Choice in writing workshop

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We are winding down our sixth grade life here in Room 202.  This week, we wrote our last Slice of Life,  much to the sorrow of our class for we (surprisingly, to some) grew to love our once weekly sharing of the stories of our lives.  For this week, I asked my students to reflect upon how they’d grown as sixth graders, and to think about the goals they would be setting for themselves as seventh graders.

Many of my kids wrote about the way they had learned how to be organized and manage their time, and felt that this would be a goal to focus upon next year, as well.  And many wrote about the way they had learned to prioritize assignments and carve up longer projects into smaller, more manageable pieces.  Some wrote about learning how not to “freak out” when presented with something new and challenging, and others wrote about learning how to ask for help.

Since this was not our end of the year writing survey, where I ask for focused responses to our sixth grade writing workshop year, I was a bit taken aback by how many students chose to write about their writing lives as part of their reflection.

Here’s what Sasha had to say:

I think that my biggest achievement of the school year was my writing. It makes me proud knowing that have done my very best and that people apparently like it, from my novels, to my SOL’s. Let’s think back to when I was an average joe-shmo, trying to find his way in a big middle school, before the time of my novels and stunning stop motion movies that gained me so much recognition back before my famous dance move (If you are in my dance class). Back when I had no clue of my talents. Back to the first S.O.L….  

I slowly clicked on the classroom page, sighed as I were a sloth and came face to face with boring text, the bane of my existence.  It might have seemed like normal instructions for some, but for me, it seemed more like this: “He-he-he, welcome to the torture chamber, where nightmares come true! Right about a random time in your life, I don’t care, just write something! Oh, and remember, make sure to suffer! This message is brought to you by the executor of fun.” “well, I might as well just do it, staring at it won’t make it go away,” I thought as I set to work.

Soon, I had chosen a topic and decided on my choice of words. I would focus on the main idea and leave everything else sort of in the background.  After about 20 minutes I completed my masterpiece, it was glorious. In fact, I found myself happy and proud. I even showed it to my parents, who were very pleased, though my sister just scoffed. Ignoring my sister, I proudly hit the post button and beamed with awe as my work got posted for everybody to see and enjoy.

And that, my friends, was the start of a new Sasha, a Sasha that loved writing, he adored it. And with after lots of mini lessons, I couldn’t be any more proud.

And here’s what Sam shared:

Ever since I was in 2nd grade sitting at my table typing up a story that I had just wrote, writing was hard. I had 6 teachers that tried to help me get through the difficulties of being able to sit down and write a narrative, fictional story, or persuasive essay. I think that this was because they never presented topics that were fun to work with, and most of all, we did not get to pick our own writing to do. I always hoped that one day I would be able to write a killer essay…Once the first day of school came I already felt like I was learning, and I guess that I was, because my writing started to get better and better until finally I started to feel at home while writing. Now I am writing this off the top of my head, but I am not worrying, I am not scared to fail, I am confident that my writing skills will get better and better, hopefully this will continue until I am an adult.

The year seemed to move by faster and faster and I learned more and more about writing, one of the things that I learned was that Latin roots can really help with very “perplexing” words that are “laborious” to “enunciate.” (See what I did there?!;))  I guess I made a transition from stressing about even writing a paragraph long draft to now writing killer essays off the top of my head!

I read over these comments and thought about what was really behind the growth that these writers had made; what was at the root of their change of heart about writing itself?  To be sure, we read a lot of inspiring mentor texts, and worked through a number of mini-lesson or conference driven strategy sessions, but I sensed that there was something more at work.

Both Sam and Sasha are rather eccentric writers (and thinkers!).  They are both obsessed with certain topics (robotics, infectious diseases, aeronautics), and really enjoyed playing around with writing craft (they love asides, sly jokes, inventive punctuation).  Although they, and writers like them in our class, were willing to conform to structured writing when needed, they really blossomed when allowed to take the time to figure out how to say what they wanted to say the way they wanted to say it.

My students have always chosen what they wanted to write about.  But this year, more than ever, I stepped back and gave my kids much more leeway in deciding how they wanted to write.  Much of this I owe to the work of Ralph Fletcher, who has been speaking out about this at every conference of his that I’ve attended, and every recent book he’s written.  At the end of each conference and book, I would ask myself some hard questions about what I was doing (unintentionally or not) to limit choice in writing workshop, and to confine my students too much with checklists, rubrics, mentor texts, and forced structure.

Fletcher has this to say about such forced structure:

a pertinent section of which is this:

We think sometimes about choice in a limited way. Choice is not just a matter of what to write about. I mean that’s part of it, and I really think it’s important that students can decide what they want to write about and choose topics that are passionate to them, that matter to them, that they’re interested in, but also choice includes how to write about something. How do you start? Do you start with sound effects? Are you going to start with some dialogue? Are you going to start by setting an ominous mood? That’s something that the writer has to decide. What words you’re going to include, is it going to be funny or snarky or serious. There’s a million different choices.
One of the things that I always say is that a writer is somebody who is making decisions, and I say that to kids in kindergarten all the way up to high school. “A writer is somebody who makes decisions, so what decisions are you going to make today? As I come around and confer with you, I’m going to be interested in seeing what you’re deciding.” That question is legitimate and ongoing and vibrant if kids really can make those decisions. But if they’re following a format, or following a heavy anchor text or rubric where they really are sort of checking off the things that have to be in there, that’s not a format, that’s not an environment that really encourages choice.

Thinking  again of writers this year like Sasha and Sam, who walked into our classroom less than confident and sanguine about the writing experience, I think that this is what made the greatest difference: they had a lot of freedom both in what they wanted to say and how they went about saying it.  To be sure, we had our mini lessons and all the other fixtures of what is considered the writing workshop process, but then they got to decide how to go about the rest.  This made our writing conferences so much more interesting, because they were really more like conversations about craft than my telling them exactly what to do.  True, this also made it trickier when it came to rubrics and assessment (how much value to place on inventiveness and a willingness to take writing risks, for instance), but, judging from our last SOLs, it was  worth it.  Or, as my sixth graders would say, “That was TOTALLY, like TOTALLY, worth it!”.




#IMWAYR: Joy Write by Ralph Fletcher

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

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As luck would have it, my copy of Ralph Fletcher’s  Joy Write: Cultivating High-impact, Low-Stakes Writing arrived the week we were getting ready for the PARCC test – i.e. low-impact, high-stakes writing.  I read it with relish and relief – relish because few people write with as much joy about writing workshop as does Ralph Fletcher, and relief because Ralph’s note of caution about current writing workshop practice is something I have been grappling with and needed to hear his voice of encouragement.

For some time now, Ralph Fletcher has been asking us to examine how we structure and prioritize student choice in our writing workshops.  In Making Things From Scratch, he introduced the exploratory notebook and new strategies to help our students move away from the sort of formulaic nonfiction writing they tend to write and towards writing that has authentic voice and creative energy.

In Joy Write, Fletcher expands the scope of his analysis to include all aspects of writing workshop.  Having been there from the very inception of the writing process movement, he brings the force of  his institutional knowledge to this task, and the questions he poses about the way we’ve come to run our classroom writing workshops are both insightful and timely.  In my own sixth grade classroom, for instance, we follow our school’s genre based writing curriculum: we move from one genre to the next through a predictable series of steps, beginning with mentor text studies and culminating in writing celebrations.   Although I see the value of predictable routines and scaffolds in moving my kids through a year of writing in which they grow as writers, I would be the first to agree with Fletcher that hewing only to a genre based workshop saps the creative energy and “buy in” of my young writers; or, as he puts it:

Today in many classrooms we find children being taught exacting writing formulas. When format dominates the writing, there’s little wiggle room or opportunity for kids to make writing their own…They are directed to write in a particular genre in a way that’s highly structured and externally imposed.  From a student’s point of view, the writing is less about me and more about what the teacher tells me to do. (p 22)

So, what’s a teacher to do? If we’ve gotten away from the essence of writing workshop in this age of high stakes, test-oriented writing, and want to find our way back to the joy of student-driven writing within the parameters of our curriculum and state mandates, what is our path forward?  Well, Ralph Fletcher has some ideas:

In this book I am proposing a new concept: greenbelt writing. Writing that is raw, unmanicured, uncurated…I am talking about informal writing..I am talking about low-stakes writing, the kind of comfortable composing kids do when they know there’s no one looking over their shoulders.

… a wild territory where kids can rediscover the power of writing that is:

  • personal
  • passionate
  • joyful
  • whimsical
  • playful
  • infused with choice, humor, and voice
  • reflective of the quirkiness of childhood  (p39)

Greenbelt writing, as described by Fletcher, encompasses everything from blogging to Slice of Life writing to…whatever our students feel moved to write about in the form they choose.  The most important factor in this kind of writing is the fact that we (i.e. teachers) have little to no presence or influence: it’s all about what our kids feel they have to say, in the way they want to.  I loved reading through all the varieties of inspired creativity such freedom invites, and the sense of empowerment it creates:

But many students – more than we might imagine – will find their stride through greenbelt writing.  That’s where they’ll (re)discover the passion of writing, the thrill of saying exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it, savoring how it feels when you create every word, comma, exclamation point and can say with proud confidence: “This is what I wrote, and it’s all mine.”  (p.97)

In my own classroom, thanks in large part to Ralph’s words of caution every time he presents at conferences or takes to Twitter, I have found that making time for greenbelt writing has led to a much greater sense of writing partnership with my students, and (as a consequence) their own sense of personal investment.  Even when it comes to our weekly Slice of Life writing, for instance, “giving over” the platform to my students so that they can propose how they want to write changes the dynamic instantly.   Carving out the time for such endeavors is tricky, after all, do we even have time for the things we are mandated to do, let alone the things we would like to do?

Ralph Fletcher  believes we can:

What will kids remember about writing in school? I want them to remember … writing that is fun, passionate, and joyful, and reflects what matters to each student.  This is the best way I know to create writing classrooms where the student can develop the concept: I am a writer.  (p.40)

Each student as a joyful writer – now that’s something wonderful to consider and work towards.  So, even as we dive into testing season and all it brings, I would urge writing teachers everywhere to go get a copy of Joy Write, read it, and bring greenbelt writing into their classrooms.