Last Sunday was the NCTE's 5th Annual National Day on Writing. If I hadn't checked my Twitter feed, I would have missed it. To be honest, until yesterday, I didn't even know such a day existed! Here's why I'm glad I didn't miss out this year...
Blogging as a Mentor Text
I follow several blogs on Edutopia, but the one that led me to the National Day on Writing is their Student Engagement blog. If you haven't read Todd Finley's post entitled: Why Do We Have to Write Today? I strongly recommend it. Today, I shared this piece with all of my classes as a mentor text. I had them highlight anything they could relate to as a writer. I then asked them the following questions:
- What do you think makes this good writing?
- What is the author's purpose? (Provide evidence to support your answer).
- What do you notice about most of the sentences? What do you think of this technique?
- What about the length of these sentences? How do these affect the speed at which we read this piece?
Opening up this dialogue led to some interesting responses and for the first time this year, my students discussed an author's craft. Here are a few of their comments:
- "So, we can write sentences without subjects?"
- "He starts sentences with 'To' and 'Because' a lot. I thought we couldn't start sentences with 'Because'"?
- "Those are some short sentences, Ms. D. They make it sound fast."
We also had a great discussion about the many modes of writing both in an academic setting and for personal purposes outside of school--social media, journaling, passing notes in class, writing grocery lists and oh those dreaded essays for English and history teachers. It was one of only a handful of times where we had a "relaxed" conversation about writing--one that needs to take place more often.
My next step involved modeling this type of writing for my students. So, I picked up my pen, opened to a clean page in my Composition Book and followed Finley's format. At first it was easy, but there were a few times when I struggled, and I used a Think-Aloud to process my struggles with my students. They need to hear how even I, an experienced writer, can't always find my writer mojo. By the time I finished, I had written for a solid 5-7 minutes. I then asked my students to do the same. As they wrote, I walked around the room and commented on their writing, underlining my favorite lines. Even my most reluctant writers jumped on the bandwagon. Students who have produced little (or no) writing seemed to express enjoyment about this piece of writing. We were in "The Writing Zone".
After 7-10 minutes of uninterrupted writing, I asked my students to share in their writing groups what was easy, challenging and what they thought of writing this way. I then asked them to highlight similarities within their pieces. In doing so, I'm helping students identify the connections we share as writers and as people. Building this foundation will build trust among my young writers so when we move into more formal writing pieces, we can have honest conversations about authentic feedback and constructive criticism.
The Digital Connection
While walking around the room, I took pictures of my students Why I Write entries and asked them for permission to tweet these pics. (At the beginning of the year, I distribute parent permission slips about taking pictures of student work for my blog and to share via social media). I logged into my Twitter account and displayed it on the screen for my students to see my tweets of their peers' work. I only chose a few students in each class and invited them to join the national conversation at #write2connect. A few students logged into their Twitter accounts before class was over, connected to my Twitter feed and then Re-Tweeted their pieces.
Their "Voice" Matters
At the end of this mini-lesson, I asked my students to rate this activity 1 low, 5 high. Overwhelmingly, students gave positive responses and asked that we do something like this again. As I reflect back on this lesson and the high amount of student engagement within it, I realized that I gained some valuable insight into what my students really think about writing and who my students are as writers. I admit that students who I believed hated writing produced beautiful metaphors, shared personal reasons for writing and were the first to share in their writing groups.
As teachers, we need to remember that sometimes the greatest writing comes in quick, short pieces. Informal pieces where students can take "risks", playing with their craft as they experiment with another another writer's craft. Maria and Fernando's pieces speak volumes about why I will continue to use this lesson for years to come.