This three-part blog series highlights the power of Being a Writer instruction. You can read Part One: Immersion and Drafting here. Part Three will cover assessments in the program.
Years ago, I had the pleasure of teaching Emily in my second-grade classroom. Emily was the daughter of our school secretary. One evening on the way home from school Emily told her mother in great frustration, “Mrs. D wants us to revise our writing. I never know what she means!” I wish I could go back two decades and instruct her in the Being a Writer way of revision. I spent several years telling students to revise their writing and make it better—“making it better” being the only instruction given. I would have taught them how, if only I had known myself.
The support found in Being a Writer’s revision lessons assists teachers in guiding students through this process so that their writing actually changes. Also, as stated in the beginning of Part One of this blog series, students learn how to make positive changes not only in the piece they are working on at the time, but in all of their writing and in all genres. This leads to teaching the writer and not the writing—meaning we should confer in ways that change our students’ thinking and strategies around writing and worry less about making perfect pieces.
During the two weeks of revision found in the fourth-grade fiction unit, teachers are guided explicitly in supporting students to revise for developing plot and characters, elements of fiction, transitional words and phrases, setting, descriptive language, adjectives, and first and third point of view. An example of one of these clearly articulated lessons can be found on the difficult task of developing characters.
Students are asked to reread their draft with sticky notes in hand, asking themselves
- How does your main character act? Find a place in your draft where you describe, or could describe, your main character’s actions. Mark the margin next to that place with a self-stick note and write actions on it.
- What does your main character say or think? Find a place in your draft where you describe, or could describe, your character’s speech or thoughts. Mark the margin next to that place with a self-stick note and write speech or thoughts on it.
(Being a Writer Teacher’s Manual, grade 4, p. 275)
In the margin of page 275, one of the Manual’s numerous and helpful teacher notes states:
You might review that speech between
characters is called dialogue
After spending time on this activity, fourth graders watch as the teacher marks her own piece or the piece provided with sticky notes where she could add speech, action, or thoughts. Next the teacher models revising her text to add speech, action and/or thoughts by using carets to insert text and crossing out parts no longer wanted.
Students are then given time to revise their pieces in the manner their teacher modeled. They are asked to:
- Add actions, thoughts, and speech to your draft to tell about your character.
- Remove the self-stick notes when you finish revising.
- If you finish, work on another piece of writing
(Being a Writer Teacher’s Manual, grade 4, p. 276)
As students work at this revision task, the class assessment note supports the teacher in what to look for as she roves about the classroom providing support as needed:
CLASS ASSESSMENT NOTE
Observe the students and ask yourself:
- Do the students seem engaged in thinking of ways to develop their drafts?
- Are they focusing on developing their characters?
- Do they have ideas for actions, speech, and thoughts they could write to reveal character?
Support any student who is having difficulty by asking her questions such as:
Q What were you thinking about when you marked this place on your draft?
Q What kind of personality does your character have?
Q What could your character do or say at this point to show his or her personality?
(Being a Writer Teacher’s Manual, grade 4, p. 277)
This lesson concludes as all Being a Writer lessons do in a reflection/sharing time asking students to share how they revised their description of their characters and any other creative ways they revised during this lesson.
Prior to this lesson, during the first week of the unit, students worked on using speech to reveal characters, so this is not entirely new to them. In grade 2, students informally explore characters. In grade 3, students work on describing characters and are introduced to using speech, actions, and thoughts to flesh out their characters. This work is followed up in grades 5 and 6 in deeper ways. This spiraling curriculum takes a serious look at growth and development and helps students internalize elements and craft in all genres, taking them into middle school as solid writers who not only write well but love to do so.
Social Emotional Work
During this unit, students confer with their partners on day five of each of five weeks. Questions such as the following guide the reflection after each conference, showing students exactly how to confer with one another in helpful, productive ways:
Q What questions did you ask your partner about your story? What did your partner say?
Q What did you do to show interest in your partner’s writing?
Q What was helpful about the way your partner talked to you today?
Q What problems, if any, did you have during your pair conferences? What will you do to avoid these problems next time?
Q What is one thing your partner told you about your writing?
(Being a Writer Teacher’s Manual, grade 4, pp. 266, 288, 308)
As with all other stages in the writing process, the proofreading lessons support teachers in guiding their students to learn about language skills and conventions as they polish their revised draft for publication. Once again, I think back to my early years as a writer’s workshop teacher, where I would ask students to fix numerous grammar issues that they had very little understanding of. The instructional build in Being a Writer starts with our youngest writers and builds to sixth graders, who not only know many conventions but know exactly when and how to apply them to make their writing shine. I find it so smart that dialogue is taught in the fiction unit as fiction is the most logical place to insert speech. Other skills explicitly taught in this unit are run-on sentences and punctuating for effect. Well-articulated lessons support teachers in guiding students to proofread for these elements.
Students are also supported in editing for spelling using the word bank in their Student Writing Handbook. And once again, the instructional build from kindergarten to grade 6 supports students in growing as mechanically sound writers. I especially appreciate the Skills Practice Notes in the margins of the Teacher’s Manual, which show teachers where extra lessons can be found should students show the need. Here’s one from page 313 of the grade 4 Teacher’s Manual:
Skill Practice Note
For more practice with punctuating
speech, see Lesson 29 in the Skill
Practice Teaching Guide.
Other Skill Practice Notes during the proofreading lessons suggest extra lessons on complete sentences and run-ons. At times teachers have questioned the heavy emphasis on run-ons and sentence fragments. I teach five online courses for teacher recertification; guess what skill teachers are the most lax in? Yes, run-on sentences and fragments. I wish all of my students/teachers had had this heavy emphasis on these two skills in their grade school years!
After proofing their piece to the best of their ability, students are asked to make a final copy, which is shared in the Author’s Chair to celebrate their finished stories and the culmination of yet another successful unit of writing. This process of explicit revisions and proofing in all genres gives skills lessons at appropriate times while supporting students in learning how to do this important work for themselves. Students are provided a real purpose for learning skills: they want to fix their errors because they realize doing so will make their published piece more readable to their audience.