Monday, March 30, 2015

Becoming a Writer

I had the opportunity to attend a 2-week summer workshop offered by the Illinois Writing Project called IWP-SLI (Illinois Writing Project, Summer Leadership Institute) in July 2014. It was life changing for me as a person and a writer.

The first week consisted of exploring ourselves and our teaching styles through the writing process. We spent the afternoons that first week just writing and sharing. It was powerful. I went home energized, but exhausted everyday. I had so many ideas, I couldn't write fast enough. I then decided I needed to use my laptop to keep up with the abundance of ideas. I had never viewed myself as a creative writer before. But after this workshop, I started to.

In my blog post, Building Confidence in Writing, I shared a piece I had written during the first week. We were to pick a place that was a favorite of our to visit. I chose a store called Cracker Jax. The words flowed out. We were not necessarily to go back and edit, we were just letting our thoughts flow as we thought about this place. That piece is an unedited piece. Would I change it? Maybe, maybe not. The point I'm trying to make is that, as writers, we have to be allowed to write without having the conventions weigh heavily on our minds. That comes later. Should we teach students to edit? Absolutely. However, getting the ideas down first is priority. Using the IWP-SLI as a guide, this is how I structure this lesson with my students:

1st Day
  • Choose a topic (teacher or students depending on your goal for this assignment. I will choose the topic "Close to Home" that was suggested during IWP-SLI.)
  • Free write--give a time limit of about 20 minutes. Too much time can be frustrating for students, and too little can hinder a student's creativity--especially if s/he needs time to come up with a topic (if you haven't assigned one).
  • Share your written piece. I like this part for a couple of reasons: 1. It allows the student the freedom to present the written piece how s/he intended it to be shared. 2. Most importantly, the teacher or the other students are not looking at the writing. They are LISTENING. This is just as important a skill as the writing itself.
2nd Day
  • Have the students get into small groups to allow brainstorming ideas to continue the writing. This is where the cheer-leading happens. The students need to know what they did right.
  • Go back and re-work the piece or choose another piece of writing to edit. It is OK to have a number of stories at a time to work on. I had read once that Stephen King has many started manuscripts that he leaves until he is ready to revisit the piece. Sometimes I think the draft needs to marinate before we can actually give it the oomph it needs.
  • When students feel that they have reworked the writing to almost the publishing point, conference with the students in a one-on-one session which will happen day 3.
3rd Day
  • Allow the students to either start a new writing topic or revisit an older one to begin to rework.
  • While your students are doing that, choose one student at a time and set a time limit with each. Try to structure your time efficiently so that you can get quick, but quality time with each student.
    • When the students approach your desk, ask the students what their favorite part was of the writing process.
    • Ask them what they need guidance on--they may have writer's block.
    • And most importantly, as far as I'm concerned, ask the students what they want you to look at in their writing. These are the choices I give:
      • Spelling
      • Punctuation/Capitalization
      • Subject/verb agreement
      • How to proceed to the next step
        • Many kids will say, "Check all of it." It is important for them to become comfortable spotting areas they need help on. That way, they will become better editors themselves. 
        • If we give too much feedback, it becomes overwhelming, and the process is no longer fun.
Remember, this map to writing needs to feel safe for all students. We all are at different levels in our writing. I have been told throughout the years that my writing at times has not been up to par. I allowed those comments to stifle my creativity. I write like no one else. I write like me. We have to allow our students to do the same.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Building Confidence in Writing

Writing produces a number of emotional responses. For me when I write, I have experienced a wide range of emotions from anger to frustration to excitement. Writing has produced it all for me. We write for a variety of reasons and use a number of different means to get across our thoughts, needs, ideas, and on and on. When I'm writing about uncomfortable topics, I don't always feel confident. If I need to compose an email to a teacher or a supervisor that is difficult, I have to dig deep to feel confident. So if we, as adults, are not always confident writers, than surely it shouldn't come as a surprise that students struggle with confidence as well.

Students write all the time, though they may not view it as writing. If you have teenagers in your class, most likely you see them write (text) on their cell phones from time to time. As much as it surprises me to say this, it is true. It is writing. We, as teachers may take issue with that, but it's where our world is headed. In essence, many students are more confident writing on their devices than writing on paper. So if we have to, can we start there? If not, why not? I pose this question for you to really think about. I have a few students in mind who really struggle writing on paper, but shine if they can use their devices. Do you think writing the conventional way will be obsolete eventually? I sure hope not, but let's start where there is confidence. The ideas below can be used for writing via pen/pencil and paper, or if you are comfortable, students can use their devices. I will use the word 'write' throughout, but understand I'm using this word to encompass a number of modalities.

In my first blog post Start Write Here, I talked about starting with what each person has: his/her own ideas. Once you've begun free writing and sharing ideas, it is important to encourage each student using words that are not judgmental. I start with, "Thanks for sharing!" "Could you tell me more?" "Now turn to your partner and brainstorm ideas to add to your writing." If we say "Terrific", "I love your ideas" right off the bat, it may appear to the students that we are separating the skilled writers from the beginning writers, even if that is not our intention. By remaining neutral, you are leveling the playing field for all students. I prefer to use praise in one-on-one settings to indicate where I feel a writer has shined. Of course we want to praise all students and encourage them as much as possible, and you will do so by asking about their writing. When we provide specific feedback and show the student/adult we are listening, then the excitement for writing and sharing will come.

Another way to build confidence is to teach children how to be good listeners. Before a student shares his/her work, we need to set expectations for the class or partners. If you want the students to listen to the story and then summarize, then you will model how that looks. If you want listeners to focus on descriptions in the shared writing piece, then you would model using a piece of your own writing. I will share a short descriptive essay I wrote during a graduate summer class (offered by the Illinois Writing Project/Summer Leadership Institute) to demonstrate this. The goal was to write about our favorite place to visit that is close to home.

DeKalb.  A small town.  Podunk, you’d say.  College town, suitcase university.  The forgotten place.  BUT to those townies, not passers-through, there is a little hidden-in-the wide-open store on a regularly traveled side street, perpendicular to HWY 38.  Nestled smack-dab on 3rd street, a bit off center between Locust and 38, is a treasure of a store. It’s not a store that the faint of heart can go into, for you might just run into yourself.  That piece, that one object that defines you so completely that even your best friend in the whole world would not understand.  Even your family! You laugh?  Families know your proclivities better than you think.  They are observers, you know!...(portion taken out--not necessarily appropriate for young ears)...Your first trip there you may run through and hurry out the door before you have even given a cursory glance at the purposely disarrayed aura of the magical place.  A place that will haunt you, will draw you when you least expect it, that will make you want for more, and will also challenge you to dig deep, deeper, until you are so uncomfortable and curious at the same time.  For you might discover something about yourself that has been latent and is ready to burst forth.  You might not be ready.  But it will be there waiting when you are.  

So, you might listen to this essay and form a picture in your mind. If I accomplished that, then wonderful. If not, then my listening partner would ask me questions so that the reader/writer can explain, and then later, go back and edit. But for now, we are focusing on description. I might say this to my class/small group, or individual student to model the questioning:

  • I noticed you used the word nestled. Why did you choose that word? 
  • What does 'disarrayed aura' mean?
  • There are words in there that sound really interesting. These words caught my attention: perpendicular, latent, podunk, and cursory. Would you tell me more about the word 'podunk'? What does it mean? (Maybe they will connect the word perpendicular to math and the word latent to science. Any connection they make, whether it has to do with the story being shared or not, is important. If it means something to the student, then it is worth-while to share.)

If you are asking for general impressions/suggestions from the listeners, you might model these statements or questions:
  • I identified with what you said about running into yourself. I find items in stores that my friends are surprised I like! 
  • I would like to hear more about this store. What is it called?
  • I noticed that you are writing longer sentences and adding more detail.
  • I noticed that you used a lot of fragments. Why did you choose to use those in your writing? (You notice how there was no judgement about fragments?)
Here you are using specific verbs/verb phrases such as "identified", "would like to hear", "noticed". Using emotionally charged words such as loved, liked, disliked, I was bored, etc...can really dampen a child's desire to continue to write. So make sure that this type of neutral language is clearly stated in the expectations. This does take practice, and students, or adults for that matter, do not always get it right. Be patient with the sharers and the listeners. Be patient with yourself, too. How many times have we said something to our students that we wish we could take back the moment it exited our lips. For me, more than I can count. So in order to ensure a safe environment to share, students need to be allowed to make mistakes. Simply correct those mistakes gently and move on. 

So what happens when the writing activities don't happen as smoothly as you hope? I have a story that illustrates this. My hope is that I repaired any communication breakdown that occurred. I'm not sure; you be the judge.

At the beginning of this school year, I used the writing ideas and strategies I learned from Illinois Writing Project: Summer Leadership Institute (I will speak more about this in another blog post). As part of our research, we needed to take our love of writing to the schools. I chose two English classes taught by two different teachers at the 7th and 8th grade levels. I brought writing activities to the classes over a month's time. In the seventh-grade class that I was in, we were doing just what I stated before, using statements to encourage writing. One student commented that he didn't have good ideas, and before I could respond, a boy in his group said, "He's right. He's not creative at all."  Those words, I'm sure, left a mark on this student. Immediately, of course, I modeled words to use instead, very similar to the sentences I shared above. I then politely shared my opinion:  "I think 'Steve' was creative. He used language that allowed me to get a picture in my head of his favorite place." Here, I didn't use neutral language, but I felt the need praise in this instance. I could see that my words helped him, but the damage from that comment was already done.  He had obviously had negative thoughts about his writing to begin with. Unfortunately, saying negative words again and again to yourself can be just as damaging, if not more so, than those coming from your peers.

Helping to build confidence in writing takes time. Modeling words such as these may sound stilted and unnatural, but with practice, they will become part of the climate/culture of the classroom. My next post will be on how to build your own confidence as a writer. Please share your thoughts and ideas. They are always appreciated! 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Start Write Here

So where to begin...I have so many thoughts on writing, I want to begin everywhere at once, but logistically I can't, so I'll just begin writing. A strange way to start my blog? For me, no. It's perfectly imperfect. That's what writing is: perfectly imperfect. When we write, we have to start somewhere. Isn't that what we tell our students--just write? We tell them to just write to get the ideas flowing. But to students, many of whom are afraid of writing, this seems daunting. "How am I supposed to know what to write? You haven't given me a prompt!" Teachers, you have all heard this before, and at times (be honest) it's frustrating to hear that day in and day out when you start a writing assignment. You've all heard the groans; I know I have. But what if writing were something that your students really enjoyed? Something they really looked forward to. What would that even look like. Well, for years I've started writing this way: free writing.

Students get out their journals (you, too) and start writing the thoughts that pop into your head. Maybe it might go something like this:

  I don't know what to write, I don't know what to write, I don't know what to write...Mom wants me to call her after school today. Friday is pizza day, the best day of the week--I love that Aquabats song. Yeah, tonight we are having leftover mock lasagna. My rings are dirty. I just cleaned them! Argghhh! All that lotion. That's why I take my rings off at night, but this morning I forgot, and the lotion got smeared over them. Hopefully no one notices. PARCC testing today...schedule messed up, kids anxious to be done...

What did you notice? Hopefully, a string of consciousness. Maybe you noticed fragments. THAT'S OK!!! I just decided to write, and there you have it.

Next I read my entry to my students. They love the silly thoughts. And if they are comfortable, have them share, too. Kids love when adults are silly, even child-like on occasion.

Here's what I've noticed when I do this activity: Students love this! In fact, at times it is difficult for them to want to write anything else. But I adapt slowly. Next I might ask them to free write about a book they are reading. Watch how this happens.

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett: My youngest son is reading Chasing Vermeer. He was frustrated about this since it's a sixth grade book, lexile 770L.He over-analyzes things and doesn't just breathe and read. I started reading it. Cool entries, exciting codes, still not finished. My son had a seizure and when he came out of it we talked about Chasing Vermeer and I told him I solved the code. He remembered the next day! Normally he doesn't remember anything after his seizures, but this time he did...

OK, what happened here? What did you notice? Was it grammatically correct always? Did I stray from the topic? Who cares! I just used free writing and narrowed the topic as it pertains to me. It helps to do this when you are trying to understand a plot or sequence of events, etc...I just use this as a launching point for more structured ideas.

It doesn't matter what age. What about preschool? Remember pictures? Have students draw pictures and talk about them when they are done. Telling about what we are putting on paper is the precursor to writing. I remember my oldest son sitting at the table scribbling and putting dots all over his paper. When he was finished he would tell me what it said. I loved it. He was using the adult models in his life to demonstrate his understanding about writing. What about beginning writers? Inventive spelling is so important. Ideas about this have changed over the years, but we absolutely need to allow kids to feel comfortable with writing. I would like to spend time on talking about building confidence in writers in another blog post.

So I will sign off by saying, Start "write" here with your students. It's never too late in the year to start over. Every time we are putting our words on paper, we are starting again and again. Now go write!