Empowering Writers

Managing The Instruction of Writing

by Barbara Mariconda

We all can see the appeal of the traditional writer’s workshop – the creative flow of students sharing their stories with their teachers, engaged in helpful peer conferences with others in the classroom. Inspiring mini-lessons addressing the needs of a variety of students and students brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and finally publishing writing that is meaningful for them and others – the idea of a community of writers working collaboratively in this way has been the gold standard in writing instruction for decades.

Writers’ Workshop Challenges

While this is the ideal, many teachers struggle with managing the writers’ workshop. Most teachers who have facilitated this traditional writing-as-a-process procedure have experienced it – the feeling that it was a little out of control. Have you ever felt that too many students needed attention at the same time? Younger students have a difficult time waiting for a conference, and when they’re stuck, the frustration of waiting for the teacher can result in off-task, disruptive behavior. Peer conferences can be affirming for students, but often neither student has the experience or expertise to offer practical feedback to the other. The reality is that there’s often just not enough time to schedule conferences in a timely way. A ten minute conference goes by in a flash, leaving little time for careful reflection on the writing or for prescriptive intervention.

Another challenge has to do with the fact that students who enter your classroom often come with drastically different backgrounds and experience in terms of writing and the instruction they’ve received in earlier grades. How do you, within the writer’s workshop model, assess and address the range of diverse needs of these students?

In addition to this, teachers often struggle with ongoing assessment and record keeping. How do you best monitor students’ ongoing progress? How to best keep track of the conversations and expectations set forth during the conference?

Perhaps most challenging is this – most teachers have had little formal training in the pedagogy, methodology, and theory necessary for successful facilitation of the writer’s workshop. Many have never had a college level course in writing as craft, and thus, do not view themselves as confident, competent writers. Yet, there is an assumption that because teachers are good readers and can identify strong writing from weak writing that they would therefore be able to teach good writing. By way of analogy – would we assume that someone who has listened to an abundance of jazz piano, attended concerts, read extensively on the subject, and discussed jazz piano with other knowledgeable people should thus be able to teach someone else to play jazz piano? Of course not. Yet, that is often the expectation in having teachers facilitate the writer’s workshop.

Now, you might argue, if children are given enough writing opportunities, lots of positive feedback, and much affirmation, they will grow into effective, empowered writers. Perhaps some innately good writers might make that jump. But, let’s return to the piano analogy for a moment – can we also assume that if a child is given plenty of time at the piano keyboard, lots of positive feedback and affirmation that she/he will blossom as a pianist? Probably not.

So, what is the solution? How can we best accomplish the goals of the writer’s workshop – to nurture the creativity, self expression, confidence, enthusiasm of students in terms of expressing themselves in articulate, fluent, convincing ways? How can we accomplish this in ways that are realistic and effective in the real world of the classroom?

The Empowering Writers Methodology

At Mill Hill School in Fairfield, CT we had had a writer’s workshop model in place for about a decade when we began to ask ourselves if perhaps there was a more effective, efficient, less frustrating methodology for the instruction of writing. It was important to preserve the high ideals and objectives that proponents of the writer’s workshop held up: (the creative flow of students sharing their stories, ideas, and souls, meaningful mini-lessons addressing the needs of a variety of students, students brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and finally publishing writing that is meaningful for them and others) while at the same time making it manageable, easier to assess, more time efficient (teacher and student friendly), and designed in such a way as to insure consistency in instruction – in other words – to ensure that all students receive the instruction they need in order to grow.

We instituted an instructional improvement initiative at Mill Hill designed to improve student writing, developing a methodology for the delivery of identified key writing skills for our students in grades 2 – 5. The methodology involved whole class instruction, delivered minimally twice a week for 30 – 45 minutes. Whole class instruction provided consistency and assured experiences for all students, which was often lacking in the teach-on-demand scenario common in the writers’ workshop conference model.

There are also many other benefits associated with whole class instruction. In fact, we structured this whole-class instruction around the “author’s group” model. In the real world of writing, authors often join a group of their peers during which they share skills, discuss their work, and benefit from feedback, not only on their own writing, but they learn from others’ work as well. Unfortunately, in the one-on-one conference, students do not have the opportunity to learn from the rest of the classroom authors. The author’s group/whole class instruction model provides a greater level of directed conversation between students about writing, builds in common vocabulary, and empowers the class as a whole to benefit from the writerly conversations.

The whole class instruction looks like this:

1. INTRODUCE/DEFINE SKILL through the use of literature. (Middle grade novels provide the best examples of all of the key skills.)
2. MODELING* – The teacher models the skill in isolation, asking productive questions and “thinking out loud” as an author. (The quality of the questions you ask will determine the quality of student responses. This also is the most powerful method of building vocabulary.)
3. GUIDED PRACTICE – Provide students with an opportunity to practice the skill you’ve modeled. This is a “before and after” revision exercise. Circulate and offer suggestions, share strong examples and excellent attempts.
Steps 1, 2, 3 are repeated numerous times before step 4: Application.
4. APPLICATION – Students apply the skill to a process piece or a timed prompt.
*Most important step!

Results

This methodology made the teaching of writing more manageable, provided a common vocabulary for writing, ensured a greater level of objectivity and accountability, established a powerful reading writing connection, and ultimately nurtured a community of confident, enthusiastic writers. In fact, during the five years we spent developing the specific skill lessons and delivering these skills through the methodology described above, our narrative writing scores for our fourth graders on the Connecticut Mastery Test improved dramatically:

YEAR 1 YEAR 2 YEAR 3 YEAR 4 YEAR 5
Percentage of students at goal 47% 65% 75% 81% 92%

These results were not limited to Mill Hill School. In Wilson’s Mills School in North Carolina, as well as in districts in Rhode Island and Alberta Province Canada, to name just a few, when this approach was used consistently, similar results were common. More importantly, students began to become confident, enthusiastic, lifelong writers, and teachers began to feel successful and fulfilled as the facilitators of a practical, effective instructional approach that gets results.

Empowering Writers is dedicated to empowering teachers and their students in this way. First, through our workshops and wide range of resources, we introduce teachers to the specific skills that they immediately recognize as the building blocks of effective writing. They begin to read differently, with a much sharper awareness of the ways in which authors apply skills in order to move readers. No longer does a teacher simply recognize good writing, but he/she can take the writing apart in terms of the discrete skills that, collectively make a piece of writing successful. We present teachers with examples from fine literature, age-appropriate to their students, discuss these skills on an adult level, providing background and awareness, and then, we provide them with proven lessons, complete lesson plans, numerous exemplars, modeled samples, and the procedures and methodology to successfully empower their students. In short, we empower teachers as writers, and then support them in their efforts to pass their skills along to the next generation.

Empowered teachers of writing no longer see themselves as facilitators of an unwieldy process that may or may not yield results. Rather, they begin to see themselves as writers, as master teachers, as writing role models whom students desire to emulate. They begin to see, in objective terms, the exciting and satisfying results of their instruction. They relate student improvement directly to their efforts. They build, through their own efforts, communities of empowered writers!

Barbara Mariconda is the author of over 20 children’s books and numerous professional books for teachers. Her middle grade novel, “Turn the Cup Around” published by Delacorte Press was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award by the Mystery Writers of America for best children’s mystery. Her latest, a picture book titled “Sort it Out,” was published by Sylvan Dell Publishing in the fall of 2008. She has presented programs on writing to thousands of teachers at workshops and conferences across North America.

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