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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3 Favorite Writer’s Notebook Prompts

I have a confession. I didn’t always use a writer’s notebook, either as teacher and especially as a student. It’s hard to remember what that was like—Where did I keep all my thoughts? How did I keep track of it all? Writer’s notebooks—or journals—were something I remember learning about in graduate school, and while I tried a bit of it when I first started teaching, I quickly abandoned the practice in favor of the neat, clean handout I could create (and control).

I think it was the open-endedness of the writer’s notebook that intimidated me: What prompts would I use? How would I know what prompts would work? And for what texts? Do I even have time for this?

Fast forward 15+ years, and I can’t imagine teaching without a writer’s notebook. That is not to say that I use them in all my classes. I’m still working on using them more deliberately and consistently in my literature-based courses. But writing? How do you teach writing without a writer’s notebook? I can’t imagine. Continue reading

Structure as Mentor Text: How Can We Organize Ideas Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay?

A few weeks ago, I came across a post on the Teaching and Learning Forum on the NCTE website. The conversation centered around the usefulness—or the lack of usefulness—of the five-paragraph essay. Comments varied, with many teachers chiming in with their thoughts, both fervently for and against the form.

I spent the first five years of my career teaching 9th and 10th grade. During that time, I focused my writing instruction on the five-paragraph essay. And I was good at it. I mean, really good at it. My students, through much practice, could put together a thesis statement with three reasons, write the three body paragraphs with corresponding topic sentences, and a conclusion which restated their main ideas (in case those ideas weren’t already clear).

Not surprisingly, years later when I started teaching AP Lang, my juniors walked into my classroom in September unsure how to write an essay using any structure other than the five-paragraph form. Students’ first assignment is an “essay of introduction,” which they read to the class during the first week of school. I deliberately withhold any directions regarding structure, length, or format. How students respond can be quite telling. Over the years, I’ve observed two general outcomes: 1) students either wrote in the tried-and-true five-paragraph essay, or 2) students wrote with little attention to structure and turned in the dreaded one-long-paragraph essay. In the latter case, it seems that without being told how many paragraphs to write, students weren’t quite sure how to use a thoughtful paragraph break.

Over the course of the year, however, my students learn many other methods for organization. We study the classical Aristotelian structure—introduction, narration, confirmation, refutation, and conclusion—as well as the Rogerian approach. After reading and studying various real-world mentor texts, students begin to read like writers and write like readers.

But this year, I think I may have stumbled upon an approach to rule them all.  Continue reading