TRT Podcast#4: 5 Things that Will Supercharge Your Writing Instruction
Does your writing instruction need a boost? Doing these five things will make a BIG difference. When you implement them, writing time will be more fun (and productive) for both you and your learners.
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Full episode transcript
Hello, Anna here! I'm so glad you’ve joined me for episode 4: 5 things that will supercharge your writing instruction.
This episode is brought to you by Teaching Every Writer, my online course for K-2 teachers and homeschoolers. Please visit teachingeverywriter.com to learn more.
I’d like to start this episode with a quote from Welcome to Writing Workshop, a book by Stacey Shubitz and Lynne R. Dorfman: “Writing is the most powerful tool we have to think aloud on paper, organize our thoughts, and make our thinking visible and permanent.”
Let’s dive in right away into the 5 things you can do to supercharge your writing instruction.
Number one: Have a dedicated, predictable time each day for your students to write independently.
This is true whether you teach kindergarten or eighth grade. It’s very important this is a block of time and not bits and pieces throughout the day. Sometimes we like to think, "Well my students do writing during Social Studies, they write during reading time, there are other subjects where we occasionally integrate writing. I don't need a separate writing period." Just listen to yourself for a minute. You could never say that about Math, right? Or reading? "Oh, well you know, I sprinkle math all through the day here and there." Or "Well, we do reading in Social Studies, we read the instructions on our Math worksheet. We don't really need a reading period." Of course, not, right? That's ridiculous! The same is true for writing. Writing is a complicated thing. It requires instruction and practice—every day if you can, at a minimum three days a week. Not only do you need this dedicated writing time every day, it needs to be in one block. So, don't do ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the afternoon. Think of writing as a train moving down the track. It takes a lot of energy and "oomph" for that train to get started, but once it's going it's moving smoothly. It does take quite a bit of energy to stop the train, right? So if you have to keep restarting and stopping the train, you're losing time.
Writing is the same way. It takes a lot of mental energy to get into writing and that’s why the writing block needs to be kind of long. It can't be fifteen minutes, because it could take ten minutes before your students' brains really start to flow and they start to actually get going.
Think about the last time you did some writing. You know that it requires an intense amount of thought and mental clarity to write well. So, I recommend a forty to sixty minute writing period.
Don’t worry, your students are not spending that whole period writing. You're going to start with a mini-lesson, about ten minutes. Then, you'll have the period of twenty to forty minutes for them to write or draw, potentially, in kindergarten. Then, you'll conclude with about ten minutes of whole-class sharing time.
Believe me, I know how hard it is to schedule time for every subject area! You always feel like you have to rob something from this subject or that subject to squeeze everything in. But try really hard not to make independent writing time too short. There was one year I tried to do that and boy, we just couldn't really get into writing that year I think my writing workshop was only a total of thirty minutes and it was just cutting it too close. My students really didn’t have enough time to get into their writing.
Here's another quote from Shubitz and Dorfman, “We cannot skimp on independent time because kids need uninterrupted periods of time to hone their writing craft to develop the stamina and endurance they need to be strong writers.”
That's the first thing you can do to supercharge your writing instruction: have a dedicated time each day that your students write. I recommend the writing workshop approach.
The second thing you can do is ditch the writing prompts and give your students the gift of choice.
I know it’s very easy to find and print writing prompts. You just put them at a center or you pass out a worksheet for everybody, or you put a prompt on the board and they write in their journal and it can feel like that's the best way to teach writing. Prompts have their occasional place, but a steady diet of writing prompts is not good for our students. They need to work through the whole writing process and one thing writers do is find their own topics and ideas for writing. Our students need to do the same.
When we talk about giving our students choice as writers, there are three things I think about. We can give them choice as to genre, choice as to purpose or audience, and choice as to topic. Much of the time, we're telling them what genre to write in. If you're doing a unit of study, for example in first grade, it might be a unit on poetry and you expect all your students to be writing poems. You may give them the purpose. It could be that you are having them write poems because they're going to be sharing them at a poetry reading for their parents in a month. But, when it comes to the topic, you wouldn't want to say "Everyone has to write a poem about flowers." Or, "Everyone has to write a poem about the color blue." This is where we want to give our students choice.
If you think about this idea --"Wait, all of my students have to think of their own topics for writing?"--and that makes you squirm because you're afraid that during writing time all you're going to hear is "I don't know what to write about! What should I do?" Or you're picturing whole rows of children just sitting there, stumped, not knowing what to do—I hear you. I'm not going to lie, you will hear that from time to time --"I don't know what to write about!" But, the solution is not to hand out topics. It’s to teach your students to find their own topics, which is what real writers do every day.
If any of you are parents, you have probably had a child or two who likes to tell you "I'm bored. I have nothing to do." With six kids at home, I absolutely hear this a lot, and from one child in particular. While I may offer a few ideas, they are usually all rejected, so I don't usually offer them. Mostly what I say is “It’s not my job to find things for you to do.” I know this sounds a little harsh, but this forces him to solve this problem on his own, which he usually does.
I’m not suggesting that when your students say "I don't know what to write about!" You respond by saying, “It’s not my job to tell you what to write about.” No, I don't suggest that. But, what you can do is teach them HOW to decide what to write about.
What you can do in some of your mini-lessons is, for example, give your students the chance to create an expert list. Show them how to make a list of things they know a lot about and could write something about. They could write about family members, vacations, places they’ve been, things that are interesting to them. They could keep this piece of paper in their writing folder for future reference.
Instead of brainstorming major topics, you could have them brainstorm times that they felt a particular emotion – happy, excited, surprised.
As your students get older, so third grade and above, you could teach your students to use a writing notebook as a place to record writing ideas even when they're not at school, or at home if you're a homeschooler. You may have seen this all over the place on the internet or Pinterest, where you have them draw a large heart on a piece of paper or you give them a printable with a large heart on it and in each section of the heart, they draw or write about things that are important to them. We call that a heart map and that can provide a source of writing ideas for the future. You could invite your students to write a list of the “ten best things” that have ever happened to them or “ten really good things,” then have them star items on that list that they could write more about. You can make a class chart of “things we can write about” and add to it regularly.
The point is, you're not feeding them with topics, but you're giving them tools to find their own.
On my blog I have a collection of printables that you can use to help your students find their own writing topics. This is free and I will include it in the show notes for this episode, which you'll be able to find at measuredmom.com/episode4.
Moving on to tip number three, I want to start by saying that if you feel like many people do, that you aren't a strong writer. That you aren't good enough at it to teach it, I want to put your mind at ease, because you have hundreds of co-teachers right in your classroom or homeschool. Even professional teachers of writing know they need help.
Here’s a quote from Katie Wood Ray, in her book Wondrous Words: “I can’t help students to write well by myself. I need lots of help doing this teaching work and I have found that help on the shelves of my library…And day after day as I teach writing to many different students, I let writers like Georgia (Heard) and Gary Paulsen and Cynthia Rylant and Jane Yolen help me do the important work of teaching students to write well."
That brings us to tip number three, the third thing you can do to supercharge your writing instruction. That is: use mentor texts.
A mentor text is any text that can be used as an example of good writing for writers. The point of a mentor text is that you are studying how the text is written and you're trying that in your own writing.
It starts with reading like a writer, noticing how the author crafts the writing. What did the author do to draw you in at the beginning of the story? How did the author make the writing resonate with you? So often you read a book and you think, "Eh, that was okay. It wasn't great." Or, you read a book and you couldn't put it down, right? Think to yourself, "What is it about this writing that drew me in? That made me want to finish this book in one night?" Analyze it, think about it, because those are the types of things you're going to teach your students to do.
Maybe the author began the text with a quote. Or started the novel by describing the setting in vivid detail. Maybe an author organized a nonfiction text in a way that the layout made it easy for you to follow along and learn from. Or, maybe the author drew you in to the story by sharing exactly how the characters felt.
These are just a few examples of the things that mentor texts can teach us. Mentor texts don’t have to be published books by professional writers. You don't have to find a mentor text for every single mini-lesson that you give. Sometimes the best mentor texts are what you are writing yourself or even what your students or former students have written. Student mentor texts are sometimes called "exemplars" and they are wonderful because they can help children see an example of something they can do. Sometimes that's even better than a published mentor text because it's something they can aspire to; it's within their reach. It also builds up students whose writing you shared.
You do not need a huge collection of mentor texts. Some teachers have just a very small list of mentor texts because they know they can teach multiple things from each one. In fact, I have a collection of favorite mentor texts on my blog. It's a list of ten of the best mentor texts for teaching writing in K-2, because each one can teach multiple things. I will be sure to provide a link to that as well in the show notes.
Let's move on to the fourth thing you can do that will super charge your writing instruction, and that is to be a writer yourself.
I recently read an article on the Atlantic by Cindy O’Donnell-Allen. She wrote, "The best writing teachers are writers themselves. Why? Because we know the writing process inside out, we can support our students’ work in authentic ways."
I love to write, but I do not find it effortless. I don’t even find it easy. It’s some of the most challenging mental work that I do, but it's so rewarding. I encourage you to find times to write. It's going to look different for everybody. Personally, I don't keep a journal, I don't keep a diary, I don't keep a writing notebook where I observe things in the world, but you may want to do that. My writing mostly comes in the form of writing scripts for these podcasts, or writing blog posts, or creating video trainings for The Measured Mom Plus!
You need to write on your own so that you have experience writing what you expect your students to write. If I would be teaching a unit on poetry, I would want to spend a little bit of time writing poems on my own, even if that's not my favorite genre. If I were teaching my students to write a personal narrative, I would want to spend some time writing about some memories from my childhood.
I know, I know, you are busy and you probably don't like the idea of setting aside time to write, but put it on your calendar. Just set a timer for twenty minutes and make yourself get started. You will see a few things: that you have stops and starts as you think and reread. This is what you can expect to see when your students write. You will find that some days, writing will come naturally. Other days you will struggle to get your thoughts onto paper. This is what you can expect when your students write. Above all, you will become a stronger writer with consistent practice. This is what you can expect when your students write.
Not only should you make it a priority to spend just a little bit of time writing by yourself outside the classroom, please, please, please WRITE IN FRONT OF YOUR STUDENTS. Compose in front of your students during your mini-lessons. Try not to have everything planned out in advance. Let your students see you think about what topic you're going to write about. Let them see you struggle as you think of how to begin and how to continue and how to end. They need to see, in real life, that writing is messy, even for grown-ups.
Thing number five: talk with your students about [their] writing.
During independent writing time when all your students are writing, you are either giving small-group writing conferences or moving around the classroom conferring with individuals one-on-one. There are so many benefits to speaking with children individually about their writing, and I promise you there is no better way to get to know them as writers and as people. This is a wonderful thing to do in the classroom or the homeschool. I promise you, it will bring you closer to your students or your children. It's the chance to give them exactly what they need to learn, because you are tailoring your teaching to the individual child.
The purpose of a writing conference is to move a writer forward, not to make a particular piece of writing perfect. It's very easy to lose sight of that, especially when we look at a piece of writing and all the errors are just jumping right out at us—all the spelling, all the grammar, or the fact that it doesn't really make sense. We can pick one thing to focus on, one thing in a conference and it needs to be one thing that this writer can use on the next piece they write, and the piece after that, because remember, we're moving the writer forward, not perfecting a piece of writing.
As you sit with a student to talk about his or her writing, there are many things you can do. It might be you're just helping a particular writer get started, to move past that initial writer's block. You might be providing feedback, so maybe a child is ready to move into revising or editing and they want to know what you think of their writing. You might identify a problem the two of you can work on together.
Maybe the writer is writing something that doesn’t flow well. Maybe it doesn’t have a lot of focus, and there's a lot of different things and it's hard to follow. You could teach them something that will improve the structure of their writing, maybe something about spelling, or grammar, or punctuation. You could set writing goals with the writer.
This idea of writing conferences is a big one. Many books have been written just about this, which is why in a few weeks I’ll have a podcast all about how to give strong writing conferences.
For now, let’s just recap those five things you can do to supercharge your writing instruction.
Number one, have a dedicated, predictable time each day for your students to write independently. Number two, ditch the writing prompts, and give your students the gift of choice. Three, use mentor texts. Four, be a writer yourself. And five, talk to your students one-on-one about their writing.
I have a lot to share with you in the show notes for this episode. I'm going to give you the link to my online course, teachingeverywriter.com which is perfect for teachers and homeschoolers of kindergarten, first and second grade. I co-created that course with my colleague, Becky Spence, of This Reading Mama.
You'll also find a link to my e-book, How to Help Kids Learn to Write and Love It, which is for teaching writing in K-8. I would say that e-book is not necessary if you're a member of the course, but it's great for third grade and up, since my course is for K-2.
Finally, I’ll share some links to some blog posts including that post with the free printables for helping students find their own writing ideas, as well as the link to ten of the best mentor texts for teaching writing. You can find all of those at themeasuredmom.com/episode4.
Thanks so much for listening, and I’ll talk to you again next week!
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- Teaching Every Writer, my online course for teaching writing in K-2. Learn more here.
- Blog posts
- Quoted resources
Resources for members of The Measured Mom Plus
- Quick video training: How to get started with writing workshop in K-2
- Printables for teaching writing
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