Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Unleashing the Writer Within

One of my major classroom goals this year is to empower my students in writing, to free their inner writer. 

In order to achieve this goal, I am adjusting course and pushing my own writing instruction further. My effort is to strike a balance between teaching structures and craft in writing and teaching expression and purpose in writing. My first instructional shift was to devote a length of time at the start of the year to the purpose of writers' notebooks. Considering that I may have historically rushed students through the stage of "owning" their notebooks and written content, I wanted to slow down this year, modeling and guiding students to curate ideas in their notebooks.

Our year of writers' workshop kicked off with a directive the students were unaccustomed to when I told them to make a mess. Then, in the days of "mess-making" that followed, I observed the students' daily work. I sampled the crowd some days, recording the frequency in which I saw long, voluminous writing, alternative experiments to log writing ideas, and/or strategies to generate writing.

Based on the samples and frequency in which they appeared (or did not appear) in the students' notebooks, I designed a sequence of mini-lessons to highlight lesser seen methods of generating ideas. This allowed me to influence students more directly and facilitate guided practice, exposing students to more available options for bringing about writing. 

Plenty of "what ifs" to explore
Over the last two weeks, pages of brand-new composition notebooks have become collections of

  • sketches, drawings, and diagrams
  • lists (related to firsts, lasts, people, places, objects, emotions)
  • maps of familiar places
  • questions and wonders
  • three-column lists (borrowed from a Jo Knowles' writing talk).

Not all students tried all of the strategies modeled during the independent portion of the workshop. I decided that was ok for this particular unit, especially since my primary goal was to help students get in touch with their inner writer-voice. An attempt at each was all I required, and the workshop practice qualified as making an attempt.

Left: Map of a familiar place;
Right: List making with firsts, lasts, etc.
In the tail-end of this unit, I've been conferencing with students to listen to their preferred strategies and what writing they have unearthed from within. Many have been joyful and proud in sharing the different "possibilities" in their notebooks. Even my most reluctant writers have been able to name something they tried that felt like it was working. 

In the first month of school, this group of students has produced more writing than the previous years' classes. Sure, there is never a pure study, and I know there are all kinds of variables at play, but easing up on the pressure of expectations and validating students' effort and imperfection seems to have resulted in volume writing and improved engagement. My deliberate decision to coax out the writer within has reinforced the idea that all students can write, and every written attempt has value.

What are some alternative strategies for generating writing that you model/facilitate for students?

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