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Teacher to Teacher: Helping Students to Be Part of Their Entire Literacy Journey

By Lynne R. Dorfman

Serious writing requires long thinking…It takes reflection, the courage to dive below the surface, the willingness to live with a topic for a long period of time, turn it over and over in your mind, and decide for yourself what questions to ask about it. ~Vicki Spandel, (2005) The 9 Rights of Every Writer: A Guide for Teachers, 5

            Students in K-12 classrooms have grown accustomed to listening to what is perceived as a strength in their work (whether it is work in writing workshop or other subject areas) and what is an area targeted for improvement. If we want our students to be a part of the assessment process and learn how to reflect on their writing, then we must provide opportunities for students to practice reflection to improve their awareness and analysis of their own thinking processes (metacognition). A natural consequence is that they engage in a struggle with the quality of their writing pieces, viewing the writing process as recursive instead of linear, and embedding revision and editing across the process and as early as the planning stage.

If we focus on our students as essential evaluators in their process, then we are promising them one of the best opportunities that a classroom can afford – the opportunity to be part of their entire literacy journey.  What are the most effective practices we can use to help students make successful decisions about their writing?  By examining how we delegate student responsibility for self-assessment and ongoing reflection, we can determine what is working for our students and for us, what new strategies we may choose to adapt, and what value our students place on reflection as a part of the learning process.

            If our priority goal is to teach our students how to learn instead of what to learn, then we must recognize that students cannot carve out their own pathways (directions) if they are not regularly engaging in self-reflection.  When students engage in a close reading of their work for purposes of self-assessment and reflection, they are making choices about what to keep and what to change. They are in control.  After the minilesson, post one or two reflection questions on the white board or chart paper. Read them to your students just before they begin their independent writing time. Make it a routine that the last two to five minutes of workshop will be about reflection. Ask students to share strategies that worked, problem-solving attempts that failed, new questions, and new discoveries. Sometimes, students will just read a small part of the piece they are working on, for example, their satisfying ending for their narrative in order to link with the minilessons for this week.  Scheduling time to reflect at the end of each writing workshop will help students understand its value. In the end, we want students to become the kind of lifelong learners who don’t need to be reminded to reflect on the events of their lives.

Another way we can create opportunities for reflection is to teach students how to engage in  self-conferences. We want our student writers to have many opportunities to write, to confer, and to think about their writing. We want our student writers to make decisions about their pieces and to be reflective about those decisions. No one knows a piece of writing as well as the writer of that piece knows it. As teachers, we can never know what our students know how to do unless we ask them to tell us what they believe they have done well, what they have worked hard at trying, and what they think they need to do to improve their writing. Student writers, even in the primary grades, need to engage in self-evaluation, for this is how writers become independent practitioners. As they reflect on their writing, student writers begin to recognize their strengths and own up to their weaknesses, resulting in goal setting that comes from self-knowledge. It is that self-knowledge that is the result of understanding the specifics of the skill of writing. Reflection helps students become better learners.

            Self-evaluation does not happen magically. Students need to learn to reflect through practice. We encourage students to be reflective by making reflection part of our daily writing workshop. “What did you write today that you are proud of?” or “What did you work hard at today?” or “What did you learn about writing opinion today?” Students may pair/share their answers to these questions, write responses in their writer’s notebook, or, sometimes, share their thoughts with the whole class. The important thing is to set aside time for reflection; if we believe self-assessment and reflection are valuable, we make time for them in our daily practice.

Sometimes, we can create an experience that will give all our students a chance to evaluate their writing and share their thinking with others. A whole group conference where students have a chance to share something they think went very well and an aspect of their writing that needs some revision allows students to problem solve as a giant think tank. The responses from students always are honest and sincere. Another strategy for sharing an aspect of the writing the student was particularly proud of is to form an inside and outside circle. Students on the inside circle sit facing the students on the outside circle. After the students have had time to share, the students on the inside circle shift to the left or right and the new partners share.  Then, the teacher can shift the discussion to ask students to share a part of the writing that still needs work or a helpful suggestion. 

In Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice, Ayres and Shubitz suggest copying both sides of a paper with a rubric so that teachers and students are using the same instrument to assess a writing piece. They also recommend a space for student comments; in other words, students support the decisions they make in self-assessment with solid reasons – basically, evidence from their text (2010).  When student writers take their time to re-examine a piece they believe to be “finished,” they may start to notice the tracks of the teaching in their text. I have always asked students to look through their writer’s notebook and possibly a class binder that stores notes from minilessons and shared writing experiences. Perhaps there is something in this piece the writer can add, delete, or move based on this review. When we give students opportunities to talk about their writing using the same tool we will use to offer praise, polish, and a grade, we create a quality culture for the drafting process. The act of self-assessment will encourage students to use the rubric (or perhaps a checklist) to revise their writing before they offer it as a final draft. If we truly believe that reflection and self-evaluation is important, we will make time for it within our day—quiet time for students to think as well as write.

If we model writerly behaviors, including reflection and goal-setting, we demonstrate that we believe reflection is important. Metacognition, thinking about our thinking and our practices, is a way for us to grow as educators. Teachers of writers can reflect on how their students are using the craft moves and strategies introduced in the focus lessons in their pieces or if the choices the students are making are helping them improve as writers. Teachers can reflect on student engagement, an important goal throughout the day.  It may be a management issue that needs attention. Do you need to rethink what your students are doing while you are conferring with your students? Are students making good choices for peer conference partners?  Sometimes, it’s a good idea to ask a grade level partner or literacy coach to observe the writing workshop for an opportunity to reflect through collaborative conversations. Sometimes, you can even ask your students for help. “Was it easy to find a good place to get your work done today?”  We must remember that reflection will help all of us, not just our students! John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”

Building in reflection isn’t easy and takes a lot of practice. Growing student writers never happens instantly. It happens over time. But it isn’t accidental either. It takes persistence and a boatload of patience! Don’t give up if you are disappointed with students’ initial attempts at reflection. As students continue to have opportunities to share their reflections, they will improve over time. Student writers are thinkers. They need to make decisions throughout their writing process before arriving at a final product. Daily reflection will help them imagine the possibilities for their writing and make choices that are sensible and meaningful.  Helping students develop a growth mindset where challenges are welcomed and struggle is something to be expected while learning and growing will help students develop as thinkers who make sage decisions. Opportunities to make choices and engage in self-reflection is essential to grow successful writers.

Lynne Dorfman is a 1989 Writing Project fellow. She loves to write poetry, plant flowers, and spend time with her three goddaughters. She also loves to participate in Continuity sessions and the writers’ book group on first Saturdays with other PAWLPERS. Lynne is an adjunct professor for Arcadia University and loves learning with her graduate students. She is looking forward to her next read, West with Giraffes: A Novel by Lynda Rutledge and attending the 2021 PAWLPday on March 6th.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. mbuckelew #

    Lynne, Thank you for such a fabulous and timely reminder! I love the Spandel quotation and your thoughts (and strategies) regarding the value of empowering students to reflect and take charge of their own writing. Excellent!

    Liked by 1 person

    February 6, 2021

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