Just Write: It’ll Be OkApril 5, 2018
BY: LIZ KEIPER
This year, one of my teacher-goals was to get my students to write more. If you’re anything like past-self me, when you’re in the middle of a novel unit, you get so wrapped up in during-reading and between-reading activities that you wake up one morning and say, “Oh no, my kids haven’t done any sustained writing in weeks!” As English teachers, we teach a medley of so many different skills, and it can be hard to make sure that our students are getting a balanced diet of instruction in reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
I decided that this year, my normal curriculum work would only take place on Tuesday through Friday and that Mondays would alternate between choice independent reading and writing. This has worked better in my classroom than I could have imagined, and I feel like my students are getting a more thorough and consistent writing education than my students have in past years.
As for the structure of these Writing Mondays, I wanted to attain several goals:
- I wanted to increase writing fluency. So many of my students in the past, especially my on-grade students, have struggled with writing simply because they struggled with the concept of adding enough content to their writing. They would “run out of things to say” or just have trouble taking thoughts and expressing them in writing.
- I wanted to increase writing consistency. I had this theory that if students got used to writing more often, then they would feel more comfortable with it.
- I wanted to increase writing confidence. I have felt that many of my students just don’t see themselves as writers and that their own perception of themselves was one of their biggest blocks to writing.
- I wanted to increase writing quality. I decided that I was going to have students first read and analyze model pieces of writing, read a model written by me or another “writing mimicker,” and then write their own piece based on these exemplars.
- I wanted to increase their writing courage. I wanted them to try new styles of writing and not be incapacitated by their fear of incorrect spelling or grammar, so I decided that I was not going to grade these pieces with a fine-tooth comb for those elements.
- I wanted to increase positive attributions in my students towards writing. I’ve seen that many students come into my class disliking or openly hating writing because they see it as boring. They’ve been fed a steady diet of five paragraph essays on the legal smoking age, recycling, and dress code, and they see the task of writing as simply a game of trying to spin as many sentences as they can about a topic they don’t care about. I wanted to show them that they could write about their passions and that writing could be AWESOME.
Because of my goals for these particular assignments, Writing Monday pieces are often not organized as five-paragraph essays, or even really organized as standard “essays” at all. I still do have my students write essays, but not on Mondays—Writing Mondays are holy and set apart as non-essay writing to achieve a purpose distinct from the purpose of essay writing.
At the beginning of the year, I had each of my students purchase a composition notebook. I keep these notebooks in bins at the front of my classroom. Even though at times, students need to take their notebooks home and finish these writing pieces outside of class, I have a surprisingly high number of notebooks that have withstood the mythic, timeless struggle between freshmen and the deep, dark black hole that is their backpacks from which much school work never emerges again. I think that this is because for the majority of its life, the notebook lives in my classroom rather than in the backpack.
Because I wanted my students to focus these writing pieces on subjects that they liked and were confident in communicating about, I had my students on the first page of their notebooks fill a page with their “Writing Territories.” This was to be a list of topics that they were interested in or knew information about so that if they needed inspiration for a writing topic throughout the year, they could turn to that page. While essay-writing for class is still centered around literary analysis, I wanted Writing Mondays to be centered around topics that were more familiar and comfortable for my students.
For the structure of these writing pieces, I now have a system that has been working well this year. I start by reading an exemplar piece of writing with my students and briefly analyzing it for style. What is the author doing well that makes this writing good? I usually then write my own model piece mimicking the style or structure of the original. This shows my students how they can use stylistic concepts from the original but make the content of the writing unique to their own interests. Then, I give the students the rest of the class period to write.
I have relied heavily this year on ideas from Write Like This by Kelly Gallagher. In this book, Gallagher also set up writing workshops for his students in which he focused on non-essay type writing, and he includes a plethora of examples and ideas in his book.
However, I have also pulled together my own ideas from other pieces of writing that I have encountered. I have had my students imitate the vignette “My Name” from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, as well as “How to Operate the Shower Curtain” by Ian Frazier, “Leaflets” from All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, various letters on the Dear Future Me website, and a personality analysis that I wrote about in an earlier blog post. Over the past few weeks, I have been helping my newspaper students compile artifacts for a special “Revolution” edition of our school paper centered around the recent West Virginia teacher strike and the national student walk-out, and I pitched in to the team effort by writing a fun BuzzFeed-style article on top Revolution-Inspired Songs which I plan to use as a model for my students this week in writing their own BuzzFeed articles.
In general, I have seen an increase in my students this year in fluency, consistency, confidence, quality, courage, and attribution regarding their writing. Because Writing Mondays are a part of the class flow, they are used to spending the better part of a class period crafting a piece. They are used to composing a piece of writing that isn’t confined to five paragraphs and is more nuanced than a typical essay. They are used to being allowed to own their writing. I have consistently gotten paragraphs out of students who at the beginning of the year griped about stringing sentences together.
One of the best ways to stay in tip-top writing shape is by simply consistently writing. It’s exciting to see my students flex their writing-muscles after almost a year of “conditioning.”
Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.
WVCTE is wondering…
- How do you meet some of the same writing goals mentioned by the author, such as increasing fluency, consistency, confidence, quality, courage, and attribution in your classroom?
- What are some of your favorite mentor texts or mini-lesson writing assignments?
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