Writing Explorers: 4 Ideas for Approaching Writing as Discovery in Your Class Tomorrow

Have you read Donald Murray?

In my career, I had read a lot about Donald Murray. Tons that was inspired by Donald Murray. Oodles that has flowed out of the legacy of Donald Murray, but I’m ashamed to say that until the last month, I had never read the man himself. Until Penny Kittle told me to. And, as you all know by now, I will do anything Penny Kittle says.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I’ve read three books in about four weeks. My mind is blown. I am bathing in his words — words that are as fresh and startling today as they were 45 years ago when he first advocated for a better way to teach writing.  Make yourself a New Year’s teaching resolution — go to the source. Read Donald Murray.

Beyond his trailblazing as a teacher of writing, Donald Murray consistently amazes me with the direct simplicity of his message. He articulates truths that I haven’t articulated for myself and much less for my students. But truths that unlock the mystery of the puzzle that is writing. Among many treasures, Murray reminded me that a writer rarely know what she wants to say and then sits down to write. Rather, the process of writing teaches the writer what he wants to say:

“For most writers the act of putting words on paper is not the recording of a discovery but the very act of exploration itself.”

-“The Explorers of Inner Space”, 1969

While this is something I have known and felt as a writer, it isn’t something I have ever offered to my students. At least not in so many words. And what encouragement this might be for them! How many of my students would be able to dive into the deep end of their thinking if they believed that they didn’t need to know what they wanted to say first? If they felt free to “explore the constellations and galaxies which lie unseen within [them] waiting to be mapped with [their] own words”?

It’s a beautiful idea.

So how do we bring this down to the ground of our classrooms? How can we help our students understand that writing is discovery in a way that changes their writing? Here are four possibilities.
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Writing Conference Road-Show (or Small Conferences with Big Payouts)

Writing conferences used to scare me. Big time. In fact, for me, it was the most-dreaded element of reading and writing workshop. How would I even start? What would I say if the student had a question I couldn’t easily answer? Would the other students really be working while I moved around the room discussing individual drafts?

FullSizeRender-9Gentle reader, I am here to tell you that practice makes perfect.

It has taken me nearly five years of practice. Along the way there have been plenty of awkward conferences and ineffective conferences and mental scrambling to try to find the right solution to a writer’s problems. There were times when I left a conference simply saying, “I don’t know, but I’m going to think about it and try to come up with a solution for the next time I see you.”

But I kept at it, and I finally feel truly confident in our daily writing conferences.

Still,  I had never  tackled a larger portfolio conference — a conversation about the body of a students’ writing so far this year.  This is how our Patron Saint of Writing Workshop, Nancie Atwell, assesses student work and helps writers make goals as they move forward.  She says that if we teach writing and reading in a workshop, we “have to figure out how to put students’ appraisals of their work at the heart of the evaluation process. Otherwise, assessment becomes a betrayal of the workshop” (Atwell 2014, p. 282)

Uh oh. I have a lot of room to grow. Feeling that nag  of something you know you should do (but don’t want to),  I dove in (which I find to be the only way to actually try anything in workshop).

I had a few goals as I set out: Continue reading

Showing-Versus-Telling & The Walking Dead

The first twenty minutes of the pilot episode of The Walking Dead is virtually silent. I hadn’t remembered that when, out of desperation and end-of-October exhaustion, I agreed to show the episode to my ninth graders on Halloween. They begged. I was weak. In a lame effort to sound educational, I grasped wildly for one of our recent mini-lessons.

“As we watch The Walking Dead, think about what we know about the world that we aren’t explicitly told. In other words, think about where the show is showing and not telling.”

The Problem

“Showing versus telling” is my instructional arch-nemesis. I teach it every year. I have some really good mini-lessons — or so I think. And still, every year, this is one of the skills that a chunk of my students have the hardest time mastering. This baffles me. It becomes a story of the writerly haves-and-have-nots, with some students mastering the skill instantly, innately.

If a student comes to my class without being an avid reader or without being a confident writer, the student still has years of story under their belt. On some level, they know that stories have action and dialogue and details. They can pick it out when they see it. They can talk about it. Yet, when it comes to translating this into their own writing, I always have the other 30% students who deeply struggle to show — and not tell — on their own.

I’ve modeled until my hands hurt. We’ve practiced: Tell me about your ride to school this morning. Now, show me your ride to school this morning. We have identified exemplars in our independent reading books. But nothing I have tried has met with more than about 70% success.

Until I gave up trying and showed an episode of a TV show.

Read the rest of this post at Talks with Teachers! 

        twd1

– Rebekah