my own self.”

I had students make a t-chart in their writer’s notebooks; one side was to be a list of their “Simons,” and the other was to be a list of their “Piggies.”  On the Simons side, we listed characters we loved and wanted to be like: your Harry Potters, Percy Jacksons, and Katniss Everdeens. On the Piggies side came the characters with whom we weren’t proud to admit we identified: Draco Malfoy, George from Of Mice and Men, and “the boy who tried to kill Tris in Divergent. Then, I had them complete some writing sprints in their writer’s notebooks, taking about a minute or so to write out a more detailed explanation of their relationship with one these characters, then switching to a new character for the next minute of writing.

The final mentor text that we studied was “How Judy Blume Changed My Life”. This mentor text showed students how to write about how one book, author, or series had a direct impact on them, thus showing them how to analyze plot and theme in a format other than a list. At this point, students were beginning to better conceptualize where we were headed with our essay, and they had started to gather some ideas of their own. As we read this text, many students were already identifying where the author used evidence and where she drew on her own personal experience.

After we read, I had students reflect on the three mentor texts we had read by completing the chart below.

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Here are some examples of the final products my students created:

One student closely imitated “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life” in her analysis of The Help. She identified five thoughtful lessons that this book teaches, and maintained a consistent example-explanation-evidence format throughout the piece.

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One student used “Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later” to write an essay called “They’re Not Just Characters,” in which she explored the impact that characters from her favorite books: The Harry Potter Series, The Hunger Games Trilogy, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, and A Dog’s Purpose (she analyzed her personal connection with the main character, who happens to be a dog). Her essay is full of wonderful moments where she uses the mentor text to guide her writing while simultaneously moving outside of its guidelines.

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Another student used this mentor text to analyze his similarities to two characters in the novel Game Changers. He began with a story about his recent soccer tournament and some of the challenges he faced while playing; then, he moved on to draw the novel and its characters in through a comparison. Throughout his writing, he does an excellent job of alternating between personal experience and text-based evidence, drawing from the highlighter activity we had done after reading the article for the first time.

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Overall, students answered the question “What does reading teach us?” in thoughtful, authentic, and analytical ways. I loved noticing the mentor texts popping up in my students’ writing- whether it was an overall organizational move, like a list; or smaller, sentence level craft moves. My students’ voices came across clearly in each piece.  As I read my student’s writing, I felt like I was hearing their true voices and getting insight into what they were thinking about the world and their role in it, rather than checking off a list of prescribed steps that are required in a literary analysis essay. Students were able to use their reading experiences to explore a variety of personal issues that I would have never been able to get them writing about through a prescriptive writing assignment.  

And, for the first time in my teaching career, rather than a sense of relief that essay-grading had finally ended, I actually felt a pang of sadness when I finished grading because there weren’t any more essays for me to read. My students scored higher on their essays than they had on any assignment this year, and more importantly, they created writing that was truly their own. No two people have the same experience with reading, and I have twenty-six essays that show that.

How might taking Beth’s approach change writing in your classroom? Leave a comment or questions below, find us on Facebook, or catch up with Beth on Twitter (@btoerner).