Knee-deep in the fall of the school year, you take stock of your current successes. Maybe your launch of Readers’ Workshop is growing avid bibliophiles. Perhaps an intervention strategy is yielding gains among your most vulnerable students. Maybe you finally carved out time to enjoy your lunch at 4:00PM on the ride home. While the successes are mounting, the challenges are surfacing for students as well. Many of you pine over lackluster writing or dispassionate young authors. You long for colorful language, imaginative ideas, well-placed metaphors, or a properly placed comma. You are working exhaustively, but so often feel discouraged. So what’s the problem with your writers? Consider these six possibilities and their potential remedies.
Possibility #1: “THEY Can’t Do It!”
Have you started a sentence about your writers with the words, “They can’t…?” Consider that students learn best when you teach explicitly. If your students fail to demonstrate anticipated skills, ask the question, “Have I modeled this skill explicitly for my students?” Making your thinking visible is critical for writers to translate instruction into their writing. Do you catch yourself spending a good deal of time asking students, “Who can tell me…?” or “Who remembers…?” This is the language of assessment rather than instruction. Assessment questions need to come after students have seen models, attempted application, and refined understandings through practice and discussion. If your instruction sounds more like assessment now, try shifting your language to first model the skill or strategy before asking students to take cognitive ownership. Lift the veil on your thinking so students can see how you (a proficient writer) get to the final product. Use a modeling progression to gradually release responsibility for the writing skill to your students, as in the following example:
I noticed in your writing that you are providing a lot of evidence in your essays to support your opinion. Today, I’m going to teach you that opinion writers sometimes present the OPPOSITE argument so they can anticipate when readers might disagree and show why their thinking doesn’t hold up.
Let me show you what I mean. (Display a short sample opinion essay you’ve written beforehand. Read the piece, stopping to think aloud.) Hmmm…I see that I’ve done a good job of supporting MY opinion but I know my readers could make arguments against me. For example, a reader might think, “Well, I know that…so I disagree with this opinion!” I want to be ready to COUNTER my reader’s arguments so I’m going to add a COUNTERARGUMENT! Watch me while I add in a counterargument to tackle reader disagreement.
(Construct your counterargument in front of students. Think aloud as you pen the sentences. This modeling is the critical piece in shifting “THEY can’t…” to “THEY will be able to replicate the one skill I am about to clearly model!” They more explicit your model, the more proficient their applications will be.)
Do you see how I’ve strengthened my writing by anticipating a reader’s counterargument and debunking it before they even have a chance?!
Now you try. Using your essay drafts, turn and talk to a partner about a counterargument you could construct to strengthen your argument.
Send-Off to Independent Writing:
For the rest of your lives, I want you to remember that writers strengthen their opinions by presenting the counterargument and arguing against it before the reader has a chance! Today, I want you to try crafting a counterargument in your piece.
Possibility #2: Their Mentorship is Anemic
Writers learn their craft through apprenticeship. Authors are the masters of craft. Are you presenting a myriad of mentor authors from whom students can learn? Do you diversify the mentors so that students witness a wide range of crafts? Are you demonstrating craft in accessible ways for all students? Consider these strategies for strengthening author mentorship for your writers.
- Use text slices, not whole texts! Select just one page, paragraph, or sentence that demonstrates a craft du jour. This will ensure the craft is the obvious focus, not the story.
- Use text slices from picture books, novels, magazines, song lyrics, poems, advertisements, cereal boxes, or any piece of writing that demonstrates a craft effectively. This will train your writers to search for mentors everywhere.
- Use your own writing to mentor! To your students, you are the most influential guide to the craft universe.
- Use student writing to mentor! Honor their use of craft elements and prompt others to do the same.
- Reuse a mentor text to illuminate different crafts over the course of the unit. This helps students understand the deliberate construction of text and that every sentence matters!
Possibility #3: They’re Thinking Like Readers, Not Writers
Think about the following “text” (the image) as reader. What did you notice?
Did you tell a story of two friends? Did you describe one of the characters in the scene? Did you notice barbed wire in the setting? Did all of the evidence cause you to infer about the plot?
Now read the image like a writer. What do you notice? Did you notice a contrast between light and dark (structure)? Did you catch a deliberate elimination of facial features (lack of detail)? Did you detect the unwritten dialogue between the characters (show don’t tell)? How about a metaphor (blurring of some details contrasted by the clarity of others)?
Your students are typically bound to thinking as readers. Even when you ask them to don a writer’s cap, they will identify the story arc, connect to characters, or discuss the inference they’re making. Consider explicitly teaching students to switch off their reader lens and engage with text as a writer, hunting for craft elements (not story elements) and translating these found crafts into their own writing.
Start with images as you train reader brains to take a fresh look at text as authors. Model your thinking as you notice light, color contrast, details, metaphor, shocking images, brush strokes, camera angles, and other “author” techniques. Translate your thinking as you then model the same approach with a mentor text. Gradually release students to do this work with their reading texts by thinking aloud (I DO), guiding practice (WE DO), and releasing writers as independent craft hounds (YOU DO).
Don’t forget, punctuation, grammar, and mechanics! These are author crafts. Find examples of long rambling sentences that convey stream of consciousness, quizzical use of commas that express a character’s numerous burdens, punctuated emphasis in emotional dialogue, and other ways authors use structural crafts to convey meaning.
Remember, craft is everywhere! Keep your students at the ready for craft hunting any time they engage with print.
Possibility #4: They’re Not Collecting and Admiring Craft they Encounter
Writers need a treasure chest in which to capture, collect, and admire craft they’ve hunted down through independent reading and mini-lesson instruction. The proper vault is the Writer’s Notebook. Like real writers, your students can use a notebook to organize the crafts they discover and transform them into original composition.
Consider using a simple marble notebook and have students adorn the cover with personal idea-gems for stories like pictures of favorite characters, foods, places, memories, and themes from their lives. Develop a purposeful structure of tabs for their notebooks to facilitate a cycle of hunting, admiring, and transferring craft to their own writing. Tabs might include the following:
- Structural Crafts (to copy and play with grammar, mechanics, conventions, varied sentence lengths, dialogue rather than narration to show rather than tell, etc.)
- Word Crafts (to copy and play with “expensive” words, words that connote visual or audio elements, word pairings that show rather than tell, etc.)
- Literary Crafts (to copy and play with metaphors, similes, onomatopoeia, etc.)
- Pre-Writing (to plan and rehearse writing techniques)
- Drafts (to merge pre-writing, craft, original composition, and revision to author a piece)
- Mini-Lessons (to document explicit instruction provided by the teacher in the mini-lesson to help focus craft hunting, pre-writing, drafting, revision, etc.)
Tabbing notebooks will help you coach writers during 1:1 conferring and help them organize collection and conversion of mentor craft in a manageable way. If you are currently using a Writer’s Notebook, but organizing the work chronologically rather than strategically, consider a custom tabbed system to sharpen writer focus on craft. Use sticky-notes, divider tabs, or bookmarks glued to notebook pages to tab the sections. Explicitly model how you use each section in your own tabbed notebook and then ask students to mimic your craft admiration practices.
Possibility #5: They’re Always Writing the WHOLE Story
Writing is a laborious task for budding authors. Not only are they working hard to generate ideas, practice the writing process, and grow their craft techniques, they are operating under a crushing deadline for quality. In the real world of publishing, particularly in the literary genres, authors often play with ideas, toy with craft, start and abandon stories, and eventually find a thread to carry through to the finish line.
For some genres, consider allowing your writers to work this way in the classroom. While it is perfectly fine for writers to take a feature article or how-to book to completion, other publications don’t always require the fulfillment of an entire story arc. For example, during a realistic fiction unit, writers can craft just the amazing lead to their “story” focusing on the following:
- Lead craft (e.g., a shocking sentence to open)
- Powerful dialogue, rather than narration, to introduce a character’s appearance, thoughts, and actions
- Use of grammar, punctuation, and conventions to convey meaning
- Literary elements to help develop a movie in the reader’s mind
- Suspense to draw the reader into the next page
These, or numerous other crafts, can spring from just the lead of the story. By dedicating ample time to just this small element of the story, you can turn the volume way up on craft refinement. Writers will still need to carefully develop pre-writing and rehearsal phases even without a full story. The distinction occurs during the drafting and revision phases. Time is spent on deeply studying the crafts of fiction and not wasted on writer’s block when stamina weans, painstaking revision of lengthy pieces, and watered down craft to conserve the time necessary for completion of a full text. After all, in the end, you are often disappointed in the quality of the work even after writers have spent weeks or months on a piece. Despite teacher intention, the summary style of writing triumphs in an exchange of quantity for quality. Admit it. Even the best of us bore sometimes reading story after story in which craft shines through on the first pages, only to dim over the steady decline of a draft.
Consider selecting some genres or units in which your writers try numerous attempts at short elements of a story, such as a character sketch, climax, lead, or plot twist. Like mentor text pieces, short sprints of writing can be far more powerful than a marathon.
Possibility #6: They Forgot to Be Fringe
If you’re a reader, ask yourself, “What do I love to read?” If you hate reading, ask yourself the very same question. Lover or hater, most readers prefer the fringe. We relish quirky stories, flashbacks that throw us off balance, surprise endings, varied dialect, grisly characters pouncing from peripheral closets, made-up words, mysteries unveiled with shocking twists, run-on sentences stacked before a hiccup phrase, fresh perspectives on global issues, and other marginal wonders. Typically, the average reader is less enthralled with the expected. Why then do we often focus so much time constructing formulaic writing?
While academic writing is critical, it is only a piece of the authorship pie. If flat writing, blank pages, or summarizing (rather than really writing) in the genre plagues your young authors, consider whether formulas are a likely culprit. Our writers need explicit exposure to a variety of text types, author styles, unexpected stories, and unfamiliar genres to understand that there are few rules for writers in the real world. Writing is about conveying meaning to a reader. Authors possess unlimited tools, methods, and techniques with which to do this work. While the image and formula of the “hamburger” paragraph helps writers acclimate to text structure, it does not alone grow writers. It does not ensure interesting writing. It does not guarantee transfer of meaning. It does not alone build a passion for craft.
Once you’ve modeled genre-specific structures and components for students, consider moving on to the exciting work of authorship: setting their writing apart from all others that published before them.
Possibility #7: They’re Not Composing, They’re Responding to Reading
Writing isn’t only about responding to reading. For example, too often, writing curriculum demands that students read a work of historical fiction and then write an opinion essay about the author’s message. While this exercise has great value, it doesn’t allow students to actually don a historical fiction writer’s cap and try it on for size. Furthermore, it requires teachers to instruct across two very different genres (narrative and argumentative), each with a separate skill set. Finally, given the divided time between the two distinct genres, teachers are forced to focus on citing evidence from the text, uncovering the author’s message, inferring, making connections, and synthesizing (writing down) all of this thinking in a coherent manner. It’s writing about reading.
Consider that your writers need ample practice composing original text within numerous genres. Beyond the personal narrative and literary essay, writers need to craft original fantasy, debate speeches, historical fiction, narrative nonfiction, cereal box ads, microfiction, restaurant reviews, graphic narrative, biography, song lyrics, blogs, and as many other authentic works as possible. Remember, these don’t need to be full-length pieces, but opportunities to play with craft specific to the genre or publication type. To ensure these opportunities, pair writing and reading units together. Overlap these studies so that students have time to first read in the genre before they begin writing in the genre. Once they have been immersed as readers, they’ll know the genre well enough to begin hunting for specific crafts and penning original genre texts.
Summing It Up
So what’s the problem with your writers? For many, it’s their decision-making skills. Writing is decision-making. Through the convergence of their reading experiences and their schema, authors make deliberate decisions about novel ideas, beautiful crafts, inspirational themes, and strong opinions. Grow this decision-making skill-set by pairing student reading and writing experiences together in as many ways as possible, whether through explicit instruction, mentor texts, reading with a writer’s eye, or colliding personal stories with found craft in a Writer’s Notebook. Your writers just might decide to surprise you.