As my 4th grade team and I moved into the final quarter of last year, we realized we were REALLY tired of teaching writing the way we had been. WE came up with a genre, taught lessons that helped kids understand what that genre encapsulated, then let them choose their topics. Most of the time. Sometimes, we chose the umbrella topic (famous Americans prior to 1800, a personal story, a story that had to involve fantasy elements) and let them go from there. It was how we’d taught writing for years, and it just wasn’t getting it done for us anymore.
Or the students. Every time we’d say, “We’ll be starting a new writing piece today,” kids would groan. Not the best moments in a former journalist’s life, having 9- and 10-year-olds actively express their disgruntlement at writing.
Enter the Strategies books. We had seen The Reading Strategies Book earlier in the year, and expressed our undying appreciation that someone had written a book that wasn’t a curriculum, but a well-thought out collection of mini lessons a person could use anytime, anywhere, with almost anyone. For example, in The Reading Strategies Book, you’ll find lessons on vocabulary (“Say It Out Loud”), themes and ideas (“Compare Lessons Across Books in a Series”), and text features (“Cracking Open Headings”). All of the lessons in Jennifer Serravallo’s books are ONE PAGE. Already, a huge weight is off of your shoulders; you don’t have to read the entire chapter to get to the good stuff! On that one page, you’ll find the strategy, language you can use and/or adapt for your lesson, prompts to get kids engaged, and an anchor chart you are welcome to copy and hang in your own classroom.
When we heard there was a Writing Strategies Book, we had to have it. And it informed that fourth quarter of our teaching. Instead of telling kids in what genre they had to write, we brainstormed what kids COULD write. With the kids! Topics and methods of presentation were discussed. We created a Personal writing proposal sheet that had to be filled out, and made sure everyone knew how much time they had left to write their masterpieces. Our expectations were laid out from the beginning: you must write at least one piece, you must follow the writing process, you must fill out a proposal sheet and be approved for every piece you write, and you must confer with teachers and students. A few kids were given more direct instructions (our sped kids, and those who wrote about the same topic all year long), but otherwise, we gave complete freedom of choice.
It was love. My colleague of almost 15 years looked at me and said, “Why haven’t we ALWAYS done it this way?!?” We were excited about what the kids were choosing to do, and they were excited about being able to do it. The Writing Strategies Book was key to this entire process; without the focus of mini lessons, our kids would have had pieces done, but not improved their writing. With it (and the freedom of choice), the quality of writing improved exponentially. Examples of lessons I taught to individuals, small groups, and the entire class were “Organize in Sequence” (also a way to include transitions), “Nonfiction Leads”, and “Create Urgency”. Targeted lessons when kids needed them were much more effective than the lessons I’d been teaching whole class before.
We also discovered that our conferring was less critical and more productive. After reading this post from George Couros, I realized that this way of teaching writing would help my students grow instead of stifling them. I’m a Grammar Hammer (admittedly; I even have a t-shirt!), but I try my best in student conferences to put aside editing in favor of content. This book really helped me have a focus, and helped me FIND the focus I needed for different kids and groups.
When we finished, we had more products than we had ever imagined. Stories and list articles and persuasive essays, yes, but also internet quizzes (Which book character are you?), how-to books (How To Avoid Embarrassment Due to Flatulence), advice for annoying younger siblings, and the beginnings of an interactive slide show pitting fictional monsters against each other “Celebrity Death Match”-style. It was amazing to see the creativity expressed when there were no preplanned expectations for the end product. One of the main differences was that kids had a different audience in mind for these pieces. Instead of writing for the teacher, they were writing for specific folks in the world. Lightbulbs, big time.
From this entire experience, we have decided to run our writing workshop this way ALL YEAR. Yes, we’ll occasionally need to let kids know what they need to write. Yes, we’ll need to make sure that all kids write in all of our learning-goal-driven genres. But will kids love writing more? YES. And with authentic audiences for their pieces, this switch to kid-driven writing will create better people, better able to communicate their ideas to the wider world. And isn’t that the point of innovation?