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Building a Community of Writers

The article below appears in the July 2018 edition of A Teacher’s Magazine if you’re interested in ordering it and reading more! Here’s a link to a six-month subscription: A Teacher’s Magazine – August ’18 to February ’19. Here’s a PREVIEW! There are so many great articles for back-to-school that, even if you didn’t order it at the beginning of July, it is worth grabbing now or any time before school starts.

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In 1989, I was a new, fresh-faced first year kindergarten teacher who “discovered” the magic of Lucy McCormick Calkins by reading the book, The Art of Teaching Writing. I had never heard of writers’ workshop and I eagerly implemented the strategies I learned from her book into my classroom routine and her sage advice into my own philosophy. Teaching using a workshop model has always been my way.

RITUALS AND ROUTINES

At the beginning of every school year, whether I am teaching kindergarten or fifth grade or any grade in between, I start with building my community of writers. In order to write real pieces with voice and depth, students have to feel safe and know that reactions and feedback are coming from a place of care. They should never feel attacked or mocked. That’s why it’s crucial for students to have a lot of time to play around with and share seed ideas before they choose a seed that they want to nurture and grow into a fully developed piece. I like to spend a week or two modeling how to brainstorm and how to gather seed ideas, as well as how to ultimately choose the seed to grow into a fully developed piece. 

When launching the workshop, it is important to establish rituals and routines (of course) and to ensure that every child has a notebook. Every year that I have taught third grade or fifth grade, my students have enjoyed bringing in stickers and magazine clippings to personalize their notebooks. I also always have age appropriate magazines and a variety of stickers on hand for those students who forget or who may not have as much support at home to gather the materials they need or want in order to personalize their notebooks. After students finish decorating, I cover the outsides of the notebooks with packing tape or clear contact paper for durability. This year, since I have three classes, students store their notebooks in bins on a community shelf, but I have also had students store their notebooks in their desks when I have had one or two classes. 

BRAINSTORMING AND PLANNING 

In my current district, the pacing guide outlines pretty basic ideas for launching the writing workshop, but there is a lot of room for interpretation. I spend several days with students working on generating ideas across genres (what types of informational, narrative, and opinion pieces can they write about on the same topic) and with audience in mind (do they want to write a letter, a list, or a story). I also have them think about their favorite genre (which, for most is narrative) and then have them brainstorm ideas for it and for other genres. It may seem like overkill, but as the year progresses and they (inevitably) say, “I can’t think of anything to write”, I have them return to the wonderful lists they generated at the beginning of the year.

Brainstorming  Informational Narrative Opinion
Brochure Fictional Story Advertisement
Letter Narrative Nonfiction Letter
Newspaper Article Personal Narrative Newspaper Article
Memoir

After spending about a week generating ideas, breaking in our new notebooks, and practicing routines, it’s time to commit to a topic! It’s time for students to really “dig in” and decide what pieces they want to write. I like for them to really analyze their options and justify their choices. It’s time to break out the sticky notes! I set them up for success by providing sentence stems such as “This is a good idea because…” for them to write on their stickies and by having them discuss their options with peers. After some chatting and sharing, I have them fill out an exit ticket that I keep on file for when I check in with them during conferences. 

Now’s the time to help them recognize and use resources (three, then me). We explicitly talk about each child’s strengths and also do a gallery walk around the room to look at anchor charts. In addition, I provide small anchor charts for them to glue into their writing notebooks in a “reference” section to use throughout the year. Over time, they all learn that John is a great speller, Mary has a phenomenal vocabulary, etc. but at the beginning of the year when we’re building our community, it helps for them to know that their peers can be resources and that they can be resources, too. Some students may need a lot of scaffolding here – particularly your reluctant writers. In this case, it’s important offer some suggestions such as: 

“I’m an expert at…” 

  • Keeping my notebook organized
  • Coming up with ideas
  • Using precise verbs
  • Trying out different points of view
  • Deleting unnecessary words
  • Adding dialogue 

DRAFTING AND REVISING

During the drafting period, many students really struggle with accepting even the most constructive feedback and actually revising as they go. The temptation to say, “I’m done” is so great. It’s pretty hard to resist. As a teacher, I try to model making changes myself and accepting (and actually using) feedback, but that’s not always enough. Modeling is great, but mentor texts can also help immensely during this time. You can encourage your students to rewrite parts of their pieces from different perspectives. Now that the movie version of Wonder is out, most students have at least seen the movie and many have read the book, as well. Spending a class period talking about Via’s, Jack’s, Summer’s, Justin’s, Miranda’s, and (of course) Auggie’s perspectives can help students see how their own characters’ points of view get at (or don’t get at) the heart of their stories. Taking time to read Voices in the Park can also help students see how authors use different points of view to tell the same story.

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Another option for teaching revising during writing is to have students look at ways that they can incorporate symbolism into their stories and what better story to use to teach that skill than Beauty and the Beast. It is absolutely chock-full of symbols! In 2017, my students really enjoyed thinking about the symbols in the story. They jotted their thoughts about what the symbols represented on sticky notes (what would we language arts teachers do without sticky notes, amirite?), then placed their notes on chart paper, and finally took a gallery walk around to read and discuss the charts before they settled in to incorporate some symbols into their own writing. Were they all successful? No. Did they all try? Yes! Attempts are always important – especially when building that community. Knowing that taking risks is safe is priceless.

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Exploring a variety of leads is also a good way to revise during writing. Looking at some basic leads – action, question, snapshot, sound effect, and talking – and trying them out can help students decide how best to start their pieces. It’s also important to look at how they want to end their pieces and exploring a variety of conclusions – offering a reflection, stating a lesson learned, restating the thesis, etc. – can help students stay focused and avoid ending their pieces with “the end” or “to be continued…”

When students have really reached a point where they’re ready to write (and, perhaps, even if they haven’t quite reached it), I have them break out the laptops. I create an assignment on Google classroom and they begin typing away. They love having the option to share their work with peers electronically and being able to give and receive targeted, helpful feedback.

EDITING, PUBLISHING, AND PRESENTING

We’ve all heard of COPS, but I like CUPS better. CUPS stands for Capitalization, Usage, Punctuation, and Spelling and is more aligned to what I, as an adult, do when I am editing my own writing. Here, if your community has trust and feels safe taking risks, your students can help each other simply by offering a pair (or several pairs) of fresh eyes to look at each others’ pieces and make those final tweaks before printing. At this point, students can think about how they want to present their pieces. Do they want to illustrate them? Do they want to do a dramatic reading with different voices for different characters? Do they want to make a Google slides presentation? Do they have different ideas?

When I was a new teacher, I had an Author’s Chair that was a special place for one student to sit and share while everyone else sat and listened, ostensibly preparing to comment. I abandoned the Author’s Chair when I moved to fifth grade in 2011. One problem I always had with the Author’s Chair was that it was too product oriented. I wanted to focus on the process as a whole class. Writing conferences are great (and necessary), but students don’t learn as much about the process their peers are experiencing if this is the only venue for feedback in their classroom. This is (one of the many reasons) why I love Google classroom! As I mentioned, students can share their living documents and get feedback from peers as well as from me on this platform. I also like to circulate and check in with students as they write and ask (quietly), “Would you like to share that with the whole class?” as I check in. If a student responds, “No”, that’s fine. It’s an option.  

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, setting students up for success in writing at any grade level involves building a caring and supportive community of peers and teacher(s) as well as giving students plenty of time to explore genres, topics, leads, conclusions, and literary elements. Some will soar. Others might come along a little more reluctantly. Consistency is key. May you have a magical and magnificent year with your community of writers in 2018-19 and for many years to come! 

Building a Community of Writers

References

  • Calkins, Lucy (1986) The Art of Teaching Writing.
  • Calkins, Lucy, Marjorie Martinelli, Mary Chiarella, M. Colleen Cruz, Ted Kesler (2010) Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing. Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Columbia University.
  • Oczkus, Lori (2007) Guided Writing:Practical Lessons, Powerful Results.
  • Ray, Katie (2006) Study Driven.
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One Comment on “Building a Community of Writers

  1. This article is so informative. I mentioned on Twitter that I have never thought about using Beauty and the Beast to teach students about symbolism and I look forward to looking further into it. Upon reading this article again, I really enjoyed your brainstorming session and the variety of ideas that students could use to enhance their writing skills.

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