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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No Happy Endings

You know, I had my blog post for this week all mocked up. The rough edges were in, I was filling in the details and ironing out the formatting. It was supposed to be about my go-to mentor texts for starting units – a handy little collection. Neat and tidy.

And then, as it tends to happen in our profession, my teaching feet were knocked out from under me.

We were wrapping up a mini-lesson on endings in personal narrative writing. We had collected some noticings, discussed how they worked, and charted strategies on the board. Notebooks were rustling as kids were going back to their drafts to play with their own endings. Some would add reflection while others might try to tie back to where they started. It felt like I’d taught this lesson a million times. And then a student looked over her notebook pages at me and asked, “but what if there isn’t a happy ending?”

I pulled up a chair. I was ready for this question; I’d tackled it before. I started to direct her back to some of our mentors, but she pushed back. “No, what if I don’t have an ending like this?” she sighed, starting to sound a little exasperated. “These are happy endings,” she waved her hands over her folder of texts we’d studied. I noticed that another student had looked up and was listening. He nodded in agreement; he was struggling with the same question.

I’ll admit, that wasn’t something I’m used to hearing. I usually get the question “Why is everything we read so depressing?” about the literature we study. And it’s true. It seems like in middle school and high school, we’re always trotting out the books about death and dying, but she was still seeing these as having “happy endings.”

“What if I don’t have an ending like this?”

Her question had a weight to it that told me this was more than just a question about craft.   Continue reading

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:

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The Golden Writing Workshop: Yay or Nay?

No matter who you ask, most writing teachers will say that what they need more of in their workshops is exactly what they need more of in life: Just. More. Time.

I personally spend a lot of time thinking about how to find writing time where time doesn’t exist, how to add minutes back into the period, how to make each and every second in the workshop count.

This week I listened to a podcast by the writer/podcaster/traveller Tsh Oxenreider about morning and evening Routines, Golden Hours, and Makers Schedules, and, as whenever I hear something that changes the way I think about my own life, I start thinking about all the ways it might also shift the way I teach. Here’s what happened while I was listening to Tsh and Erin talk (and while the vegetable burned in the oven):

I saw a vision for an alternative workshop flow, one that would incorporate individual students’ routines and golden hours, as well as shift the classroom towards a maker schedule. First, let me take 30 seconds to define these terms:

A morning/evening routine is the series of things that you do at the beginning and/or end of a day, or in our case, a class period to help you “settle in”.

The Golden Hour is your most productive time of day. For some it’s early morning, with the coffee machine whirring in your dark kitchen for one, long before you can hear the pitter-patter of toddler’s feet on the wooden floors upstairs. For others it’s the exact opposite: the after-dinner smell of a lemony-clean kitchen filling your nose as you set up at the dining table for a few hours of hard thinking and writing.

A Maker Schedule is one that features large swaths of time for the hard thinking and creating work essential to a writer/maker/artist’s life…as opposed to a manager schedule (think: meetings, interruptions, announcements, too-short classes, etc.) which is how most professions/jobs/lives are designed.

The vision Tsh gave me for incorporating these elements into a writing workshop can best be illustrated in the visual below:

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A few general thoughts:

  • Research tells us that students’ attention is sharpest at the beginning of a class period, and that it continuously wanes as the period goes on. This places most students’ “Golden Hour” at the beginning of the period, so doesn’t it seem counterproductive to leave the hard thinking and creative work of writing for the end of class? The alternative flow places sacred, uninterrupted writing time at the beginning of the period.
  • The main difference between the two “flows” is the number of minutes allotted to writing time. After a few years of teaching in the workshop approach, I finally figured out a way to give my students 20 minutes of writing time (on most days). But I actually think I can do even better. The alternative flow allows for 25 minutes of uninterrupted, sacred writing time, with an additional 10 minutes for conferring and notebook writing/ play. In other words, it shifts our class period from a manager schedule to a maker schedule.
  • In the alternative flow, the mini-lesson is pre-recorded by the teacher and assigned as homework. The idea of flipping mini-lessons is not new, but I have never done it with any kind of consistency or routine before. I have never made it a core practice in my workshop to the extent that I am freeing-up more writing time on a regular basis. If some of your students’ Golden Hours are at night, then you could give them the option of doing the mini-lesson during class time and writing at night…it’s all about when they are most productive and creative, and it might take some time and some experimentation to figure that out.
  • There is a 5-minute review and Q&A period built into the alternative workshop flow: students can ask questions about the mini-lesson, and the teacher can offer clarification. It’s shorter than a mini-lesson because the learning happened the night before; students start writing a lot sooner in the period.
  • I love the Notebook Time/Conferring combo at the end of the alternative flow period. How many times have I avoided conferring with a student because he was just getting started on writing, and I didn’t want to interrupt his time…but I only had 10 minutes to squeeze in 20 conferences? Since conferring is placed after sacred, interrupted writing time, conferences can be more productive and built around work a student has actually had time to produce.

Thoughts on the Soft Start

The soft start is like your best kind of morning where you get your cup of coffee before your kids (or pets or spouse or roommate) wake up and you have time to greet the day and breathe and collect your thoughts…how much better do you feel on days like these? Now think about what a soft start might do for students.

In her new (FABULOUS!) book Project-Based Writing, Liz Prather writes, “For years, I was a bell-to-bell advocate, and I still feel strongly about engaging students immediately, but now I employ a soft start to each class that signals the shift from the hustle-bustle hall to the serene, creative space necessary for writing.” She uses an online stopwatch to alert students to the three minutes they have to “take care of business” or get themselves set up for writing that day. During this time, Liz gives announcements, takes attendance, posts or announces the conferring schedule for the period, and invites other students to make announcements too. Within three minutes, most if not all, students are “settled in” and ready to write.

How much fun would it be to teach a mini-lesson on “morning/evening” routines for writers? What are some possible ways our students might choose to begin their class period? Brew a cup of coffee? Find a seat by the window? Set up their desk space? Plug in their new Aura Cacia diffuser and spread some citrus oil goodness around the classroom (just kidding about that last one… well, sort of)?

What I love about the soft start is that is gives every student a little bit of time to perform their “morning ritual” in whatever way they want. When the timer goes off, students are ready to enter the creative and energetic space of the classroom and write, write, write.

Final Thoughts

On those rare-but-amazing nights when my son decides to quietly play with his firehouse or train table and let me prepare accidentally burn dinner in complete silence, or with the soft murmurings of a podcast in the background, I am reminded what a gift 30 minutes of uninterrupted, sacred time can be…and even more determined to pay this gift forward to my students. I think the Golden Writing Workshop might be a way to do that.

~ Allison

Are you game for trying this alternative flow? I’d love to see how it might help shift your students’ writing habits and routines and ultimately help put more writing time back into your workshop! Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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:

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Organizing Instruction for Effective Feedback: Strategies for Teachers and Students

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As any writing teacher knows, one of the hardest things about teaching writing is getting meaningful feedback to students. And in a writing workshop model where students are constantly writing, the task can be even more daunting.

But as Kelly Gallagher has reminded us, our kids need to write much more than we can grade. If they only write as much as we can grade, then they simply can’t write at the volume they need to in order to improve as writers. How can we organize our writing workshops, especially at the beginning of the school year, to provide more meaningful feedback for the months ahead?  As I thought about this question, I realized that this was ultimately a question about conferring, since talking about our own writing is the most effective way to get feedback. We learn best in the context of our own writing and our learning can be enhanced through meaningful talk. Continue reading

Using Tech to Steal Back Time for Workshop

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A few years ago, the writing in my classroom was floundering. Our department had been aligning curriculum for awhile and, in my rush to get my ducks in a row and “cover” everything, I had begun sacrificing key parts of my instruction. There just wasn’t time to fit it all in. One afternoon during a particularly rushed writing conference, I knew I needed to reorganize and rethink what workshop was going to look like in my classroom.  I couldn’t make major changes to the curriculum, and I couldn’t magically make my class periods longer, so I started experimenting with ways to use technology to steal back some time. What I’ve landed on isn’t perfect, but it’s helped me create a space for the thing I believe helps writers grow the most:  face to face talk about writing.

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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.

Rethinking Writing Genres

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As an English teacher with a minor in History, I’ve often wondered aloud to my colleagues in the Social Studies department about how they are able to continue cramming more and more history into the same size school year as the decades wear on.  Part of the answer, of course, is that what we think of as “modern” or recent history mostly goes unstudied–if it’s still fresh in the collective memory of society, chances are it’s getting only light attention in classrooms.  There are only so many hours in the school year, and the older stuff makes more curricular sense in a lot of ways (A student might absorb some sense of the Post-9/11 era at home or through media.  The significance of the Tennessee Valley Authority?  …Not so much.)

I couldn’t say why this year was the first time I made the connection, but it suddenly occurred to me as my PLC sat down to plan our first unit calendar that the curriculum of English classrooms has begun to mirror the struggles of history classrooms.  For one thing, the Canon that once dominated every English classroom in the land has slowly but surely been chipped away at in favor of at least some balance with more modern and diverse text selections.  The problem is, text selection is only one piece to the puzzle…

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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