Recently, inspired by Pernille Ripp‘s incredibly inspiring book Passionate Learners, I asked my students to write a reflection on how the learning was going in our classroom. What was working for them and what was not?
One of the things that came up multiple times was that my students let me know that they did not find it helpful when I handed them article after article to look at as mentor texts during writing workshop. Many of my students said that they knew it was important for us to look at the way that other writer’s write, but that the way we were doing it was just not working. They weren’t engaged. They weren’t learning. They weren’t transferring what they saw into their own writing.
Now here’s the thing. I knew that it was working. I mean, in the sense that I knew that when we looked at how other writer’s wrote, then I did, indeed, see those strategies being used by the writers in my classroom. So on one hand, our mentor texts were working.
On the other hand, they clearly were not. My students were telling me that loud and clear. In fact, after reading all of their reflections, I wrote down all of the changes that the students had asked for and I shared them with the students. I asked the students to vote for which changes they wanted me to start with. And the change that got the most votes? You guessed it, change the way we used mentor texts. Here are the results of that vote.
This was feedback that I could not ignore.
So before I could really make changes, I had to reflect on why changes were needed. Pretty quickly, my students’ words started to make sense to me. The mini-lessons during writing workshop are almost ALWAYS teacher-directed. I choose the mentor texts, I choose the strategies we are studying, I choose the way that we learn those new strategies. I think that what my students were pushing back on was the small amount of input that they had during our writing mini-lessons compared to a lot of other parts of our day.
Okay. That was something I could work with.
In the past, I would have found a few mentor texts from Wonderopolis, printed them out, found strategies that writers used that I thought were important for my students to know and then used those mentor texts to teach the strategies to my students.
Now, I needed a new plan.
So the first thing that I did was to create this chart, in which my students could store links to the Wonderopolis articles that they wanted to use as their own personal mentor texts. Before really doing much explaining, I gave the kids a chance to explore Wonderopolis.com (again) and this time look, not only, for an article that interested them in terms of content, but an article that they thought was well-written and that might be helpful in figuring out how they wanted to write their own informational articles. I modeled for them finding my own mentor text and then gave them time to select their own.
For our first work with informational writing, I did limit their choice to choosing an article from Wonderopolis. Because we are starting by creating our own Wonderopolis website, I wanted them to focus on this specific type of writing. This is only an introduction to our informational writing work and I am hoping to use it to help them learn how to deal with their own personal mentor texts before really opening up the world of informational writing and allowing them more choice. Eventually, they will choose a topic to write about in depth and based on what they want to create, they will be able to choose mentor texts that are informational picture books, websites, articles, question/answer books, diagrams, etc. But for now, we are starting with everyone choosing their own Wonderopolis article.
Once everyone had a mentor text (or a few mentor texts) selected, it was time to help my students learn how to analyze a mentor text. One of the things that I quickly noticed was that the learning that I was hoping my students would do was much more long-lasting than the learning that I had been asking them to do. In the past, I was teaching my students about specific writing strategies. I was asking them to look at the strategies that I had already found and then helping them to apply those strategies to their own writing. This was great, but the learning was pretty dependent on me.
What I was hoping for now was to teach my students how to find their own writing strategies and their own inspiration in the writing of others. Instead of hoping that they would start to internalize this process, we were able to make this process visible and explicitly teach students how to learn from the writing of others.
We started with structure. I pulled up my mentor text for the students and talked through how I noticed the structure that the writer was using. Each Wonderopolis article is the answer to an interesting question. I pointed out to the students that in my mentor text, I noticed that the writer did not jump right into the answer, but instead began by connecting to the reader and them providing necessary background information that would help the answer make more sense to the writer. I went through the rest of the article and briefly talked about the structure that I noticed.
Then it was time for my students to analyze their own mentor texts. So I set them off and they began rereading the mentor texts that they had selected. As they read, they answered a few questions on THIS FORM about the structure they were noticing.
I knew that I didn’t want my students to be limited by the one structure they noticed in their own mentor text, so I had the students get into groups to share the structures they were finding. In their groups, they created posters to share their structures with the rest of the class. I gave them an example of how I created a visual representation of my structure and asked them to do the same. Here are some of the charts that we created and the kids working to create their charts:
After taking some time to view everyone’s found structures, the kids who were ready, began creating a plan for their OWN structure. Again, I modeled for the kids how I looked at my own research that I had done to help me answer one of my wonder questions (which was what we were going to be writing about) and I thought about how it would be best to structure my own writing based on the structures that I had seen used by other Wonderopolis writers.
Of course, some of my students needed more support in planning their own writing, but that is what much of my conferring focused on during these days. Other writers took a few minutes to plan and then they were off to start their own writing.
Once the writing had begun, I knew that my writers had to start looking at writing strategies that were being used in their mentor texts in order to make the informational writing more interesting. So, again, I modeled with my own mentor text how I would look for strategies that my writer used so that he was doing more than just listing facts.
In the past, my teaching would have focused on the specific strategies that I wanted my students to learn and to use. However, this time, my teaching focused on how I was noticing what my writer was doing to make the writing more interesting. It was a subtle shift, but one that empowered my students to use any text that they encountered as a mentor text, not just the ones that I was handing them.
So then I sent my students often, again, to analyze their own mentor texts for specific writing strategies. This time, they kept track of what they noticed on THIS FORM.While my students did this work, I was busy conferring to help students put into words the strategies that they were finding. For those kids who needed extra support, I sat with them and asked them to read through their mentor text with me and stop when they noticed something other than a fact in the writing. Once we found these parts of the text, we talked about what the writer was doing, and put into words the strategy that was being used. In this way, I was sure that each student had identified at least one new writing strategy.
As my students analyzed their writing, I asked them to choose at least one writing strategy that they wanted to teach to the rest of the class. I asked them to create an anchor chart (just like the ones that I use to teach them new strategies) in order to share their writing strategy with other writers.
Again, I knew that I did not want my students to only learn the writing strategies that they found in their one mentor text. Instead, I wanted them to learn as many writing strategies as they could so that they could choose the ones that would work best for their own writing. One of the things that I was scared of in letting go of control of teaching all the mini-lessons is that my kids would not be exposed to enough different writing strategies to make them effective writers of informational writing that wasn’t just a list of facts. In order to help ensure that DIDN’T happen, I knew that they would have to teach each other.
Here are the kids working on their anchor charts:
As students finished their charts, they got back to their own writing. At this point, some students were still researching answers to their questions, some students were in the planning phases of their writing and some students were busily working on writing up answers to the question they were investigating. Wherever students were in their process, I knew that they were starting to use the skills that they had really taught themselves.
I saw evidence that students were understanding the structure of informational writing. I even saw evidence that students were starting to apply the writing strategies that they had just discovered. The writing that they were doing was organized and it was interesting. It was not just a list of facts. The kids were truly teaching themselves to be better writers by learning to analyze their own mentor texts. But, for me, the best was yet to come!
My original plan was to have each child take a turn presenting their strategy to the class. But I quickly realized that would take forever and if the students were telling me that they didn’t find it helpful to listen to me sit and talk about a writing strategy that I had found, they probably weren’t going to be too excited about listening to an entire class full of students take a turn talking about a writing strategy.
So again, a change was needed.
I decided that this was the perfect time to try using a student-run Edcamp style writer’s workshop. Though I have never attended an Edcamp or every tried running one in my own classroom. Rosy Burke had given me the brilliant idea of having the students sign up to lead sessions on a topic and have the rest of the class sign up for those sessions based on their needs. She had used the idea for math review, but I thought I would try it with writing workshop.
So here is what we did. I explained to the students that they would be working in small groups to teach each other about the writing strategies that they had discovered the day before. We talked about how they might want to teach this strategy. We decided that it would be best to use their anchor charts and the actual piece of writing that they were analyzing. Other than that, how they taught the lesson would be up to them.
I asked for volunteers who would be willing to go first. I was amazed at how many students wanted to try being a “session-leader.” So I created a session board. We had three sessions going at one time. I asked the three session-leaders to tell me what strategy they would be teaching and I wrote their strategies (not their names) up under each session. I then sent them off to get set-up with their anchor chart and a computer (since all of our mentor texts were online).
I then asked the rest of the class to look at the three strategies that were going to be taught. I asked them to think about which writing strategy might be most useful for the writing that they were planning on doing. If one session was dealing with how writers use humor to share facts and you were planning to write about the Korean War, that might NOT be the session that you chose to attend. I told them that I knew it would be tempting to just sign-up for your best friend’s session, but that might not be what will be most helpful to you.
Under each session, I drew an equal number of lines (I divided the remaining number of students into three in order to figure out how many lines to draw). I told the kids that once one session was filled up, they would have to choose another session. This was how I made sure that each session-leader had a group of students to teach. It was important to me that there wasn’t one session with two students in it while the session right next to them had 14 students attending.
Again, the kids were great! We signed up quickly. Everyone seemed to be happy with the session that they signed up for. And then off they went. Here are some pictures of our session board and of some of the sessions:
So far, each of my two classes has only been through one round of sessions. Next week, I am planning on running two different rounds in one day so that more kids can have a chance to be session-leaders. Some sessions lasted about two minutes while others lasted ten. This wasn’t really a problem because when a session was finished, the kids knew to just get started on their researching, planning or writing. When we run two rounds of sessions, my plan is to still have kids start their own writing when they are finished with their session and then when all three sessions are finished from the first round, the kids will just pause their own writing and move on to their second round of sessions.
We have a lot of work to do. We need to take some time to debrief what works well and what doesn’t work well so that session-leaders know what to do to be more effective teachers. I want the students to share what they found helpful that their session-leaders did so that other session-leaders can do those same things. I want to have a conversation about what responsibility a session-leader has to make their session effective for the learners attending. I know this is a skill that will take time to build.
When I look back on all the things that my students have shown me that they are capable of doing, I am in awe. I am simply in awe of them. I was so nervous about not being the one completely in charge of teaching them how to be better writers and, once again, my students proved to me how wrong I was.
And so far, their writing has been good. Really good. Our first few pieces of writing are up on our website. You can find them HERE. Just scroll down and click on one of the listed questions.
In just the first few pieces of finished writing, I can already see my students taking what they are learning from their mentor texts, from themselves, and from each other and applying that knowledge to their own writing. What more could I possibly ask for?