Thursday, 18 December 2014

Inspiring All Students to Write

"What do you do about students who don't want to write?"

This time, the question came at a session where we were moderating writing samples, sharing a process designed to create a continuum.  It is a question that comes up almost every time I talk with teachers about writing. It is a question that crosses grade levels and gives pause to both beginning teachers and their more experienced colleagues. It is a question that can be phrased in many ways...but essentially asks the same thing.

"How do you handle it when kids just don't write?"

 A big part of my response falls under the category of describing quality. When students are shown what quality can look like, some of that reluctance disappears. Using the gradual release of responsibility (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983), writing moves from ME (the teacher) to WE (shared responsibility) to YOU (the student writing independently). I use two very powerful strategies for showing my students what writers do.

Teachers have always modelled. It was part of my repertoire as a beginning teacher and it is today. Changes have occurred over the years for me, some subtle and some less so, as I have refined my practice and reframed my thinking about what I am doing and why. Today, when I model writing, I choose to do so when we are learning a new genre or format, when I need to show students how a writer works, why a writer does something like revising, or what good writing looks like and sounds like.

In the past, I sometimes modelled because it was a step in the gradual release. I modelled because it was part of good teaching, because valued colleagues modelled, because I was a Grade 1 teacher... I modelled for many reasons that on their own, were not as authentic or intentional as they could have been. Now, I model for very particular, and more considered, purposes with a very specific audience in mind. And my models are stronger because of it. We know that student writers improve when they write for authentic purposes and audiences (Routman, 2005). This is also true for teacher-writers.

When I take the stance that I am modelling to show students what quality looks like, I see those models or demonstrations in a different way. I know they cannot be perfunctory...or the writing that follows will be perfunctory. I know they cannot be incomplete...or the writing that follows will be incomplete. I know they cannot be shallow and impersonal...or the writing that follows will be shallow and impersonal. What you model is what you get. What I understand now is that this applies not only to the writing itself, but also to topic selection, the commitment you feel toward the writing and your readers, and your attitude toward writing.

To inspire students to write, I need to find topics and formats that we can care about. We, because when I, the teacher, can write from my heart, the models ring true. Great writing topics, those that have a purpose and audience worth investing in, appeal to the teacher and the students, including the  reluctant writers. To hook those reluctant writer, I must be "really writing" as I write in front of them.

So, as we begin writing letters to someone who has been a big influence in our lives, I write to my mom.

With a Grade 3 class beginning to write book reviews, I write about a book in my own reading life that I want my book club to read because it will be more real for me, and therefore, for my students.

As teachers have always done, as I model, I talk. This talk shows the student writers the kind of thinking that a much more experienced writer does, a running commentary that adds to the description of quality. To make this description even more explicit and more beneficial to the reluctant or struggling writers, I ask students to tell me what they noticed me do. This list informs the criteria we co-construct later - yet another way to describe quality.

Shared Writing
Another time-honoured strategy, shared writing, has remained part of my practice over many years. It is an incredibly powerful way to release some of the responsibility to the students, to engage them in writing with you while maintaining control over the picture of quality writing being presented.  Viewing shared writing as another means of offering a picture of quality, I find I am able to make decisions in the moment about what to include, what to leave out, when to write a sentence myself, and what questions and comments to make.

My purpose is no longer muddled.

I know that it is NOT:
  • just writing down whatever the students say
  • making sure that it is fair and democratic with all voices heard in a list-like fashion
  • completing the second step in the gradual release of responsibility and getting quickly to the students writing
 I know that it IS:
  • to provide (for the writers in front of me) another description of quality
  • to release some of the responsibility to the student writers and to observe carefully what they do and say
  • to support all of the writers in the group

In this 'shared write' with a Grade 1 class, we were all going to be writing about something we are experts at. Our audience was other students in the school, and ourselves, as the plan was to produce a book for our classroom library and the school library. I had many goals in mind as I facilitated the writing, but the main purpose was for the children to see that we can be expert at some seemingly simple, yet oh-so-important things.

The students wrote about being experts in a delightful range of things:
  • listening
  • making people happy
  • being a little sister
  • building with Lego
  • holding hamsters
  • playing hopscotch
  • being a dog whisperer

When writers have a topic or reason for writing that they care about, some choice within that topic, and several clear descriptions of quality...they write.


Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M.1983. The Instruction of Reading Comprehension, Contemporary 
       Educational Psychology, Vol. 8(3), pp. 317-344.

Routman, R. 2005. Writing Essentials:Raising Expectations and Results while Simplifying Teaching.
       Portsmouth, NH:Heinemann.