This three-part blog series will highlight the power of Being a Writer instruction. Part One: Immersion and Drafting, Part Two: Revision, Proofreading, and Publishing, and Part Three: Assessments in the Program
Several years ago, Tori, one of my precious sixth graders, wrote the following introduction to a piece in the “drafting and immersion” stage of the personal narrative unit:
Cleaning, dusting, frantickling organizing. I remember many years ago how my mom, would look at us, (and you could see there was joy fulfilling her heart) that our grandparents were coming in about a week or so.
After exploring several other ideas, Tori chose this piece to complete, revise, and publish. Looking closely at the revised introduction below one can see that in the process of revising and editing, Tori has learned a lot about effective writing: adding dialogue at just the right place; including sensory details that allow the reader to hear, see, and understand the emotion underlying what is happening in the piece; choosing strong verbs; showing how a character feels rather than telling; and proofreading for spelling and grammar. Tori can take all that she has learned into high school, college, and beyond.
Cleaning, dusting, frantically organizing. I remember many years ago how my mom would signal us to the kitchen. I can still hear our little feet scurrying across the floor with glass rattling in the background. “Grandma and Grandpa are coming this week!”
The beautiful aspect of the instruction is that Tori herself enjoyed the process—experimenting with several ideas, choosing a piece to take to completion, and working hard to edit and proofread. Just as important, her teacher felt successful and empowered taking Tori and her classmates through this process with the guidance provided in the Being a Writer Teacher’s Manual.
This cycle of instruction is applied in all of the Being a Writer units, each of which focuses on a specific genre. Students write several drafts in the first two to three weeks of the unit and then spend a week developing one piece they’ve selected to publish. The revised piece is then proofread and published, usually from the Author’s Chair. Grammar and conventions instruction is integrated into the revision and proofreading weeks. When I first used this type of writing instruction, I struggled with not asking students to finish every piece they started. I erroneously believed that the writing process was a tight sequence of planning, drafting, revising, editing/proofing, and publishing. I have since grown to appreciate that a “real” writer does much experimenting with ideas before choosing a piece to take to publication. In other words, an author may draft several pieces for a particular writing purpose before choosing to complete only one. Multiple drafts are part of a true writing process.
During the drafting and immersion stage of a Being a Writer unit, students learn how to write by exploring high-quality mentor texts. Lessons help students uncover how the authors of these texts write and the characteristics of each genre. The students try out these elements in their own rough drafts. They feel free to experiment, because they know that their drafts are just that—drafts—that will not be judged. In other words, they are allowed to freely write and learn how to write from real writing.
For example, in the grade 3 personal narrative unit the teacher reads aloud several texts, including My Father’s Hands by Joanne Ryder and Grandma’s Records by Eric Velasquez, as well as personal narratives written by actual children. They discuss sensory details, using temporal words/phrases to signal sequence, and strong leads and endings. One lesson asks students to focus on identifying one aspect of a loved one’s physical being, such as their hands. They are asked to use sensory details in their description, which teaches young writers how to observe the world using all five senses. A lesson based on Child Times by Eloise Greenfield helps students see how temporal words and phrases can be used to move a story along.
When faced with a blank sheet of paper, children often say they can’t think of anything to write. Sometimes, simply reading an anchor text and asking students to think about ways the text reminds them of their own lives helps students find topics they hadn’t realized were important to them. For example, Brandon, who struggled to find topics early in the year and often refused to write, stated, “I am not a writer. I can’t write. I hate writing.” In the paragraph below, he explored a memory he had long forgotten and recalled only after hearing the anchor text Weird Parents by Audrey Wood. Although in the end he didn’t choose to take this piece to publication, the fact that he wrote this much in a five-minute quick write spurred Brandon to realize that he was a “real” writer who could come up with his own topics and could indeed write voraciously on his topics.
My mom and dad can be embarrassing sometimes my mom when she is talking to someone will say a lot of embarrassing things like when we were standing in line for the check out in Walmart my mom saw a friend of hers and they got on the subject of talking about kids. My mom started to say things about me wearing blue’s clue’s underwear and some other extremely embarrassing stuff. While this was going on my dad was saying hey go ask out that girl over there so I told him no dad so then he called that girl over and said do you want to go out with my son. So I told him dad be quiet and the girl walked away and rolled her eyes. That was an embarrassing day but I know my parents love me.
What helped me as the teacher to be comfortable allowing Brandon to write in this run-on, fast and furious way of letting the ideas flow, was that I knew I would be able to use his chosen piece as a basis for craft and convention lessons. I knew that this was the time to help Brandon discover his intrinsic motivation to write, which gave me the confidence to whisper in his ear, “I can’t believe you wrote this in five minutes. It is beautiful. Keep it up!” These moves freed Brandon to see himself as a writer and engage willingly in the lessons throughout the rest of the year. Brandon’s engagement freed me up to teach him to write well.
Being a Writer anchor texts carefully focus students’ attention so that they can come up with a variety of ideas. The grade 3 personal narrative unit, for example, asks students to write about their homes, single incidents from their lives, first days of school, experiences with loved ones, situations in which they have learned and changed, and persevering through challenges. Each anchor text prompts students to see a connection to their own lives. For instance, before the teacher reads an essay by a ten-year-old child provided in the Teacher’s Manual, they are directed to:
Explain that today you will read another personal narrative, “Believing in
Myself,” by a ten year old named Joshua. In it, he describes a challenge
he faces and how he overcomes it. Encourage the students to think, as
they listen, about how they might write about their own challenges.
(Grade 3 Teacher’s Manual, page 150)
The discussions lead students to see that they do have rich experiences to write about and share. They experience that to be human means we have something important to say.
Writing a personal narrative helps students examine themselves and the world in deep and powerful ways, rather than simply recount an event. The writing process leads the student to do much critical thinking around a topic that is intrinsically motivating as well as comfortable: him- or herself.
During each Being a Writer unit, students work with the same partner, learning to share their own work and show interest in and provide feedback on their partner’s writing. Social and emotional skills such as giving feedback in helpful, respectful ways and listening carefully are explicitly taught so that students can confer with one another in powerful and positive ways. I remember that when I first started pair conferring, I would be frustrated that no child’s writing actually changed after the conversations. I realize now that I did not teach students how to confer; I simply expected them to do so. As early as kindergarten, Being a Writer starts teaching the young writers to use the prompts, “I found out…” and “I want to know…” when they respond to their partner’s writing. The conferring instruction builds in developmentally appropriate ways so that by the time they are in grade 3, students can become a true community of learners; when there are 20 students in the room, there should be 21 writing teachers.