choice · reading workshop · writing workshop

Student Engagement in Writing and Reading Workshop

This is the second in a series of blog posts about different strategies I use to help my students take ownership of their learning. The first post was about class meetingsToday’s post is about giving kids opportunities to determine their own writing and reading plans every Friday afternoon. (Coming soon is the third post in this series about allowing kids to extend an afternoon of planning into an entire day!)

This year our school implemented the Lucy Calkins’ units of writing. Next year we will be doing the reading units. Although I have been doing reading and writing workshop for a long time, this is the first year where I felt my students had less choice, rather than more choice, in their writing. And, choice is one of the untouchables of a workshop approach to teaching anything, as well as an important element towards getting kids to take ownership of their learning. 

Of course, it’s not that my students had no choice at all, but their choices were certainly much more limited than in previous years. In fact, I noticed that my students would groan when it was time for writing workshop. Although, I have encountered students who didn’t like to write, I have never experienced such a resounding rejection of writing workshop as this school year. 

So, I decided to do something about it. 

I told my students that on Fridays they would be able to choose their writing and reading projects. This change had little impact on reading since kids have choice and control over their independent reading and most of them are usually focused on what they’re reading. Not true for writing. So, no matter what the current writing unit was at the time, the kids could choose to write outside of that unit on Fridays. 

What happened from that moment on confirmed the importance of continuing to give kids a say in their learning. 

When Friday rolled around the kids invariably chose to write first! And, that is still the case several months later. After witnessing this phenomenon a few times, I asked the kids why they were selecting to write first when in the past, every time I announced it was writing workshop time there would be a collective groan? Of course, their response was that now they had a choice in what they could work on and they loved that. During this choice time, I was still able to confer with students one-on-one about what they were interested in writing or reading

Some readers of this blog may be thinking: “Yes, they were happy because now they could choose what to write about. All kids are happy when they can choose.” OK. And, what is wrong with that? Aren’t adults happy when we can choose our projects or the focus of our work? Aren’t we more likely to learn when we can determine the topic(s) of our professional learning? Why is that wrong? 

One pair of students worked on a story together that is almost finished. They even solicited submissions from the class for an illustrator for their book. They are now working on inserting the pictures in the right places in their story. Their ultimate goal is to make several print copies of their book. And, in fact, all of the children wrote stories and shared them with their classmates.

From that moment on, Friday afternoon choice time was sacred in our class. Students learned how to manage their time, when to work alone and when to work with a classmate, and what project they wanted to spend their time on. 

This experiment was so successful that I decided to extend into a full day of planning. Stay tuned for the next post in this series.

If you have given up more ownership of writing and reading to students, I would love to hear what you have done. Share it here! 






character collages. character development · character traits · parents · writing · writing workshop

Writing Tips from a Parent

Recently, the mom of one of my students talked to our class about her work as a writer of YA books.  She prepared a PowerPoint presentation using Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt as her mentor text.  The following list includes some of the tips she gave the children.

(1) First, it’s important to write about what you know so that you can write with confidence and authority.

(2) A well-developed beginning, middle, and ending is a critical component to any story.  Just writing “the end” is not enough.  It was great to have a professional writer point this out to the children since often that is how they end their stories because they’ve figured out that they don’t have anything else to say.  The truth is that either they didn’t plan their story before sitting down to write, or they didn’t have a problem in the story that needed development and resolution.  This is something I’m planning to address during the last term of this year.

(3) Pay especial attention to the beginning of your story.  A well-written and interesting beginning will often be the determining factor for whether or not the reader will want to continue reading.

(4) Make sure there is a conflict in the story.  If there is no plot, the story will be boring.

(5) The ending should wrap things up for the reader in some way.  My student’s parent mentioned that she didn’t like cliff hanger endings.  I respectfully disagree.  Sometimes those are the best endings because they leave me wanting to read more.  More books, more by the same author, and more in a series, if that’s the case.  I don’t always think cliff hanger endings are a bad idea unless it seems obvious that the author couldn’t think of an ending and so decided to have no ending instead.

All of this was very instructive and validated much of what I’ve been teaching this year.  However, what piqued my interest the most was when this parent shared her “character collage”.  A character collage allows the writer to think about and develop a character before she even starts to write her story.  By using magazine images and words the writer can create a picture of a character’s interests and traits.  And, this collage can be a work in progress as the writer starts to write and think about major and minor characters, plot, and setting.  This is the next step I am planning to take as we continue thinking and analyzing character traits in my classroom.  I will write more about how this went with the children during the first week of April.  In the meantime, just in case you’re curious about character collages, read this post at http://www.stinalindenblatt.com/2010/10/getting-to-know-your-character.html at my student’s mom’s blog/website.

I’d love to hear any thoughts about the tips mentioned above from readers of this blog.  Please, feel free to leave a comment with your ideas.

choice · writers' notebooks · writing workshop

Writers’ Notebooks and More

As I walked around the room during writing workshop, I noticed most of the children had no sense of what they were writing about and why they were writing about that topic.  In fact, many of them seemed aimless in their writing with little energy and interest to write.  Instead, they were drawing or cutting or coloring.  Had this been going on for a while and I hadn’t noticed?  Was this due to the fact that we’d had to adjust our schedule over the last couple of weeks and we’d missed our regular writing time?  Was it because I had not spent enough time, including occasional revisits, on how to find and choose good writing topics?  Were had I been that I hadn’t noticed what was happening in the classroom?

So, right then and there I decided to pull out the extra set of notebooks on the shelf and institute writers notebooks in my grade 2 classroom.

I called the children to the carpet and told them what I had observed.  I did a quick introduction – maybe not the best way to bring writers’ notebooks into the classroom but I felt desperate – about writers’ notebooks telling them that all writers keep a notebook where they try out writing ideas, or keep lists of topics, or jot down thoughts that come up that they might want to use in a piece of writing later.  I told them that we would be doing this at the beginning of every writing workshop for a while.  Then, I told them to make a list of up to ten things that they are good at.  This was challenging for some.  I told the children that it was OK if they only came up with one or two things on their list for right now; they could always add to it later.  Some misunderstood my directions and wrote what they were good at as a writer, which was fine and will be useful information for me later, but many wrote the typical list of what they’re good at – swimming, riding a bike, writing stories (surprisingly this one appeared often), etc.  They had three minutes to make their list.  Then, I told them to circle one thing on their list that stood out for them that day and write about that on a clean page for about seven minutes.  We did this the next day as well with the children adding to their list for a few minutes first and then continuing their writing from the day before or starting a new piece about something else on their list.

I had a chance to read their entries yesterday and I was impressed by what they wrote though some children wrote very little and some wrote more than is customary for them.  I can now go back and do small groups or confer individually with each child on things I noticed that would help them improve as a writer.  For example, when I said to write on one of the topics on their list, some children had no idea how to start.  Even though I had suggested they could start by saying, “Swimming is…” or “I like to swim because….”some children had trouble expanding on that, and so I will be conferring with these children in the coming days.

In the past, I have done writers’ notebooks using suggestions from Aimee Buckner’s, Notebook Know-How.  I have sometimes wondered if grade 2 is too young to start writers’ notebooks but now that I haven’t done it this year until recently I can see a difference in the kind of writing my students are doing.  I am also noticing that in the past I gave the children the choice of writing during reading workshop a la Daily 5 and this year I decided not to do that because I wanted reading workshop to be solely focused on reading with a once a week time for writing a response in readers’ notebooks.  So, that means that the children are actually having less writing time this year than in the past.  Also, previous classes had the choice to write and read during the Spanish portion of our day.  This year, I am more directed during this time because I’ve felt I needed to in order to stay closer to what the other teachers are doing.  Not working either.  There is a transference about the process of reading and writing from one language to another that happens naturally if this is given space and time.  I am going to reconsider writing as an option during writing workshop and reinstitute wider choices during our Spanish language arts time.

Lesson learned:  trust my expertise and knowledge as a teacher and use that to impact my students’ learning rather than doing things because I feel pressured to conform.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on my ruminations today.  Please leave your comments below.