I received this note in a Facebook message: I had big changes in my classroom assignment this year… moved from 2nd grade to 5th… turns out… after getting there I got the assignment of teaching writing to the entire 5th grade…. not what I really signed up for…. I have not only NEVER formally taught writing (as a process) beyond complete sentences… and moving toward paragraphs…. but I never even had a class in in it in college….. any suggestions on where to start and where to go with it? I will have 4 units of 12 days each during the year with each of the 5th grade classes….. suggestions?
Say you had to analyze the tone, what adjective would you use? concerned? riled? desperate? beseeching?
Let’s look at the clues: “big changes,” “turns out,” “entire,” “not what I really signed up for,” “NEVER,” and all those “…..”
I could write an entire post on why the kind of changes this teacher has had thrust upon her is so disrespectful to her as an educator, as a professional. But I won’t. I just needed to say that.
Of course, I answered, and I will offer support and help any way I can. You would, too.
Maybe others have similar experiences and are new at teaching writing. Here’s how I answered my friend:
Yes, I have suggestions! Haha. Tons of them. You know I teach AP Language and Composition, right? That’s juniors in high school, but good writing is good writing. Your instruction with your 5th graders can look very similar to mine. (And I hope it will.)
Here’s the non-negotiables in my writing class:
Writer’s notebooks. I use the black composition notebooks. Students cover them, personalize them, and make them mean something other than just a notebook for school. We write in them every day as a way to explore our thinking. I might give a prompt, or read a poem, or watch a news clip…whatever, and then I ask students to think and respond. These quickwrites become places to mine for ideas for topics we might develop into more formal pieces. Writer’s notebooks are required and loved in writing classes where students have choice and autonomy, two important components of effective writing instruction.
Mentor Texts. Mentors are texts that look like the writing I want students to practice. For example, if we are writing narrative, I want students to read good narrative writing. If we are writing book reviews, we need to study the structure of book reviews, etc. The authors of these mentors become our “writing coaches.” We study the moves the writers make, and then we try to make those moves in our own writing. Students learn from good models. They do not learn from poor, fix-the-grammar-and-punctuation worksheets or anything of that ilk. Research on that is plentiful.
Choice. When students have choice in the topics they write about, they are more apt to take ownership and care about their writing. Just like you and me — we do not want told what books we have to read, TV shows we have to watch, or essays we must write that show we learned something from pd. Topics matter so much to the effort students will put into their writing. We have to let students choose what they want to spend their time focusing on. Sometimes we need to nudge them. Sometimes we need to help them narrow the topic. But they need to always have a choice if we want to really teach them anything about writing. Save the formal test-like prompts for practice after students learn how to mine for ideas and develop those ideas in writing they want to do. Test writing can serve as a genre in itself later.
Time. Schedule time within the school day for kids to write. Let them know you are there to help. When they write with us, 1) we know they are writing and not a friend or parent, 2) we see their process and know where the struggles are.
Conferences. Meet with writers throughout the writing process, beginning, middle, and end. Ask questions that provoke their thinking. Let them talk about their ideas. Avoid giving advice, rather validate the students’ ideas and speak to them as writers. (Focus on the writer and his needs over the writing and what it needs — avoid the red pen at all costs.)
Modeling. Write in front of your students. This is probably the most effective instructional tool you have. Students need to see the messiness of the writing process. They need to know it is hard — even for a teacher. I try to write every assignment I ask my students to write. I start writing in front of them and let them see my thinking, my errors, my revision, my re-organization, all of it. Too many student writers think they should be able to write well in a one shot in the dark deal. That’s why they refuse to revise. We have to show them that writing is difficult and confusing and time consuming. We have to give them opportunities to see the struggle, so we can convince them that the work is worth it when we’ve finally been able to say what we want and need to say in our writing.
Talking. “Writing floats on a sea of talk,” I heard Penny Kittle say. Talk with students about their ideas, their process, their everything concerning writing. Encourage them to talk with one another. Talk and Write. Read and Talk and Write. Talking works to stimulate thinking and provoke the pen to action.
Celebrating. Feedback matters, even at the sentence level. Invite students to share their writing. This can be a sentence or a complete piece. Celebrating good writing along the way is a more effective feedback tool than a grade at the end of publication. Whips Around the Room that invite all students to share a favorite sentence or passage, Author’s Chairs that invite students to read a best draft, Posting on Blogs and inviting students to read one another’s work and leave comments, are all ways to celebrate writing — and help students understand the importance of audience.
Some of my favorite RESOURCES:
National Writing Project — Resources page
Read Write Reflect — Katherine Sokolowski’s blog — the reflective practices inside a 5th grade classroom
The Nerdy Book Club — a community of readers (and teachers of readers) — read about books, reading, writing, and more!
Two Writing Teachers blog — more tips on teaching young writers that you can digest in one sitting
Moving Writers blog — Rachel and Allison show they are the best mentor text finders on the planet
And of course, my own blog: Three Teachers Talk where we write about Readers and Writers Workshop
BOOKS you will consider life savers:
In the Middle by Nancie Atwell
Read Write Teach by Linda Reif
Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle
And I haven’t read this one yet, but who doesn’t want to be unstoppable? The Unstoppable Writing Teacher by Colleen Cruz
I imagine you are overwhelmed. No, I cannot really imagine. I do know that you are smart though, and you love children and teaching. You will do a wonderful job inspiring students to write — that is half the battle.
The learning comes from doing. Get your students writing. The more they write the better they will write. I see it every year.
Did I leave anything out? What advice do you have for this emerging writing teacher?
©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015