Building A Community Of Writers:
A Reflection On The Writing Process
I have been teaching for 20+ years, and until this past year obtained the same results in my students’ writing: stories or essays most fat with errors ranging from spelling and grammar to thinly outlined ideas and skeletonized or faulty organization. As a reflective teacher, I ended each year with the promise that I would do something different the following year, particularly developing better procedures to encourage students to revise their written work and that of their peers. I blamed the students for their lack of attention or willingness to revise. Adding to all of this was the students’ belief that an assignment was finished when a name and date were written on a final copy, many almost mirror images of the original. Understandably, every year my students made marginal improvements in their writing.
Unfortunately, I contributed to my students’ pushback to make significant changes to their writing. I collected their work and set about the task of correcting all their mistakes. Albeit an honest attempt to assist the students to see where they had the greatest room for improvement, I marked their errors leaving them nothing to do but to review the corrections, record the 6-Traits grade in their “Completed Assignments” list, and file the scratched up text in their portfolio. Even though the writing they created should have guaranteed greater improvements due to the sheer amount they produced, the instruction I provided lacked the foundation and language necessary to build a community of writers able to employ the necessary writing processes. I continued to create a nominally effective writing class.
Being a reflective teacher, I naturally provided a student reflection piece to my instruction. I created revision checklists, conducting short ‘lectures’ of what to do with them. The checklists included stems that asked, Have you revised?, Have you edited?, What did you revise? and of course the accountability component of Write the name of the person who revised or edited your paper. As my teaching experience progressed, I added modeling to my lesson plan. I picked a couple of compliant students and contrived a writing workshop session. It helped a little, and I felt better about my instruction. Yet my students’ writing habits were in effect static.
As a rule, I made a least one revision to the checklist format each year, all the while thinking that I had made it better. Yet last year, during the planning stage of my Teaching Demo during my ISI experience with The Southern Arizona Writing Project, a review of my most recent checklist and ensuing discussions identified the root of my students’ confusion and ‘willingness’ to use it. The tool was too prescriptive, hence the rationale for haphazard results. Review of student work revealed most changes to my students’ texts were in the area of grammatical or lexical adjustments. Ideas and organization were rarely developed further, if at all. The challenge for me then became to rectify my approach to the Writing Process assuring that revision behaviors lead the way and editing brought up the rear.
The introduction of the Writing Protocol from The National Writing Project transformed my instruction. It built in fidelity with a research based script for its implementation. The power the shared language had on the dynamics and efficacy of my instruction was immediate. Introducing students to the language of Bless, Address, and Press and front loading them with simple phrases such as, “I like how you….” or “I want to know more about…” provided a foundation to assure that my students could begin to provide feedback to each other immediately. The protocol left me free to listen to students’ writing giving me the ability to provide on the spot feedback rather than viewing a hard copy submitted at the end of the class. It alleviated the temptation for me to “mark it up.” Additionally, the protocol set up the critical modeling component of a well-rounded lesson for my students.
Having the opportunity to write about what they wanted was crucial in the early weeks of developing the community’s culture. Consequently, students’ writing was of high interest to their peers. Students were actively engaged in listening from the beginning. The community of writers developed and gained momentum even as students were required to write more difficult formats, such as persuasive and argumentative texts. Because of the modeling and their peers’ assistance, students learned to find their own voices and vocabulary for feedback. Moreover, they were able to critique their own writing as they shared in their writing groups. Even during Author’s Chair many students were able to make notes for revision as they read their work.
Reviewing the myriad videos and photos taken throughout the year, I liken the community of writers I facilitated to the life cycle of the butterfly. They were eggs when they entered the classroom door, feeding on the time devoted to writing and talking about their interests and what they had written. They broke through their shells as they applied the Writing Protocol practices, modeling and hanging on to procedures and adding to the layers of a shared language. By the last part of the year my students had broken free of their chrysalis’ exploring language for its various purposes. They flew in various directions exploring different content and formats, but they remained focused on the need and desire to search out the nectar of feedback from each other. It was an amazing and productive year, the best for me, so far. I am excited for new eggs in the fall.
Working on revision with students’ writing has been a challenging and time consuming process this year. But with the second of our writing projects now almost complete, my students and I have learned a great deal about the choices of formats and audiences available to us as writers.
To illustrate, this year I have empowered myself to explore teaching using multiple genres. I developed WebQuests (see blog links) that work within the context of a theme. Both my high school and middle school students are currently exploring the myriad of formats they can use to synthesize their learning. Applying the ideas found in Tom Romano’s books Writing With Passion and Crafting With Authentic Voice the goal is to have students use rhetoric to support how each genre they craft aligns with the others to express a cohesive theme.
Students have created greeting cards, some with haikus and limericks, tabloid articles with gossip-laden truths, comic strips, and even short ghost stories. Five-paragraph essays, which support our school’s writing initiative, have been crafted as well. It has been energizing to hear students say, “You mean that is all you want?” when they realize that a simple bookmark with an original image and a few deliberately crafted words can convey their understanding of a concept.
The challenging part has been to require students to create drafts of texts and models, depending on the format, of how they envision the final product. They want to jump in with materials and supplies to create their artifacts almost as quickly as a draft is created. I have repressed the feelings of being a miser when I disallow them to have materials other than paper and pencil for their wonderful creations. As a mature writer, I know that time away from a piece allows for fresh ideas to emerge, a key part of the revision process.
Knowing that students are all too content to be satisfied with the first draft as the final, I decided to give students new folders for their project. Giving them crayons or colored pencils and the time to create another artifact encouraged them to slide their rough drafts inside the folders and place them away to carry on with the remaining required rough drafts. A trusting environment with an established routine allowed this to happen.
My students have settled in with the process of drafting, where in some instances very intricate designs and well-crafted drawings have emerged. They truly border a final copy. Thus far I have suggested to a few that they might consider conducting an operation, much like Dr. Frankenstein did with his monster, and cut, paste, and add color and finishing touches to their comic strips, drawings, and sketches. This suggestion has seemed to placate and smooth over some of their insecurities about the hard work having to be ‘redone’ for the final product.
Closing in on the end of the project, most folders are loaded with 4 of the 5 rough drafts that await the final Writer’s Workshop before our second Author’s Conference. Of the 6 traits, we have explored voice, word choice, ideas and organization. I have endeavored to lead them away from editing in order to delineate the revision process.
Purposeful instruction throughout the project, including the timelines for completion, will have demonstrated to my students the power of the writing process for revision. I am excited about the upcoming Writer’s Workshop and the revelation that will unfold when a comparative analysis is conducted with the students’ original rough drafts.
Being a middle school teacher, I never know what kind of day any one of my 101 kids will have. From one minute to the next they can change, emotionally and physically. I am sensitive to kids behavior and ever watchful to how they treat each other in words and actions. My school is a Ben’s Bells Kind Campus, and I advocate for no bullying behavior, kind actions, and kind words. I love seeing the growth of my students both academically and socially. It is slow, and I work constantly to be patient and caring in all situations as my students progress towards being young adults who are responsible and reflective of their own behavior.
Yesterday, being “unplugged” from any social media in my room in the back of my middle school, I had no idea about the upheaval that the small Connecticut community of Sandy Hook was facing. It wasn’t until lunch that one of my colleagues told me about what had happened. Even then, the severity didn’t hit me. Trying to make a connection with my colleagues in a short 30 minute period and attempting to make personal connections with the kids in the lunch room outside of the four walls of instruction, I let the words “shooting” and “school” pass in one ear and out the other. (Too desensitized…damn.) I didn’t give it another moment of thought for the rest of the day. That is until I came home and turned on the television.
For the remainder of the evening I watched and listened crying my own tears and thinking of my students and my actions of the day…
…in the middle of last night’s tears I realized that I had told each and every class upon dismissal that I loved them. I told my first class I loved them, even then surprised at my action and questioning myself why I had said that. Then again and again I stated throughout the day when each bell rang… I love you.
In the middle of last night’s tears, I kept telling myself I had told every one of my students that I loved them. Out loud with no one in the room I repeated that I had told each of them I love you. Even before I knew about the events in Connecticut, I had told them I loved them. (Thank you divine intervention!)
In all my years of teaching, a little over 21 and primarily at the middle school level, I have never told my middle school students that I loved them. I have seldom hugged or made physical contact with them in any way other than a hand shake, a fist bump or high five. Teachers are often warned about personal contact with children (reminder to self…hug sideways).
Some of my students responded positively to my comment, some not at all, some probably didn’t even hear it. However, that is not the point. I had told them all I loved them. They know that when they come back to school on Monday that I love them. Each will be in their own state of emotional need. Even I am in my own state of emotional need. But that is not important. What is important it that even though my students are not my own children they are my kids. I will be there to give them a hug and to tell each one again…I love you.