As the school year rolls to a close, and I begin to reflect back on my 7th year of teaching and 3rd year as our Middle School Literacy Coach, the biggest victory I'm celebrating this year is the writing improvement of the 26 6th grade students in my Language Arts classroom. This year we have written persuasive letters, research papers, memoirs, compare and contrast essays, fractured fairy tales, free choice pieces, literary analysis essays, and many writing about reading responses. When I say I have seen improvement of my students as writers, I'm talking about many aspects of writing: initiation of writing, writing collaboration and giving feedback to others, revising and editing writing, organization of writing, expanding ideas, etc. As a literacy coach, I try to teach a section of a different grade level every year so that I continue to understand the literacy continuum and what that means for readers and writers at different writing levels and grade levels. After teaching 8th grade last year, let's just say I was shocked (yes, that's precise word choice) when I received the first piece of writing from my students at the beginning of the school year. I knew we had work to do throughout the school year to prepare them as writers for the next grade level. Are my students perfect writers? Absolutely not. Did some students grow more than others. Of course. However, I can tell you that there are consistent practices I put into place this year as a teacher of writing that I stand behind and deeply believe are connected to student growth as writers. Here they are:
1. Give Choice: My sixth grade students thrived on the opportunity to choose what they wanted to research, the memory they would write their memoir about, what they'd like to persuade someone, etc. It's the difference between, let's do a research project on a scientific phenomenon or let's generate research questions that you've always wondered about and research to find the answer to your top choice. Sometimes we think we're doing what's best for students when we give them parameters with their writing topics. We make excuses like: If I don't give them the topic and choices to pick from, I'd have students that wouldn't be able to pick a topic. Trust me, I've been there, and I've made that excuse prior in my teaching career. What I've learned though is giving options in a set category is different than giving true choice. I've also learned that choice doesn't mean just presenting to students and saying, "Now do whatever you want." In fact, teaching while allowing choice in writing cannot be done without explicit modeling for students of what the writing process looks like when developing a topic idea. When my students did their research projects, we spent several days developing research questions about anything we wondered, doing preliminary research on our top three choices, and gaging audience interest into our topics before selecting our top choice. Notice that I say WE did these things. That's because I went through the process of selecting my top research question as well as I modeled each step for students.
How to fix a Smartboard when it breaks down, All About Spongebob, The Birkie, Sharks and the Food Chain, Whale Watching in Alaska, Technical vs. Flagrant Fouls in the NBA, How the days of the week got their names, all about Macedonia, How birth order affects your personality, Most common types of athletic injuries, etc. You can see that I was anything but bored while reading my students' research papers. There was also not one student in my class who was unable to pick a topic and wasn't excited about his/her topic.
2. Write a Discovery Draft: You may refer to a Discovery Draft as a Rough Draft, Sloppy Copy, etc. Regardless of what you call it, I recommend starting out minilessons on a certain genre of writing as idea development and genre knowledge minilessons, moving into prewriting, and then writing a Discovery Draft relatively early in the writing process. From there, minilessons can be focused on revising the Discovery Draft to make it become the best possible piece of writing before submitting it. The best part about Discovery Drafts though is that I collect and read Discovery Drafts. While I'm reading students' Discovery Drafts I'm planning out what whole class revision minilessons are needed. I'm also planning guided writing groups that are necessary on topics related to the genre of the Discovery Draft, and additionally, I'm planning out which students I need to check in with for writing conferences right away in order to get them on the right track. That is the best thing about having students write Discovery Drafts: it allows you to plan for whole group, small group, and individualized instruction based on exactly what you notice from the student writing.
3. Use Technology: Google Classroom has been the most favorite thing I have incorporated into my classroom this year. For some reason when I ask my students to type their Discovery Drafts or write a reading response as an assignment on Google Classroom they think it's a treat. Some of the most reluctant writers in your classroom are reluctant writers because they have a really hard time with the physical act of letter formation and getting ideas down with a paper and pencil. For some, definitely not all, of these students, sometimes freeing up that physical act of writing and allowing them to type removes the barrier and allow him/her to get ideas down. The other thing I LOVE about Google Classroom is for each assignment I can go in being in "suggestion mode" and suggest changes to students or leave prompting questions to get them to think about ways to revise their writing. Students can also "share" their writing with one another and give feedback in suggestion mode as well. Sometimes when we peer edit, students share their Discovery Drafts with multiple other students, their parents, older siblings, etc. and get a ton of great feedback that they can either accept or deny. Also, on a selfish note, I love Google Classroom because students turn in their assignments or they don't, and there is a folder already created for each new assignment. It is pretty clear cut, and there are no excuses from students on if they turned it in, lost it, etc.
4. Create an Editing Checklist: During the Word Study block on class each day, my students have learned about prefixes, suffixes, spelling patterns, parts of speech, commas and other punctuation, capitalization, etc. Something that worked really well for my class this year is that we created an "Editing Checklist." Once it became apparent that students had taken on a specific concept, I would add it to our class Editing Checklist on the anchor chart. These were the items that students knew they would be help accountable for in their writing. I also prompt my students before they turn in ANY piece of writing, even if it's just an in-class reading response turned in the very same day it's assigned, to use the Editing Checklist prior to turn-in. What I believe the Editing Checklist has done for my students is give them self-monitoring skills, personal accountability, and ownership of what they have learned. It also transfers what students are learning in Word Study and holds them accountable for these concepts in their writing. The Editing Checklist is something that has to be created as a class side-by-side with the learning and referenced constantly as students are writing so that they own it.
5. Write, A Lot: Take an honest look at your classroom and ask yourself when students have opportunities to write. Is it once a week? Are all writing assignments assigned to be completed outside of class time? Do you rush students through the writing process and expect them to turn in finished drafts without minilessons on revising and editing? Are you looking at student writing and planning your instruction BASED OFF OF THE STUDENTS IN YOUR CLASSROOM? (Not the students in your classroom last year, not based on how you've always taught a specific genre of writing, but based on the students who sit before you right now and their strengths and weaknesses as readers and writers. I ask these questions because prior to this school year, I don't think I would have liked my own answers to these questions. The best part of being a reflective practitioner is that you have already accepted that you are NEVER at your destination to being the best possible teacher. You will be on a CONSTANT learning journey. That doesn't mean you shouldn't stop to celebrate your successes and things that have worked along the way. If I want to go out and run a marathon, but I never go out and do training runs prior to the day of the marathon, the odds are not in my favor that I will be successful on marathon day. The same is true for student writers. Without authentic opportunities to write and engage in the writing process, reflect on the writing process, and collaborate with their teacher and classmates throughout the writing process, they will most likely not become the writers we want them to be by the last day of the school year. How much time do students actually get to WRITE during an average week in your classroom? In order for students to become better writers, they need opportunities to write across multiple genres while receiving explicit instruction based on what their teacher notices about them as a writer. Students get better at writing by writing. Crazy, crazy concept!