Translating Writing With Mentors for Elementary and Middle School, Part I

IMG_4824Our bookshelves are jammed full with books meant for elementary and middle school teachers. Donald Graves, Nancie Atwell, Georgia Heard, Katie Wood Ray, Ralph Fletcher, the gals at Two Writing Teachers — these are the teachers who have taught us how to teach writing, who continually push us to reconsider what we think we know about the students we teach.

And they are also the teachers who inspire us to acts of translation — taking strategies designed for children and converting them into strategies for our teenagers.

When teachers ask us if it could work the other way around — could they take the strategies we use with our high school students in Writing With Mentors and use them with their younger students — our answer is a resounding YES!

In our next post, we will walk you through the writing process we outline in Writing With Mentors, and show you how each phase can be adapted for work with younger students. But let’s start at the very beginning — at the foundation. We have a few fundamental beliefs about working with mentor texts that transcend grade level, beliefs that apply to any student writer  in any classroom context:

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The “Data” that Writing Workshop Works

photoI hear twitters and giggles behind me as I hurriedly move from student to student for writing conferences.  I don’t have time to turn around, I think, working my way between desks. They – and I – always get anxious as we wrap up a genre study.  Last-minute questions need answering. Mini-lessons need pointing to. Move, listen, jot,  I urge myself.

The vague beat of bass line pulses through Taylor’s headphones next to me. Reed is daydreaming again.  “Where are you stuck?” I press Damian. But Damian isn’t listening. He isn’t even looking.

His eyes are twinkling, focused above me and behind. I turn slowly to hear Q, a sophomore whom I taught last year, leaning over Nico’s desk. “Where are you going from here?” he asks.

Stupefied, I turn. I watch. It’s not unusual for Q to pop in to visit during his study hall. It is unusual for him to confer with my ninth grade students.

“Tell me more about what you liked about this documentary,” Q whispers. He has moved on to Malik — his fourth writing conference since he walked in the door.

Let’s be honest: I want to cry.

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In ten years, this is the closest I’ve come to the teacher-movie-o-captain-my-captain moment that made me want to be an English teacher in the first place. And it didn’t happen because I am Michelle Pfeiffer. It happened because writing workshop means something to Q.

Writing workshop means something to Q. Q, one of last year’s most reticent writers. Q, who started and restarted and crumpled and began again. Q, who would work diligently through the genre study and sometimes still not turn in a paper.

One of the challenges of writing workshop — one Donald Graves encountered in his initial research in the 1970s — is that its impact is not quantifiable. It’s hard to produce a scatter plot that demonstrates how writing workshop improves student writing. It’s even more difficult to produce a chart that shows how writing workshop impacts the writer himself.

In the absence of numerical data, I look today at Q. He is the walking, conferring testimony that writing workshop works. And while I don’t know the reason that catalyzed Q’s visit today (and I’m pretty sure that it was, at least initially, for a laugh), I can guess at some of the reasons writing workshop matters to Q:

  • Writing workshop creates independent learners.

After a year of sitting in writing workshop, Q learned how to get ideas on paper and how to make them better. He learned to “question-flood” a text (to borrow Kelly Gallagher’s phrase). After seeing it modeled for him, he can do it for himself. Better yet, he has gained the independence that tells him that he can also do it for others.

  • Writing workshop encourages confidence.

Q came in to “help” me with writing conferences because he felt he had something to offer. Writing workshop built that in him. Workshop drew out of Q what I had seen in him from the beginning but what took months and months of writing, conferring, sharing, repeating for him to see it in himself. Now he can pass it on.

  • Most of all, writing workshop is personal.

At it’s core, perhaps the most important aspect of the workshop classroom is that it’s intensely personal. It’s rooted in students’ thoughts and experiences. It validates them. It makes them valuable. It literally brings the teacher to the student. And when we ask, “How’s it going?”, we are often talking about more than just the paper at hand.

Writing workshop builds human connections — it connects students to a topic, it connects teachers to students, it connects students to one another. Today, it connected Q to the freshmen with whom he was conferring. We often talk about building a community of writers, and when I saw Q conferring with Malik today I realized that, for him, that community is broader than last year’s sixth period class. Q is now in a community with all writers.

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The first time I met Q in August of last year, he sat slouched low in his desk, arms crossed. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me, and he didn’t speak except to offer an occasional “pssh”. Today, my students watch me, crouched beside Damian’s desk, watching Q. Mesmerized. Reaching for my phone in an attempt to capture this. Bottle it. Put it in my writer’s notebook.

Writing workshop is a writer-changer. Writing workshop is a kid-changer. This is the only data I need to know that writing workshop works.

– Rebekah