Imitation: My Favorite Writing Strategy

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project
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The author’s imitation of a Haydn poem. Click the image to enlarge it.

Several years ago, I participated in the Oakland Writing Project. Here, I learned a strategy that enhanced my writing and my study of authors’ craft. I began to understand how writers wrote, and I learned to use those same moves in my own writing.  

Last week, I spent some time in my friend’s classroom, and she was using the same strategy with her students. The strategy is imitation, and it helps student-writers to develop their voice and enhance their ability to make choices.

Walking into the room, I smiled when I saw this learning target on the board: “I can imitate a mentor poem.” I immediately thought back to the first poem I imitated in The Oakland Writing Project. It was “Those Winter Sundays,” by Robert Hayden.

This is a short poem with only three stanzas. It describes a routine morning where a dad gets up early to light fires to warm the house. There are also underlying messages like the speaker’s lack of gratitude and a fear of his father.

Through imitation, I could mimic the topic or theme of the poem, or I could imitate the structure and style of the poem. In the picture above, you can see that I imitated the structure by keeping the same number of lines and words. 

Imitation in the Classroom

Learning from my own writing experiences, I teach imitation to students.

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We start small and grow when students are ready. We start by using the same topic as the writer. We imitate the same number of words per line and the same number of lines in a stanza. To model for kids how to begin this work, a template might look like the one listed to the right. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

At this point, you’ve given students something successful which they can strive to imitate, but they haven’t made any personal writing choices. As you conference with students, you’ll notice that some are ready to move forward. A great next step for student-writers is to choose a topic of his/her own within the same structure as the mentor poem. This allows the writing to begin to be the student’s.  

Another next step is to study the words and imitate craft choices like alliteration and assonance, verb and noun placement, and words that share similar syllables.

Breaking Away from Imitation

In a later draft of my own poem, I used a standalone line. The poem I was imitating doesn’t have a standalone line, but as a writer, I felt that my writing needed that line, which took me out of imitation. So, I started using the strategy and continued by making decisions of my own.

Later, another writing piece became my own, even though I started with imitation. I began with “Patterns,” by Anne Atwell-McLeod. Here is a finished piece of writing that began with imitation.

You’ll notice while conferencing that, as they’re ready to move forward with imitation, some students will continue to use these strategies. They will also grow the strategies they use throughout the year as you expose them to excellent mentor texts.  

pic 2Amy Gurney (@agurney_amy) is an ELA and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for Walled Lake Schools. She has a Master’s degree from Michigan State University in Educational Administration and is currently pursuing an Education Specialist in Educational Leadership at Oakland University. She is a current Galileo Leader. She worked on the MAISA units of study and has studied reading and writing workshop practice and conducted action research.

NaNo What Now?

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

6th grade gifted writer, Sydney, working on the next great American novel

NaNoWriMo is coming!

National Novel Writing Month happens every November and is something you should bring into your classroom to encourage community, creativity, perseverance, and independence in the writing lives of your students.

NaNoWriMo asks you to write a novel in one month. It seems insane and impossible, but over 300,000 people do it yearly. If you have never participated, you should try it out this year. And if you have a classroom of students, you should use NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program to help your students engage in this experience.

I made participating in NaNoWriMo an option in my 8th grade classroom. The camps of students who usually participated included: serious gifted writers, everyday kids looking to be challenged, and special education students.

The Young Writer’s Program has lots of tools and resources to help you give your student writers all the support they need. This includes novel-writing workbooks, lesson plans, charts, buttons, and swag. Not to mention an awesome online community of student writers and mentor authors who give great pep talks.

Quantity Leads to Quality

The whole idea behind NaNoWriMo is just to get your story written. Don’t worry if it makes sense, or if you spelled a word wrong, or if your characters are flat. (Editing comes in later months, for those of you grammar sticklers who were wondering.) Just get your story out there and quit making excuses!

Now, some would argue that writing every day is crazy business! And, having participated in NaNoWriMo, I know that it really is rather hard to write every day, on top of all the other things going on in your teaching and personal life. But, because you have committed to doing this, and because you have a community of other crazy writers on your side, something makes you keep going.

 Students in the media center at Oakview Middle School, updating their novel progress on the school wide chart.

Students in the media center at Oakview Middle School, updating their novel progress on the school-wide chart.

Community of Writers

When you commit to joining NaNoWriMo with your students, you are really creating a community of writers. I had a wide range of student writers participate. The special education students had IEP goals in writing and spelling, but they saw themselves as writers and would come with notebooks full of the stories they had started. These were stories that paralleled video game plots or stories they knew from movies, which they claimed as their own and added new twists and turns to. The gifted writers came to try out new genres and forms of storytelling, and to work on stories they had started on Wattpad.

Some years I started an after-school club for NaNoWriMo. This was nice because I could offer it to different grades and was able to get the other ELA teachers in my school involved. Many of them would come to one of the after-school meetings to see their students write and share in the fun. I even convinced our singing-science teacher to create a NaNoWriMo commercial one year.

The NaNoWriMo website also has an online community that students enjoyed participating in. You can friend people if you know their username, you can send encouraging messages to users, or you can post in the private forums to ask for advice or get feedback on sections of your novel.

Sense of Accomplishment

Most of my students who participated met or exceeded their word-count goals. Yet one of the first things we talked about as a group was setting realistic, attainable goals. We used charts and stickers to mark our progress, and our community was really supportive of each other.

We enjoyed the challenge of meeting our daily word-count goals. But another benefit of NaNoWriMo is that students who meet their word-count goal can submit their novel and get a published copy of their writing. This is a highly motivating factor for most students.

I have attempted to write a novel in NaNoWriMo every year since 2010 and I have never won (it all usually unravels for me around Thanksgiving). But I’m still planning on doing it again this year. If you want to do it, but don’t think you can manage during the school year, you should consider Camp NaNoWriMo–where you can pick any month (think summer!) and work on a month-long writing project. And if you like to compose with digital writing and mixed media, check out DiGiWriMo.

Regardless of whether you try it out, you should definitely bring it up to your students as something they might want to try. You might be surprised to find how many aspiring, excited writers you have in your class.

file-sep-29-8-45-18-pmCaroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

 

What’s Your Vision?

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_193135235I am lucky to have a new job this year as a Curriculum Coordinator for English Language Arts and Social Studies in a new school district. Since I am new to the district, I found myself at New Teacher Orientation. At these sessions, the upper administration focuses on the district’s vision, and how the new teachers are going to be a part of that vision. Having progressed through the ranks with a lot of time in classrooms, administrators tend to share anecdotes about times when they helped to develop this vision, or instances in which they found satisfaction in keeping this vision.

Subsequently, I buy in.

They say good things, they’ve done good things, and I nod along as I listen. I know that this is what’s good for kids, and that I can be a part of this work.

In these initial days, I have also worked with several groups of teachers. Here, I have had the opportunity to learn about their visions and what their classrooms look like on a daily basis. I see the beginning-of-the-year excitement and the true belief that they can do good things for kids. I believe in these teachers too.

This raises a question for all teachers: As the year progresses, and demands increase, and yes, you get a little tired, what visions of your classroom will you support no matter what comes your way? What will you fight for because it’s good for kids?

A Vision for Literacy Instruction

I’d like to promise that I will uphold these beliefs in my new role:

shutterstock_115746919Kids should be given an opportunity to write consistently. This writing should be varied and open to student choice. This choice may be in the strategy they use to produce writing, the length of the writing, the topic of the writing, or even the genre of the writing. Why is this important? Students who write and make choices about writing develop critical thinking skills needed in our world.

Kids should be given the opportunity to read every day. Reading can be a collaborative process. It doesn’t have to be silent and individual. As teachers, we have to expose kids to texts they may not have chosen on their own. This can look like strong mentor texts that guide writing and reading, as well as genre-specific texts that mirror student interests. This is important because students who read consistently and with variety do better in school.

Reading, writing, word study, and grammar are not separate entities in literacy instruction. They interact together and should be taught together. Students who can make connections between these topics are exposed to more real-life opportunities and will be better able to transfer these skills outside the Language Arts classroom.

The most effective tool for developing the reading and writing abilities of kids is feedback. Feedback or conferencing should be connected to standards, and should offer skills to increase the depth of the work produced. Feedback should guide students toward mentor texts and class materials that will assist them in high-quality achievement. As with all of my vision statements, students should have a choice in the feedback they take and the action-steps they enact after feedback.

These are a few of the beliefs that I will fight for in literacy instruction. What are yours?

pic 2Amy Gurney (@agurney_amy) is an ELA and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for Walled Lake Schools. She has a Master’s degree from Michigan State University in Educational Administration and is currently pursuing an Education Specialist in Educational Leadership at Oakland University. She is a current Galileo Leader. She worked on the MAISA units of study and has studied reading and writing workshop practice and conducted action research.

 

End-of-Year Takeaways

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_430544983It’s been a couple of weeks since school let out for the summer. I’ve tackled a few projects, read a book or two. And so, of course, I’ve started to think about next year.

For the last couple of years I’ve had my seniors participate in a final Harkness discussion, where I ask them to reflect on what they’ve thought about the course. The rules are simple: no grades, and I, their Gentle Instructor, will not talk nor take offense. The goal, I tell them, is to improve the quality of the experience for future students. So far it’s been pretty successful–a few tears but no pitchforks. Here are my takeaways this year.

Stories Matter

Literature, fiction, good stories–they still matter. As we’ve moved towards more nonfiction texts, I’ve been generally pleased with the results. I find it easier to teach argument using informational mentor texts. But my students still like fiction. They were emphatic on this.

Nothing stuck with my students the way that the stories do. They called out Holden, Lady Macbeth, Tayo, Offred, Gatsby, and talked about how these characters moved or frustrated–or sometimes bored–them. That doesn’t surprise me. But they also named people from nonfiction pieces that we’d read. They remembered the stories of Derek Boogaard, Jamaica Kincaid, and Bharati Mukherjee and connected them back to the stories they follow: Orange is The New Black, Daredevil, Gilmore Girls, and on and on.

There’s something primal about our need for stories. We might look for them in different formats but we want them. Stories work as “empathy machines” for us, and I have to remember that as I look for mentor texts. Even when I’m really searching for an excellent use of embedded quotes, I have to keep those stories in mind, because audience matters, and empathy is a great way to connect.

Stopping the Search for Perfect Mentor Texts

51ettPWhyFL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_Two years ago my students really dug into Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko. It was the most discussed novel, followed by Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Not so this year. Ceremony was roundly criticized by almost all of my students, while Handmaid’s was lauded.

My students also asked why we hadn’t read a book with a transgendered or gender-switching character. I offered to do a summer book study of Woolf’s Orlando. I waited a long time at Starbucks; no one showed up.

Where does that leave me? I’ll never get the mix right, so should I abandon “required” reading in favor of student choice? I’m tempted, I’ll admit. But can I really, as I’ve claimed, teach skills using any book?

I’m still thinking about that, and I am moving that way. I want to respect their ability to choose . . . sometimes.

Relatable Characters for All Students

I’m doing a terrible job with my students of color. This was the most heartbreaking part of the discussion. Students who had done a terrific job talking about the Lomans, the Macbeths, Sherlock, and Holmes said that they “were used to” not seeing characters who looked like them, who might represent their experiences.

Used to it.”

It cannot stay like that. They were also clear that they had had their fill of the Harlem Renaissance, “I Have a Dream,” and the rest of the “Black History Month stuff.” They deserve better and I’m working on that for next year.

“Real” Writing

As I’ve written, I’ve moved further away from prescriptive rubrics and forms of writing, in favor of more authentic, audience-driven work. Instead of giving them a simple set of instructions for “successful arguments in writing”–5 paragraphs, 3 part thesis, counter goes here–I’ve been asking my students to devise their own measures for success.

Yeah, it’s much more difficult, but so much more real. My students tell me that they think much harder about this kind of writing. They find it challenging, and sometimes wistfully long for the days when writing was easy, because there was a formula. I can’t lie; sometimes I do too. It was so much easier to look for that thesis statement when I knew its location. But we’re not going back.

My students talked about how much more “real” and mature they felt to have these choices. They talked about how they wished they’d taken feedback more seriously–that’s where I come in–because they saw how important it was to this to the process.

There were more trends in these discussions, of course. My jokes are bad. I might want to rethink my love of 90’s hip-hop along with my dance moves. Some students I absolutely did not move at all. They felt like my classroom was mostly a waste of time. But overall they gave me enough to think about so I can “do better when I know better.”

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Being Bilingual is Better

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project
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Students progress in their language learning by using Spanish in all subject areas

How many languages do you speak? Chances are, if you are like many native-born Americans, the answer is a resounding…one. Only English.

Students at Marquette Elementary School in Muskegon, however, learn in both Spanish and English in the school’s dual language immersion program. The idea is that by the end of 8th grade, students will be prepared to enter high school fluent in two languages, regardless of their native tongue. The results are astonishing.

Kids begin in kindergarten classrooms where 90 percent of the instructional language is Spanish and 10 percent is English. Slightly more than half of the students come from homes where English is the spoken language, while the rest are from families where Spanish is the parents’ first language. This model of bilingual education is known as an “additive model,” in that students “add” a language to their first language without losing the capacity to listen, speak, read, or write in their home language.

It works.

A Fraught History of Bilingual Education

Dual language programs have been in place in the United States since the late 1960s, when educators realized the power of language-minority communities to create language-additive environments for the benefit of all. Native English speakers could learn English and acquire a second language. Spanish speakers could retain their native language while learning English.

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Students from a variety of cultural backgrounds benefit from dual language immersion at Marquette Elementary

Historically, the United States has had a love-hate relationship with bilingual education—one that may mirror the immigration debate. There is no doubt that language itself carries a vast array of not only cultural but political implications. Few people doubt the cognitive benefits of knowing more than one language. The advantages of being multilingual and multicultural are self-evident from the perspective of the business world and the competitive marketplace.

At the same time, there are the voices of those who seek to build walls—literally and figuratively. These may hurt the enthusiasm necessary to create and sustain robust models to cultivate bilingual education.

A Vast, Untapped Potential

At Marquette, the community has seen the profound impact of the school’s dual language immersion program, which helps sustain a healthy school and attract students to the district. Principal Kristina Precious need look no further than the scores of families who see the value in her program and seek to gain entrance for their children.

“When you hear English-dominant children speaking Spanish without an accent, you know the program is working,” Precious says.

If you ask the kids about learning Spanish, they just tell you it’s fun. The “fun factor,” of course, is one of the reasons the program succeeds.

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Principal Kristina Precious with a kindergarten friend who will be bilingual by 8th grade

The dedication and passionate commitment of teachers make the dual language immersion program happen on a daily basis. They see the value of an approach like this, in which students naturally acquire language without consciously realizing they are learning a second language.

This is one of the essential differences that sets effective dual language immersion programs apart from much more common world language programs, where kids attend “Spanish class.” None of us are conscious of our ability to understand and speak our first language. By providing natural language learning environments, dual language immersion programs create a very authentic opportunity to learn a second language.

I truly believe we continue to have a vast, untapped potential of language learning in the United States, especially in communities where immigrants continue to arrive and provide access to native speakers. But for the kids at Marquette Elementary, it’s just how they do school.

rick josephRick Joseph is a National Board Certified Teacher and has taught 5/6 grade at Covington School in the Birmingham Public School district since 2003. Prior, he served as a bilingual educator and trainer for nine years in the Chicago Public Schools. Rick is thrilled to serve as the 2016 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Through Superhero Training Academy, Rick’s students have created a superhero identity to uplift the communities where they learn and live.

Reflect. Reinvent. Renew.

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

daybook-titleMy daughter is turning three and my house is a disaster area. There is papier mâché residue on the carpet and ceiling from the piñata we decided to make today. The sink is piled high with half-filled milk cups I haven’t gotten around to emptying.

I look around and wonder if this is the best environment for a three-year-old to live in, considering we have decided to keep her home from pre-school next year. And that’s when I realize: I’m reflecting, and it feels good.

Reflect for Yourself

One of my favorite things I used as a teacher was Jim Burke Teacher’s Daybook Personal and Professional Workshops. Burke is a trusted English high school teacher who helps teachers try to balance their work and home lives. I tried to make a habit of doing his Beginning of the School Year Workshop–which was easy. But I didn’t always make it to the End of the School Year Reflections. I was too busy closing up my room or grading finals or just plain exhausted from the year.

What I know is that I always felt better, and had more closure maybe, in the years when I made the time to reflect.

Reinvent One Area of Your Teaching Life

I’ve adapted to my role as mom, as my daughter has grown. In the beginning, I was basically a source of nourishment and comfort. Now I’m that, but I’m also a disciplinarian, a television and internet censor, a teacher, a nutritionist, a coach, a problem solver, a storyteller, a fort builder, and a small toy detective.

OWP logo copySomething I miss from my teaching years is the opportunity each new school year afforded me to try something new. Maybe it was something small, like a new desk arrangement. Maybe it was something big, like the Oakland Writing Project, seeping into my teaching and changing the way I would look at myself as a teacher and writer. But each year, I could decide to change, and I would get a new batch of students to adjust with.

Some questions to reflect upon: What will you change next year? What worked this year? What flopped and why do you think it did?

Renew Your Love Affair with Teaching

My daughter loves hearing stories about herself. We started a bedtime tradition of reading a book and then telling a story about the day, or the last trip we were on together, or the time we went to a favorite place. I was just starting to tire of the same old stories about the zoo and the bookstore. Then last week, genius struck, and we retold the story of the day she was born. And we all were excited to remember.

Do you remember why you got into teaching in the first place? Do you still hold the passion you did when you first started?

Spend some time reflecting on the first-year teacher you were and the teacher you are now. What has changed? What hasn’t? What do you wish you still had? What do you wish you could leave behind?

You are probably already signed up for a workshop or a course this summer. If not, you probably have plans to grow and change in some area of your teaching. Maybe this is the summer you figure out how Twitter can expand your professional reach. Maybe you decide to research UDL and find out what it stands for.

Or maybe you could start to explore MiPlace and all that it has to offer. What about joining Camp NaNoWriMo this July and deciding to get your students involved in November? You might take the entire summer just to be with your family, and promise yourself you will only go back in the fall on the day that the school requires you to be back to set up your classroom.

If you’d like to spend time with deliberate reflection, you might try a Thinking Routine like “I used to think…but now I think…” Or you could check out what this guy from Edutopia has to offer.

Whatever you need to do–to renew your teaching life or your personal life–make sure you do it this summer!

File_000Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University.  She lives in Berkley with her husband and their two year old daughter.

Reading and Writing Apps: K-5

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_305346137Thanks to a generous grant from the Walled Lake Foundation for Excellence, I was able to get five iPad minis for my classroom. We have been working out the way to best incorporate them into our kindergarten classroom, and we found that they fit in best during our literacy centers, small groups that allow for focused interventions. This way, small groups can use the iPads to enhance skills in an exciting way.

We use the iPads at other times throughout the day as well; literacy centers were just a natural fit. Because the world of educational apps can be a bit overwhelming at first, I hope to help guide you toward some apps we’ve had success with and that my students have enjoyed engaging with in the classroom. Everything below represents my own opinions.

Reading and Writing

With the grant we were also able to obtain a subscription to a service called Raz-Kids, on the website Reading A to Z. This is both a website and an app, and it’s wonderful! You are able to set up logins for each student and assign books at their reading level. At the end of each book, students are asked comprehension questions to earn points. The students are motivated because these points help them create a robot to interact with. Teachers are also able to log in and check students’ progress and comprehension of the texts.

A Tell About This video

A Tell About This video

Another app we just downloaded–and the students are enjoying–is called Tell About This. In this app, students are offered choices of pictures, and then are able to record themselves as they tell a story related to the picture. We first implemented it into the classroom with students taking a picture of the animal diorama they had created for the culmination of our research project. Then they recorded what they learned. They were so excited! (Here’s a link to download a sample of one student’s video.)

A companion to this app is called Write About This. We have not used this in my classroom, but my 2nd Grade daughter enjoys it.

My students’ newest favorite is Vocabulary Spelling City. While it isn’t sight-word practice, it is great practice when working on spelling, helping to motivate students during writing time. To practice, they can play hangman, alphabetize words, and unscramble a word’s letters, among several other choices.

Teach Me Kindergarten is another go-to app. This app, which covers multiple subjects, is in quiz form. Students earn coins as they correctly answer questions, and they are able to use these coins to buy virtual prizes like a fish tank and accessories. As the students start to show mastery, the questions start to become harder automatically. You can also choose a level at which your students start.

Lakeshore also has several learning apps. We have been using Sound Sorting and Phonics Tic Tac Toe. The students like the instant feedback when they get answers correct, as well as the ability to try again.

Coding

A new way that students are learning to write is through coding. This is a whole new language, one I can admit I don’t quite have a handle on, but I am trying. We are only using the iPad apps for coding, but all these apps have desktop applications too.

Currently my students are in love with an app called The Foos. With The Foos, they are learning to code by creating their own games. My students love creating levels for their friends to play.

Tynker and Scratch Jr. are also coding and programming apps my class (and daughters!) are enjoying. With Tynker, kids learn to code different characters to complete missions. With Scratch Jr., students are able to code a character to move around and entertain them. Kids can also change the background and animate things like letters.

Successes

While I can lay no claim to being a technology or iPad expert, I will say I have enjoyed having them in my classroom. The students enjoy learning while having fun, and the technologies give them another outlet to show what they can do. I am excited to spend the summer checking out new ways to use them; my daughters will get to be my guinea pigs.

image1Tricia Ziegler (Twitter: @axf96; blog: http://kindergartentreasures.blogspot.com/) is a kindergarten teacher at Loon Lake Elementary, in the Walled Lake School District. She is a part of the Walled Lake iCouncil (Instructional Council) team. She recently won a technology grant from the Walled Lake Foundation for Excellence. She is in her tenth year of teaching, with eight in kindergarten and two in Second Grade. Prior to that she taught in the Walled Lake Great Start Readiness Program, which is a state-funded preschool program for at-risk students. Tricia attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree and specialization in Early Childhood. She then attended Wayne State University for her Master’s in Teacher Education.

The Writing Inclination

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_248057314A recent article in the School Library Journal addresses a commonly heard statement in education: “Kids hate to write.” The article suggests that kids do write, and that the Internet is offering more opportunities than ever before to do so. The article even suggests some online writing tools and apps to use with kids, many of which I use in my classroom.

Still, though, the author wrote, “How do we help our students harness the inclination–the cultural imperative to write–so that they can become better academic writers?”

Five Strategies to Use with Students

I want to share several beliefs and practices about how I entice kids to believe in writing and see themselves as writers.

  1. As the teacher, I write.
    I complete every assignment along with my students. Sometimes I prepare examples before class, while other times I write on-demand as we contribute to writing ideas together. As students see me as a writer, they gain confidence in their own writing.
  2. I let kids choose their own topics.
    I have standards that I have to cover and model curricula to use, but those resources never say that I have to have all of my students complete an essay on the same topic. Rather, these resources say that I have to give students opportunities to write in various genres over different lengths of time, so I give students opportunities to do that. A student’s writing is much better when she chooses a topic that interests her.
  3. I teach students to use reading as a guide for writing.shutterstock_332181653
    I have learned so much from using exemplars for writing–from sentence structures and the organization of an argument, to word variety and character creation. I offer student these same opportunities to explore their reading to use for writing. For many students, this practice gives them the structure they need to make a personally important topic shine.
  4. I offer consistent writing opportunities.
    We write every day. Sometimes it is genre-specific work, sometimes it is just a quick write, and sometime we just doodle. But we write every day. When students can have a consistent experiences with writing, they begin to look forward to writing.
  5. I give feedback on writing.
    The feedback a teacher gives writers should encourage growth. I use a very defined structure each day with students: a compliment related to a recent standard (I notice…); a question about the feelings of the writer; a suggestion, sometimes with an example (Can I offer a next step?); and an offer to revisit the writing when the writer has made a decision. Kids say that they enjoy feedback and want as much as possible.

Borrowing the idea from Ruth Ayres’ video, I have created a video to take a look at the notebook life in our middle school classroom. I hope that you can find use for it to encourage your classes to write every day.

pic 2Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.

Ending Your Year with Letters

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_161854607When May comes, and the green starts to overtake the landscape, and the purple lilacs send their sweet smell to my side door, I know that summer is near. When I was teaching, I usually would go through a series of states at this point:

  • Exhaustion from all the testing and planning and grading of essays and after-school ceremonies and concerts and plays
  • Panic that I didn’t get through all of the required curriculum
  • Regret that I didn’t give enough feedback to students or make enough emotional connections with some of my kids
  • Great anticipation that summer was almost here and I could make it through these last five weeks and four Mondays
  • Sadness (or sometimes Relief depending on the group of kids) that we only had a few weeks left together in my classroom

After running the gamut of emotions, I would try to regain some semblance of teaching dignity. This usually took the form of writing letters, as a classroom activity.

Two of my favorite types of activities were Letters to Your Future Self and Letters of Thanks to a Teacher. Neither assignment was very formal. I think I tried to tie in some sort of lesson on letter writing, just to keep it legit. Often the “grade” was based solely on completion of the assignment.

Over the years, I have collected lots of stationery and envelopes (even asking parents for donations at the beginning of the school year) and so I would pull out my box and let students choose their paper and favorite writing implement.

Sometimes, with the Letters to Your Future Self, I would include a stamped envelope and have students write: Do Not Open Until the Year 20XX on them, and have them address the letter to their home address (usually after a short tutorial on how to do this!). I would then mail the letters to students in the summer with a short note from me too!

Lasting Relationships

Letters of Thanks to a Teacher always brought about a lot of questions from students. Can I write to an elementary teacher? Sure – I can inter-school mail the letter to them. What about a custodian or lunch lady or counselor? Of course! How do you spell this teacher’s name?! (List of names goes up on the white board.) Can I write a letter to you? Well, only if you also write one to someone else too. Can I deliver it to the teacher now? Nope, I need to grade them first – so make sure I can read your signature! Can I write more than one? YES! I’m not finished, can I take it home for homework? Yes.

shutterstock_144790756I would have the students keep the envelopes open, so that I could “grade” them and also screen for any letter of bad intent (only one or two in the many years did this, but I’m glad I checked in the end).

The best part about Letters of Thanks to a Teacher came later, sometimes not until next fall, when I would catch my colleagues looking in their mailboxes, sometimes greeted by piles of letters from past students, thanking them for some aspect of teaching–or more often the relationship they had created.

The Importance of Gratitude

Giving students time in a full class period to write the letters in a leisurely and yet thoughtful way always made my students and me feel good. You could tell they were thinking about what they would say and how they would say it, and many of them would ask how to spell words and took care in their writing–more so than any other assignment they had worked on that year. This is the kind of forced assignment I didn’t mind giving or grading.

And what was I doing while they composed? Besides helping any student with their spelling or ideas, I was writing my own letters of gratitude to colleagues and friends who had helped me that year.

File_000Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University.  She lives in Berkley with her husband and their two year old daughter.

Meeting Students Where They Write

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project
Student blogs

Student blogs. Click for a larger image.

Many of my students claim that they “don’t write,” even though those same students wear blisters on their thumbs from texting and tweeting. Texting, 140 characters, commenting, blogging–these are all forms of our students’ writing, and they’re ones we can leverage.

The first step in this shift has to be mine. I have to respect what students are already writing.

It’s tempting to dismiss 140 characters or email or texting as minor forms of communication. But it’s also easy to use those forms to discuss argument or voice, or any of the other things I want my students to be great at. In fact, it’s easy to find plenty of people doing more of this kind of writing than published writers–real writing lives in the wilds of the real world.

Look at email or texts, and what you’ll find are arguments made with passion, humor, evidence–all kinds of evidence used all kinds of ways, all in writing. The trick is looking for it, and in being more flexible in what I consider a final product.

Social Media as Assessment

A recent conversation with a group of colleagues revealed that we have doubts about what we are asking our students to produce as summative products. I think we all can agree that the day of the five-paragraph essay has come and gone, and that ACT writing is really only useful when someone takes the test.

But what about the final essay? Is it time to reconsider the worth of the polished, final draft?

Now, I’m not in favor of abandoning polished drafts, but in expanding our influence over other forms of writing, by valuing them in our practice. Let’s infiltrate the places where our students are already doing writing they care about, and let’s help them do it better.

Take a  quick tour of student blogs and you’ll find a rich environment of writing and argument. My students have been writing on Tumblr for some time. I went there because I found that a decent number of students were using the platform to talk about things that interest them.

As a bonus, Tumblr is a great place to look at visual arguments and voice. Most of my students like to offer opinions about things they care about. Their phones are full of examples of this. So they need openings to develop their ideas, allowing them to write about what they care about. Here again, blogging platforms like Tumblr are a great place to work.

Look at where people, who are not writers, write in “real life.” Almost everyone I know spends a fair amount of their professional lives writing. They use email, texts, and tweets to make arguments in writing. This reminds me how, once upon a time, we treated letter writing as an art. In fact, I remember studying a set of memos for the writer’s technique. So is it unreasonable to treat the 21st century’s Johnson and Boswells with less respect?

Turning Theory into Practice

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A student proposal. Click to view a larger image.

So what does this look like in practice?

For one, before I let my students do almost any “big” project or writing, I ask them to write me a proposal. They have to tell me why they think it’s worth doing, how they’ll go about it, and how they’ll measure the success of the work.

This kind of writing lets me see how well their skills are developing. Even though it doesn’t meet the definition of final draft, doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously. A writer who can write a proposal is probably making clear, effective arguments in writing.

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Annotations, Google Doc. Click for a larger image.

In addition to proposal writing, it’s important to create and use places where students can use the skills they develop, in ways that mirror the writing they already do. I like to use genius.com or to set up a backchannel using a shared Google Doc.

These both work well to promote discussions about how to use evidence, because students have to link their ideas directly to the text they’re annotating. These tools also tend to support precision and economy in language. The students understand that the audience isn’t going to wade through a “wall of text” to get to good argument.

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Annotations, genius.com. Click for a larger image.

To many of my students, writing is something that they “don’t do.” But that’s because they have mostly only seen it held captive in textbooks and assignments.

But if they see it in the wild–blogs, texts, online–and with permission from their teachers, they’ll see themselves as part of that writing life.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.