I have been thinking a lot about writing, about all of the emotions tied in with what we write, with the bravado and the behavior that sometimes plays out when we ask kids, and at times even adults, to write. The armor. The resistance. The change. The hope. But only for a moment.
I have been thinking a lot about writing because it is something I discuss often with other adults when we share the things we wish we would have known a long time ago, the things we are just discovering. The things we wish we could figure out.
I have been thinking a lot about how despite having spent nearly seven weeks with these new students, I still feel I don’t know them well. I know snippets, small moments, glimpses of their story, but not enough, not now, not yet. How when we discuss their writing they sometimes don’t have the words to express what they need, or the trust. How we have all of these conversations about their writing but what they really are about is their identity, how they see themselves in the world. How they want the world to view them.
And I want to remember it all but I can’t. And I want to remember it all but I won’t, despite trying. Because while I am 100% focused in the moment, I often forget the details after they walk away because in front of me is a new person who needs my undivided attention, who deserves all of me.
So in order to help me remember, inspired by the discussions I am having with other adults and the kids themselves, I created a writing conference sheet. A simple sheet that perhaps will help me center my work a little more in order to be able to pick up the thread the next time we discuss their writing. A simple sheet that will allow me to gather some of the many thoughts kids share with me as I get to know them and help me consider how I can help them grow. Perhaps you would like to use it as well?
A simple explanation of the first few boxes follows…
The top box is for the first time I meet with them after they have filled in their writing survey.
Writing + = What do they like about writing
Writing – = What do they not like
Goal = The goal they are currently working on as a writer
Why = What made them set this goal
Last year = What was their experience last year with writing and how did they feel about writing?
You as a writer = How do they view themselves as a writer
Hard about writing = What do they still find hard about writing
The second box is for each time we confer after that about their writing and so it allows me to record what we discussed – I always ask students to lead the conversation – as well as what their challenge and progress has been. Then I wanted space to reflect on what I see as their strengths and goals areas for the current piece, as well as writing overall.
I am starting to use it this week and I cannot wait to see how it will deepen the conversations we have about their writing and how it will help me be a better teacher of writing for them. Isn’t that what so much of teaching is really about?
One of the ideas mentioned in the book briefly was the idea of using writing circles, think lit circles but for writing, with students in order for them to gain a more long-term writing community, as well as a more developed relationship to their own role as writers. I loved the idea immediately and wanted to make it work for our kids., as having my own writing circle of trusted peers has helped me tremendously whenever I write books.
To start us off for the year, we discussed positive and negative aspects of writing by brainstorming. The question was based off of the work we have done with reading and followed the same format, rather than post-its, though, they did it in their writer’s notebook on a t-chart and then created a group response at their table. We then discussed as a class and created our writing rights together. These now hang in our room as a reminder of the type of writing experiences we would like to have.
Then I wanted to introduce the concept of writing circles to students using something I knew they were familiar with; lit cirlces. How are writing circles like literature circles? I showed my students this side-by-side comparison to help them get thinking about the potential process and benefits waiting for them.
So first, what are the components of our writing circles?
Students choose peers to be in their writing circle – 3 to 4 people through an interview.
They write together, physically, as well as at times, actually in the same project.
They can write on the same topic but in different formats.
They share their work, discuss and encourage each other.
They serve as editors for each other providing critical and constructive feedback.
They serve as long-term writing partners and will, hopefully, develop further skills from each other, as well as develop a more natural writing relationship.
They build accountability toward the group and the group is an immediate circle to turn to for help.
The first step toward establishing their writing circles was to reflect on their own writing identity once more – see the screenshot below. This was a continuation of the discussions we have had where they have reflected on how writing intersect with them as human beings, that started with their writing survey for the year.
After they had reflected, they then interviewed seven other people in order to hear more about their writing identity. This was on the same sheet and looked like this – very similar on purpose. To see the full survey, go here.
Why seven? I wanted them go beyond their friend zone and knew that for some that would take a few people. Once they had interviewed seven people, I then asked them to reflect on the following questions.
Looking at other people’s habits, who may strengthen your skills as a writer? Note, these are people who have DIFFERENT strengths than you.
Looking at other people’s habits, who may not be a good fit for you because you share the same areas of growth or skills.
Looking at other people’s habits, who may you help grow as a writer? Compare your marked areas of strength to theirs.
Choose only three peers who you think may be a good fit and who will help you grow as a writer. Go outside of your comfort zone if it will help you grow.
If you want, you can add peers who you do not think will be a good fit, this is only for strong reasons, not to list all of the people you don’t want to be with.
Once they had reflected, they handed the surveys in to me and the puzzle began. I told them I would try my best to have at least one “wished for” peer in their group but also knew that some kids may benefit from other peers than the ones they selected.
The following day, their writing circles were revealed. We told them it would be a test run to see how they did with each other and that we would reassess as needed. While almost all groups worked out beautifully right away, a few needed minor tweaks which we handled within a day or two.
After the reveal, we asked them to find a designated spot that would always be their meeting spot. While many chose great spots, a few didn’t, and after a few days we did create new spots for some groups that allowed them to work better together. The main culprit was having space to speak to one another and space to have their materials and with 29 sudents it can get a bit tricky. Then inspired by Tricia Ebarvia’s Jenga games to start off the year, we had them play Jenga with each other in order to get to know each other. Here are her original questions, here are the questions we ended up using, some new, many of them hers. I had bought 5 Jenga games and split them into 9 games with 30 tiles each and it worked out perfectly. not only did it allow us to see how the circles would function as a group, but they also got a chance to get to know each other more. Thank you so much, Tricia for sharing all of your work around this!
Then, it was time to actually write something. And so we have been. We have been doing small prompts that they have shared with each other, they have read personal essays and memoirs and discussed them, they have written 6 word memoir, and most importantly they have shared their beginning writing with each other. As the students just submitted their first draft of a memoir or a personal essay, upcoming usage of their writing circle will be:
Navigate the feedback we have left – what does it really mean? Where do they need to start?
Be peer editors – we will be working on specific revision skills in order to help them edit each other’s work better as this is not a skill they are ready to just take on. As I model my own revisions, they will be doing the revision work on each other’s.
Search for “simple” mistakes such as conventions of writing that their own eyes may miss because it is too familiar with the writing.
Challenge them in their writing, hold them accountable to create better writing than what they started with.
Assess each other’s writing using the rubric and comparing it to their own self-assessment.
On Monday, as we start a wonky week where the only academic day we have together is Monday, they will write a group story as we have been discussing components of great stories. They will then act it out. So far, having this built in writing community has benefitted us in a few way:
They already know who to be with when they are writing and since they are mostly peers they have chosen there is a more natural collaboration happening.
They have each other to ask when they are stuck, when they are fleshing out ideas, as well as when they think they are done but need someone else to look at it.
They don’t have to wait for the teachers to look at their writing, they can go to each other first and then when their time is for a conference with me, they can come right up rather than waste time.
The students really seem to like it, no groans or moans when we ask them to get with their writing circles.
There is a lot more talk surrounding their writing, which was the main goal. We wanted to work on the social aspect of writing and to offer the kids a way to know that they are not alone when they feel burdened by writing.
I will continue to share the work of these writing circles as they will be a year-long endeavor, but wanted to share this for now. If you have any questions, please ask, I am just learning myself.
We continue to work on developing our writing communities, slowly settling into what it means to write together, to be writers, and to feel free to write. We have written directions, we have discussed the rules of writing, we have read great writing, and we have set up our writing circles. All this work is centered in identity. All this work is centered in learning who each other are and developing a feeling of safety and community as we grow into this year together.
Now we inch closer to writing personal essays on topics centered on our own lives and so we used the 6-word memoirs. This ingenious little foray into writing has a long history. A great place to read more about them can be found here. They are exactly what they sound like; 6 word stories about our lives.
I introduced them by showing them examples of other 6-word memoirs, some serious, some not so much. I showed my own example…
Then we discussed the perimeters of the challenge: Exactly 6 words, it cannot be a list of adjectives, should reveal some part of your life that you feel comfortable with.
Then the kids brainstormed for a bit it their writers’ notebooks, playing around with sentences, words, and punctuation.
When they felt satisfied with their chosen words, they had someone spell check their final sentence. A few spelling errors were missed, which happens.
Then they illustrated them using these free blank face printables. I printed one out and drew a line down the middle, then made enough copies with directions on this handout. One side was for them to illustrate either as a collage or as an abstract image of of their words. The other side was for their words. I told the kids that they would be displayed so to put their names on the back for privacy unless they wanted it to be known that they made it.
We listened to music. Kids played with words, drew, and then handed them in. I couldn’t believe the care many took. While certainly there were many that spoke of sports, dogs, and other seemingly small-ish parts of their lives, every single one spoke of something they found important or showed a sliver of their personality.
A small lesson that showed so much about their identity once again. See for yourself, how they turned out.
We are starting the year, and the creation of our writing portfolio, with a unit focused on memoir and personal essay. I am hoping that in this unit, the students will start to share parts of their writing identity through discussion of what makes them a writer or not, the erules of writing and which we need to break, as well as experimentation with writing based in their own lives.
I have been gathering memoirs and personal essays for a while now, trying to focus on stories that may enrich their understanding of how others see the world so that they in turn can focus on their own lives.
As always, our trusted picture books are part of the mentor text collection that will surround students as we embark into this work, so here are the ones I have pulled so far that focus on small moments and written in 1st person. While some of these are true memoirs, others are texts I can use as models despite them not being true stories.
As I get ready to embark on another year of teaching English, I have been learning more about the writing process and the specific skills that I need to teach in order to help my students change or strengthen their experience with writing. Within the pages of professional development books I have found so much inspiration for how to create a better experience, hopefully, for kids. And so when I went to my classroom today, I pulled a few great picture books that I plan on sharing and showcasing to students to help them discuss the supposed rules of writing and how we can break them to create our a unique written piece. Here are some of the ones I pulled.
Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett is a great picture book to use with kids that feel they have no ideas because it shows the legitimacy of starting from something known and making it your own. Plus, this book is just a fun read!
I love how I Am A Story by Dan Yaccarino urges us to think of how far stories have traveled and how they shape our society. I love the illustrations paired with the unfolding of story, fantastic for setting up writer’s workshop at any age.
This Is My Book! by Mark Pett (and no one else) is laugh out loud funny. I especially enjoyed the interplay between the author and the panda. Kids are sure to appreciate the message but also how well it is portrayed; who really creates the story and how can we co-create?
The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski is beautiful both in text and in the illustrations. Using a book whose words fall out as a way to discuss imagination is a marvelous way to get students thinking more creatively.
Three PD books that are furthering my work at the moment are
Comprehension & Collaboration – Revised Edition by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels is helping me frame our year of writing as inquiry explorations.
Rozlyn Linder left us much too soon but her genius lives on in her book The Big Book of Details. If you have ever told a child to add more details but wasn’t quite sure how to have them do this, this is the book for you.
The importance of Why They Can’t Write by John Warner to my upcoming year of instruction is undisputed. I am re-working everything I am doing with writing because of this book.
Six years ago, I wrote a piece on here called, Why Reading Sucks and It’s Ok to Talk About It. It has shaped my work ever since. It has become a defining feature of what I believe in when it comes to the work we help students do in our year of reading together. The need to focus on the emotions and experiences that a child carries with them when it comes to the act of reading, the need to validate them wherever they are on their journey in order to, hopefully, help them shape their journey in a more purposeful way. In order to protect those who love reading. In order to help those who hate reading perhaps dislike it a little bit less.
Much like that post, i try to teach kids to care about writing. To see their writing as something they can use beyond the lesson, beyond the product. I try to create situations where they find value in what they do and feel like they were actually taught something that perhaps will help them in their lives. Yet, every year, without a fail, no matter the amazing teaching and classrooms they have been a part of, so many of my students loudly proclaim how much they hate writing. And their actions show it.
“Forgetting” their pencils and not saying anything about it. Repeatedly telling me that they just don’t know what to write. Anger, shut downs, outright refusal. Quickly writing something in order to be done. Sometimes tears. And our students are not alone, often when I teach other teachers, I ask how many of them consider themselves readers – most raise their hand – when I ask themselves how many consider themselves writers, almost all of their hands go down. When I ask them to share a written reflection, you can see the pain behind that in many. And these are adults.
Writing is something that carries a lot of emotions. And we need to talk about that more.
And it needs to be direct, not hopefully something that comes up at some point, but a conversation that acknowledges that writing and the act of sharing one’s writing can be emotional for some, downright terrifying for others.
Because here’s the thing, if we say we want to create classrooms where students feel safe, where they feel accepted, where they feel that we care about them, all of them, then we need to make room for the complicated emotions that can be attached to the work we do. We need to make room for the identity of the writer that shares our space, not just the skills of the writers. And we need to do it purposefully. Not leave it to chance or hope that we will navigate it when it comes up. Think of how powerful it can be when we ask a child to share what they feel comfortable sharing before we dive into the work. When we set up the conditions to say, “It’s ok to not like writing, tell us more about that, so perhaps we can work on that together…” To acknowledge that some of our kids think they are bad writers because their spelling is not strong. That some of our kids think they are bad writers because their grades tell them so. That some of our kids think they are bad writers because they see no value in the types of writing we do, so why invest themselves?
To write something is to make yourself vulnerable to the world. It is to not only share your thoughts but to share them in a way that tells us when they are incomplete, when they perhaps are misspelled, when perhaps our grammar or way of speaking is different than others. It is to create a somewhat permanent record of who we are at that very moment. It is to let others into ourselves.
So as I plan for my first few days of school, one of the central conversations that will ground our identity work for the year will be, “When does writing suck?” I will share my own experiences as a writer in the hope that students will share some of theirs. Then I will hand them post-its; write down as many reasons you can think of for when writing sucks or for when writing is great. You don’t have to put down your name if you don’t want to. You can write to only one side of the experience. You can write down as many as you want. You can share as deeply as you want. Tape them to the board so they don’t fall down.
And then we will step back and look. See the patterns, discuss the patterns. We may see how others share the same thoughts as we do. We will decide on ways to move forward.
We will create our writing rights together, let these community agreements determine our path forward.
I know this is only the beginning, a start that will work for some but not for all. I know that the students have no reason to trust me, yet some will. I know that with others it will take time, action, and courage. I can hope to create the conditions in our shared experience so that at some point, perhaps, writing will be something they don’t hate. Something they can see their own growth in. Something they can see value in. I can hope. But I can also plan.