The strange quiet that envelops my classroom is astounding today. The normal whispers, hustle and bustle, shifts and blank stares have been replaced. Silence, concentrated, thick silence fills my ears, so absolute you can almost touch it; my students are in the writing zone. I want to run around the room and high five them all.
I wish this was my doing. I wish this awesome moment was because of some grand writing prompt or assignment I had dreamed up, but the truth is; its because of the students and their honest conversation. This moment was made because of the students and their audacity to share everything they hate about writing. Everything that has made them dislike something that they will need as a skill for the rest of their lives.
What they hate should not come as a surprise; being told what to write, being told to share with other peers, being told to present it to the class, being told how much to write in a day, and being told how to write it. All things I have done to students, all things that I still have to do to students to follow my curriculum. Yet, their honest answers made me think too. How could writing be given back to them as a process they have control over? How could we fit our standards around re-igniting a love of writing? What could I do to change this dire situation? Behold a few ideas currently working in my 7th grade classroom.
Know your purpose. While the purpose of writing is often something that is beyond our control because of predetermined curriculum, in this case, I was able to challenge the students to master a standard rather than master a writing task. The students have been asked to master writing a narrative using vivid word choice and strong organization. Think of all the possibilities that opens up for students! So if you have an opportunity to just have students write, embrace it. Challenge them to show you mastery in a way that works for them. They get that they have to learn how to write a variety of ways, but we have to take care of their inner writer as well. Dont let that get lost in our eagerness to create stronger writers.
Give them control of the product. The final product needs to be their best work to show that they have mastered the standard but what they create it up to them. It has to be complete, it has to have a beginning, middle, and end and it has to be their best work. I have students working on any type of standard story imaginable, but I also have students writing a collection of short stories, a story told in verse, several graphic novels, fan fiction, and even students extending books they have read. The point is; having full choice within the narrative genre is inspiring my students to write, even getting some excited to come to class. This is the first time I have had kids being upset that the bell rang because writing was over.
Give them control of how. Some students are natural pencil writers, while other prefer a computer. I even have a student typing their story on their phone because that is what they prefer. When possible, allow students to choose how they write. We sometimes get so caught up in thinking we know how to best write that we forget that even professional writers all draft in different ways. If we want students to be writers then they need an opportunity to discover their own method.
Give them uninterrupted time. I had been giving my students some time a few times a week to just free write, but they expressed their frustration with having to constantly shift focus. Thursdays are now designated our write-in days and they get at least 40 minutes to just write. Not listen to me. Not do an exercise, just write. We cover everything else we have to cover Monday through Wednesday. Friday is reserved for reading.
Make the mini-lesson truly mini. If the whole class does need a lesson, keep it under 5 minutes; short and to the point. Otherwise reserve longer lessons for a mini-group since chances are that most students don’t need all of that support any way. Ẃalk around your room and observe, assess while you speak and make groups in your head as you move. If 5 kids need help with something, pull them together and get to the point. What do you see that needs work and how can they fix it. Then let them get back to writing, check in the next day if needed.
Allow for talk. It was incredible to see the writing community that has been popping up with students sharing ideas, asking for comments, and also just writing side by side. Students knew to keep voices to a whisper to not disturb the hush, I didn’t have to be the only sounding board.
Allow for thinking. My own hatred of writing came from being asked to write on demand. I needed time to find inspiration, time to think. So allow time for just staring into space and daydreaming, check in with students, help them brainstorm if they want your help, but give them time for their imagination to take over. We are always in such a rush; most of us would not write well under the same conditions we tend to impose on our students.
Set up appointments to ask what they need. I plan on pulling students for mini one-on-one conferences starting next week and I can’t wait. This will be my chance to ask them what they think they need, not what I think they need. This is to help students take control over their own writing journey, not just be led by me.
Finally, allow for space. Many of my students prefer to sit at a desk when they write but others like laying on the floor, sitting in corners, or even in the window perch. Again, we are trying to cultivate actual writers in here, they should be comfortable.
If you are wondering how you can create passionate writers; ask your students. What would they need to re-ignite or maintain their love of writing? What can be changed? Find out what you have control over, take some time to have the conversation, and then plan for the future. Please share your ideas.
I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark, who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade. Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day. The second edition of my first book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” will be published by Routledge in the fall. Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press. Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.