When I began teaching Language Arts, I had no training as a teacher. I spoke fluent English and had enough credits to be a Literature teacher, so the school that hired me handed me a text book and wished me luck. “Just follow the book. It’ll be easy,” they said.
Hmmm… that was a bit optimistic…
Although I worked extremely hard in my first years of teaching writing, I was not very successful. I would assign stories or essays for homework, collect them from my students, then spend hours and hours reading them, writing helpful comments, and agonizing over grading them fairly. The next day I would bring the stack of assignments to class and hand them out, only to watch students say, “Oh, 85%,” and throw the paper in the trash.
“No, no, no,” I would say, “Read the comments. You can improve if you make some changes.” A few diligent students would read what I had to say, implement my suggestions, and slowly become better writers. But most of them didn’t. And with good reason: if they’d already received their grade, why make the effort?
I knew there had to be a better way, but although I scoured my memory, I couldn’t think of a single teacher who’d taught me to write in a way that worked. I had no role models to lean on or learn from.
Eventually I discovered In The Middle by Nancie Atwell, one of the pioneers of “writing workshops.” I was inspired by her work and decided to give her method a try. Creating a writing workshop completely changed the way students learned, and for the first time in my career, I watched them become writers. Over the years, writing workshop has evolved into something quite different than it was in the beginning, but the core remains the same.
At The Community for Learning, since we want our students to be fully bilingual, we incorporate writing workshops in both Spanish and English classes. Our writing workshop is based on several essential understandings of how people write:
Students learn to write by reading We teach our students to read as writers. Through what we call “mini-lessons” (15 to 20 minute lessons that take place before kids get to work on their writing) we share excellent writing with them and together look closely at the “writer’s craft.” What has the author done that makes their writing so compelling? What can we learn from this piece? We savor the language, discuss what we notice about the author’s work, and take notes on a class chart. After the mini-lesson, we ask students to practice the technique through short exercises. Then we support them in their efforts to incorporate the writing craft into their own writing.
Students learn to write by writing In order to become excellent writers, students need to write on a daily basis. During writing workshop, after the mini-lesson, students have time to immerse themselves in their writing. Not only do they write stories, poetry, and essays, but we also ask students to write in their journals, to reflect on their learning, and to write in response to their reading. We try to help them find topics that they care about so that their writing is meaningful to them.
Writing is a process.
- Pre-writing – students are free write in their journals, brainstorm ideas, and read models of the type of writing we’re asking them to do. For instance, if we’re doing a unit on writing realistic fiction, we search for great examples of to share with them. We read it together and look for characteristics of the genre and techniques the author uses
- Rough draft – Once students have an idea, they begin to draft their piece. This is the creative, messy stage of writing. They write, think, scratch out parts, rewrite, and slowly get their words on paper. We never look at grammar or spelling at this point because we want kids to use their full range of vocabulary, whether or not they know how to spell the words. We want to turn off the inner critic and let their creativity flow.
- Revision – With a rough draft in hand, the writer revises (often over and over again). During the revision process, students ensure that the meaning of their work is clear by adding details, deleting unnecessary information, and organizing their thoughts into coherent paragraphs. They look at word choice, getting rid of repetitions, incorporating imagery, and including similes and metaphors. They tweak their sentences, revising for run-ons and combining short choppy phrases. They improve introductions and use transitions. They rewrite and rewrite, until they’re sure their writing is the best they can make it.
- Editing – Now, and only now, is the time to look at grammar and spelling. Students know that the written word reflects on them and that anything they publish should be free of errors.
- Publication – This is the celebration stage. We publish and share. We celebrate students’ hard work and admire the final product. We want our students to glow, feeling proud of the hard work they’ve done.
Writing is an essential skill in the digital age and our goal is to be sure that no matter what our students do in life, they will be able to express themselves clearly and confidently through the written word.
Bibliography of books on how to teach writing:
- In the Middle Third Edition: A Lifetime of Learning about Reading, Writing, and Adolescents
- Lessons That Change Writers
- The Art of Teaching Writing
- Units of Study for Primary Writing
- One to One: The Art of Conferring with Young Writers
Katie Wood Ray:
- Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom (this can easily be used in the secondary classrooms. Ray’s ideas on how to teach writing were life changing for me. My writing workshop was transformed by this book)
- Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts)
- What you know by Heart: How to Develop Curriculum for Your Writing Workshop
- Craft Lessons Second Edition: Teaching Writing K – 8
- Nonfiction Craft Lessons: Teaching Information Writing K – 8
- Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem from the Inside Out
- Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide
- Everyday Editing: Inviting Students to Develop Skill and Craft in Writer’s Workshop
- Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop
- Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice and Clarity in High School Writing
- Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide for Middle School
- 6 + 1 Traits of Writing (there’s a different edition for different grade levels – they’re all excellent)
- Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts
- Teaching Adolescent Writers
- How’s it Going?: A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers
- On the Same Page: Shared Reading Beyond the Primary Grades
- Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School
- A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades
- The Revision Toolbox: Teaching Techniques that Work
- Image Grammar: Teaching Grammar as Part of the Writing Process