How do we spend the limited time we are given to teach our writers?
By Lynne R. Dorfman
The world is changing so quickly, and kids are changing, too! Everywhere, kids walk with iPhones and iPads in hand. Neighborhoods are quiet outside – no jump rope rhymes crying out into the air, no kickball games, no hula hoops twirling, games of hide-‘n-seek, or pogo sticks bouncing up and down. We all worry that perhaps technology has lured our children away like the Pied Piper – to some place that is not visible to us – where our children have been captured by the magic of the screen and all its imagination. But what about the imagination of our children? Are they losing the ability to imagine and create something brand new?
We want our students to be independent and empowered readers, writers, and thinkers. We want them to be able to listen keenly, revise their thinking, take risks and try new strategies and new avenues. How can we do this? We know our kids aren’t reading and writing enough. Some years ago, at Millersville University’s Summer Institute, I heard Lester Laminack caution us that we are dangerously close to losing the imagination of our children. Listening closely to our students’ needs and figuring out ways to respond to those needs through the work we do in our classrooms is crucial. We must bring joy and passion into our classrooms. Fletcher’s newest book, Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing, talks about how we can do this within our writing workshops. Writing helps students imagine and create something new, experimenting with forms and genres.
When we ask teachers what is their biggest obstacle in teaching writing, they often say “Time!” Indeed, the time to fit everything in and do a good job with writing workshop is our greatest challenge. There is no way to remove this obstacle from our daily challenges, so we must, as Rudyard Kipling tells us in his poem “If”, fill the “unforgiving minutes with sixty second worth of distance run…” Perhaps the best way to do this is to begin with a set of questions we can ask ourselves as teachers of writers:
- How are we currently spending the limited time we are given?
- How can we revise the way we spend our time in workshop to be more effective/productive?
- Is this the right lesson for these students right now (a question we can ask ourselves daily)?
- Is this learning experience worthy of the time it will take us to do it right?
- Is there another way – a better way – to approach this concept/learning?
- What is essential here? Important to know? Necessary to learn as a stepping stone to the next concept/skill?
- How can we give students more opportunities to write? To have choice?
- What do our students need from us right now?
We show our student writers what we value by what we make time for in our writing workshop and across the day. Motivating writers starts with giving writers interesting things to read and write about and building in choice as often as possible. Writers need mentor texts they can love and that can nudge them forward. Simply, we can motivate our young writers by doing the following:
- Give them high-interest topics.
- Provide lots of opportunities to write without grading everything.
- Start small – build their writing muscles by asking them to write descriptions, observations, anecdotes, riddles, snippets of conversation, and more.
- Use mentor texts to help them imitate the authors and take risks.
- Write alongside our students – be an integral part of the writing community.
- Give students opportunities to write and write again – increasing the volume of writing is one of the most important things we can do!
- Find out what our students are interested in writing and spend some workshop time giving tips/instruction to help them. (For example, if some students want to write graphic novels, build in the time to learn about them, find mentor texts, and do some small group or whole group instruction.)
- Give them choice!
We can overcome the stresses of our current education scene—if we slow down and dare to use the time to reimagine the work we do in writing workshop. Interest is key. We need to find joy in words, pictures, and books that engage students while we build writers and readers. Let’s not always tell our students what to think about. Let’s give our students plenty of opportunities to explore their thinking. Let them write, and let them write often, because writing is the most powerful thinking tool that we can offer our students.
How can you overcome the obstacle of time limitations for writing workshop? How can you create more opportunities for writing across the day? Share your thoughts with us and with your colleagues.
Lynne Dorfman is a Co-director of PAWLP and adjunct professor for Arcadia University. She co-authored A Closer Look: Learning More About Our Students with Formative Assessment, K-6, available this September with Stenhouse Publishers. In her spare time she reads, writes stories and poems, plays with her Corgi dogs, and takes time for walks through Longwood Gardens with family and friends. Lynne is slowly learning how to make time for vacations!