A Collaborative Writing Study That Will Rock Your Students’ World: Children’s Literature

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A page from ENDLESS HOURS by Jarrett W. and Andrea E.

It’s often said that writing is a solitary act. The word writer calls to mind a wooden desk, a few pens, a notebook, and a lone writer hunched over a trashcan of crumpled paper. While certainly romantic, this imagery doesn’t represent the whole truth of the writing life — writers don’t always work alone.

I think of my favorite writing professors in colleague – most of them were married to other artists with whom they frequently collaborated. Professor Spaar’s husband set her poetry to music. Professor Orr’s wife, a visual artist, depicted his poems on oversized tapestries that hung in the McGuffey Art Center. Collaboration, it seemed, was another part of the writing process – a thing writers and artists did in addition to planning and creating and revising and publishing. A place where art both began and ended.

Planning out my year, I knew I had to give my students a taste of this — an opportunity to work with other artists to create something bigger and more meaningful than anything they could do on their own.

The first thing I did was plan a collaborative study of children’s literature. As a young mom, I had already done a lot of the mentor text reading at night with my son! And lucky for me, I happen to work at a school with a very strong art program and wonderful art teachers. I knew at least one of them would be excited to collaborate.

The Study

As in all good writing studies we began with mentor texts. I selected a handful of children’s books that Katie Wood Ray calls odes, or  “books where it’s clear the author has an interest, fascination, love for a topic and crafts a text to help the reader see whatever it is through that lens.” Here are the special books we worked with:

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Our mentor texts

We studied the craft of these books, dreamed up plans for our own stories, and begin writing. Students wrote on everything from guitars to the beach to hiking and biking to tennis to the imagination!

Along the way I taught lessons on clear, engaging titles; creating voice through surprising or invented words; adding rhythm through sentence length; building “word music” with alliteration and other sounds; and using figurative language to show something familiar in a new way. We wrote, studied the mentors, conferenced like crazy, revised, wrote, and finally polished. This process took about three weeks.

The Collaboration

Once the text was set, I sent the writing to my colleague Meredith in the art department to distribute to her artists. We decided to keep the pieces anonymous so the artists would choose projects based on writing they were drawn to – not people or friends they wanted to collaborate with.


JaNiece & Kippy find out they are working together!

The day we brought our artists and writers together to announce the partnerships that had formed out of true respect for the work was as exciting as I imagine any residency match day to be!

Here’s how the rest of the collaboration went:

  • Meeting 1: Students and artists met for 40 minutes to read through the text together and talk about initial ideas
  • Artists spent the following week drawing up several prototypes, based on initial conversations
  • Meeting 2: A week later, students met again to look at prototypes, make suggestions, and ultimately discuss a plan for the illustrations

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    A page from INFINITE OCEAN by Ella T. & Millie B.

  • Artists were given a month to create the illustrations, in addition to other class projects they were working on; my writers moved forward in their next writing study
  • Meeting 3: Everyone gathered together to share artwork and discuss book layout. We shared this layout tool with students to help them decide what content would go on each page. Students then completed this template.
  • Various meetings between writers and artists  – some students met more frequently to discuss illustrations, ask for tweaks, etc.
  • Then, once the illustrations were finished, in one week’s time, my students created and published the final books in iBooks with the help of our technology integrator

You can see samples of the amazing books sprinkled throughout this post!

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A page from WINTERGREEN by Bailey H. and Whitney H.

Would I do this study again?

Without a doubt in my mind, I WILL do this study again! Here’s why:

  • This study brought out the adults in my kids

    This was a surprising find. In the first few days of the study, I thought I had made a mistake in doing this study with my 8th graders. They almost seemed too close to the years of children’s literature themselves to fully appreciate this opportunity. They began to act younger, sillier. But once we really dug into the study (about a week) — and especially when we brought in the Honors artists (juniors) — they transformed into wiser, more mature young writers who had a purpose to carry out. They were forced to rise to the maturity and experience of the best artists in our school. They wanted their writing to be just as amazing. Everything we did from that point on was filled with an incredible sense of pride. And pride can do wonders for students’ writing. It was quite beautiful — watching this evolution take place almost over night.

  • Students became published authors overnight

    iBooks is amazing! With some very basic skills, anyone can publish and sell books with iBooks Author. Students can publish hardcover books OR e-books, so cost is not an issue. They can make their books public or make their books only available to friends, family, and other people with whom they want to share it.

  • This study was the perfect precursor to the study that followed

    Following our children’s literature study, we studied children’s book reviews from The New York Times. Students chose one of the children’s book mentor texts we had been studying over the past month to review. I’m certain their reviews would have been far less informed, confident, and smart without an extensive study of the literature itself — so much so that I’m convinced of this: if we ever want students to write powerful analysis of literature, we have to teach them and inspire them to write that kind of literature first.

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A page from MOUNTAIN CLIMBERS by Liza C. and Millie B.

  • Working with visual artists strengthened the visual content of students’ writing

    Conversations with their artists brought to my writers’ attention areas in their writing that weren’t quite clear enough — parts of their book that needed more focus, more detail, better word choice. Students whose writing lacked clarity and specificity weren’t content with the artists’ prototypes. I would hear them say things like, “That’s not what I wanted,” or “That’s not what I had in mind.” My students literally had to go back to the drawing board to clarify in words what they wanted their artists to visually depict. No lesson I could teach in sensory detail and clarity of writing could match this experience.

In my next several posts, I will share another collaborative writing study I did with my 8th graders this year (nature essays), as well as my tips for creating cross-curricular writing studies, and my thoughts about why this kind of work is important in our classrooms. In the meantime, feel free to share your experiences with collaborative writing studies or other collaborative units that involve writing in your classrooms!

Allison (@allisonmarchett)




Don’t Skimp on Sharing–7 Ways Your Writers Can Share (and Publish!) Their Work

As publication day approaches, I feel a little anxious. No matter how well the study has gone and how strong the products are, I never know quite what to expect of publication day. Because I sometimes used to skip from one study to the next without setting aside time for sharing and publication, I now write “publication day” into my planner and vow to plan an activity that will get the kids sharing their processes and products.

I attribute my anxiety to the students’ anxiety–I know many of them do not want to share, even if they understand the importance of it. Also, publication can feel like a huge task to undertake at the end of a unit of study. But over the years I have come to realize three things. First, every student can share — if only a sentence — and feel good about the experience. Second, publication doesn’t have to be a huge operation. It can be as simple as reading a few favorite lines out loud to the class. And third, sharing is really important. It’s what keeps your workshop from feeling like school. It’s what keeps your writers from feeling like students.

Below I’ve outlined seven sharing and publication opportunities for all writers–the shy, the fearless, and everyone in between.

  1. Favorite Line: Have students choose a favorite line from their piece. Invite all students to form a circle in the middle of the room. Encourage respectful silence. Students will read their lines, one at a time, without pausing in between. Many students appreciate the chance to share a line without feedback. Additionally, the string of favorite lines creates a interesting piece of literature unto itself and provides a nice sampling of topics, genres, and voices.
Students reading favorite lines

Students reading favorite lines

  1. Read Around: Have students bring in one page of their finished piece. This page can showcase several excerpts of the longer piece or a long section of the finished piece. Give students a pad of sticky notes, and invite them to travel around the room, stopping to sit and read each page, leaving sticky note comments (connections, praise, questions) for their peers.
  1. Skype Session: An author’s celebration Skype session with another class across the county, state, country — or world — poses a rewarding experience with minimal effort. All you need to do is find a willing educator-partner and place the call. One year, a group of my creative writing students read their work to a group of fifth graders and vice versa. It was the culmination of a 3-session project in which my students helped fifth graders revise and edit their writing.
  1. Art Show Panels: Art teachers have always understand the importance of displaying student work. I am fortunate to work at a school with art teachers who are extremely generous with their supplies. Consider asking the art teachers at your school if they have any art show panels you can borrow for a week to display student writing. Put the panels in high-traffic areas — the cafeteria or a common gathering space — to maximize sharing power.
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Student Art Panels from deepspacesparkle.com

If you can’t find art panels, consider hanging large pieces of colorful butcher block paper from ceiling to floor as seen in this picture:

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Hanging Paper Displays from methacton.org

  1. Audio Recording or Podcast: After I teach poetry writing, I ask students to choose their best poem and making a voice recording of it. As part of the study, we listen to writers reading their work and share what we notice: how writers put feeling into a reading, how they read poetry not line by line but in meaningful units. Then students post these recordings on their blogs for students, parents, and other teachers to listen to at their convenience. Websites like Audacity and Vocaroo are student (and teacher!) friendly and require minimal set-up.
  1. Digital Media: When studies grow out of real world digital writing, there is bound to be an online platform for publication. For example, when my eighth graders write letters to the editor later this year, they will send their letters into whichever news site they are responding to — www.nytimes.com or richmond.com (Richmond Times-Dispatch). Students who have written critical book reviews can publish their work in the Barnes and Noble or Amazon customer reviews section. Students with a Goodreads account can publish their reviews underneath their rating.
  1. Self-Publishing: Websites like Lulu and Papyrus allow students to self-publish online by creating e-books and then distributing them. With Lulu, students can sell hard cover copies or digital versions for Nook, Kindle, and iBook. Both sites offer resources such as cover design, interior book design, and copyright registration. Self-publication is a sure-fire way to motivate even the most reluctant reader to forge ahead towards publication. Who wouldn’t want to hold in their hands the fruit of their labor — something that will last forever?

These seven opportunities run the gamut from low-tech to high-tech and scary to manageable (for even the shiest of students). Why not let your writers choose the occasion or media that feels most comfortable to them or best suits their piece?

What other publication opportunities do you provide your students? Please leave us a comment or tweet @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1. We’d love to hear from you!

The Fifth Pillar of Writing Workshop

Lucy Calkins says that kids “need to see their work reach other readers.”

This explains why I spent much of winter break planning and writing posts for the new blog, checking blog stats, and refreshing my Twitter feed. Have my words reached anyone? Have they made a difference?

A blogging neophyte, I had almost forgotten how good it feels to know that someone is listening.

Human beings crave attention, hunger for an audience, yearn for feedback… and even though we may bring excitement and passion and craft to writing instruction, when we fail to provide students with opportunities for publication, we are doing them a major disservice. Let’s face it, when your primary audience is your English teacher (and possibly your dad who was kind enough to proofread your paper before post-dinner tv), the experience of writing is going to lack a certain kind of joy and meaning. Real writers need real readers.

As I participated in a tweet chat earlier in the week, watching the notifications column on Tweetdeck flitter with every new connection made, I thought to myself: I want my students to have this experience, to feel this excited about writing. To know the effects of their words on others.

In order for this to happen in our classrooms, we have to give equal weight to all five pillars of writing workshop: choice, active revision, author craft, broader visions of assessment, and publication (The Digital Writing Workshop, Hicks).

Choice lies at the center of our workshop: students discover topics in their notebooks and develop them into fuller pieces. I consistently model active revision and give students two minutes after every quick write to make their writing “a little bit better.” I could survive on a diet of teaching and talking about author craft. I let my students revise all papers until the last day of the school year, demonstrating broader visions of assessment…

But where is the sharing of writing beyond classroom walls? The hope that their words matter to someone? The proverbial retweeting of one another’s work?

While I often end class with a “share out” or golden line activity, or have students “turn and talk” about ideas, or collect favorite pieces for a class anthology at the year’s end, the opportunities my students have for sharing their work with ever-widening audiences are few and far between.

So in an effort to find and create these opportunities for my students, I forge ahead with some resolutions for 2014:

Reaching Readers Within the Classroom

Utilizing writing groups. I want my students to share in groups on a regular basis. The possibilities are limitless: read from a draft, talk about process, brainstorm, troubleshoot, revise collaboratively. As far as a ritual goes, NWP’s bless/press/address provides a good heuristic for helping students talk about their work in meaningful ways. When my students leave me in June, I want them to be able to move forward in their writing without me. So they must begin to do more of the heavy lifting that is conferencing themselves. Additionally, group conferring will build confidence and pave the way for sharing with wider audiences.

Handing over the torch. In the past, I have always found an excuse for why I don’t let students lead workshop: I don’t have a document camera. I don’t want to put students on the spot. I like to know exactly what’s on the menu. I don’t have enough time. Yet I know that I am doing a disservice to my students when I don’t let them take on more of the teaching and coaching of their peers. Conferences provide a perfect opportunity for noticing something a student is doing that is share-worthy (and it’s all share-worthy). These students can then be asked to lead with their process or writing during class the next day.

The future leaders of workshop!

Reaching Readers Beyond the Classroom

Cultivating a digital writing environment (DWE). In his book The Digital Writing Workshop, Troy Hicks notes that the methods teachers have used in the past for helping students share their writing beyond the walls of the classroom are “highly teacher dependent” (80). But with the advent of blogging, Twitter, and other social networking tools, students “now have the ability to publish their work directly to the read/write web” (80). He goes on to remind us that for digital writers “the audience is extended, and students become much more aware, as readers and as writers, of how they both share their work and respond to the work of others” (81). Our DWE will have three parts: blogging, blogfolios, and RSS feed-reading for inspiration. More to come on this experiment in future posts.

Making student processes and experiences available to all. After each genre study, students submit a paper as well as reflection notes. Click here for sample questions. Through these notes, students provide unique insights into the writing process, as well as vivid portraits of themselves as writers. Without a doubt, students would benefit from reading one another’s reflections. I’ve even toyed with the idea of making these reflections available in another medium, in a form that would allow our busy students to listen to one another “on the go” and would showcase the voice of the writer: podcasting! Podcasts could then be linked to finished papers on student blogs.

Until we create and locate opportunities for our writers to reach ever-widening circles of readers, we are only teaching the writing, not the writer. Because a true writer writes to reach.

What opportunities do you provide students to reach authentic audiences? Please respond in the comments section to share your ideas.

~ Allison