We just wrapped up an epic fiction writing unit. I have an entire blog post planned in my mind about the importance of teaching students to write fiction, on giving students time to write fiction on the importance of balancing nonfiction and fiction writing more evenly in our writing curriculums. But, I will save that for another day. Because one of the things that I tried to focus on most during this writing unit, was finding ways to give the writing process back to my students.
I have often written about the disturbing trend that I have noticed in my fifth grade writers. By the time they come to me in fifth grade, they are completely dependent on me as their teacher. They seek my approval for everything before they trust themselves to know if something is good or not. They might be able to get through a piece of writing on their own, but they then wait for me to tell them where they need to go back and make something better. Not only do they look to me to point out the places where they can do more in their writing, they also wait for me to tell them exactly what to do in order to make their writing better.
And yes, they are ten and eleven, of course they need me still to help them grow as writers. But I am starting to believe that by simply telling them what they need to fix, I am actually not helping them to grow as writers at all. Instead, I am helping them to make that one piece of writing better, but when it comes to the next piece of writing, they will still need me just as much as they did before.
Now I know that in the world outside of school, writers have editors. I understand that and I have wrestled with that. But last year a brilliant friend, who also happens to be an editor, explained to me that his job as an editor is to worry about the final product more than about helping someone to grow as a writer. As a teacher, his job is to worry more about helping someone to grow as a writer than to worry about the final product. And this makes so much sense to me.
So because fiction writing is so naturally motivating to young kids, and because that leads to such an incredible energy in our writing community, I thought that this was the perfect writing unit to begin to hand over some of the power of the writing process to my students.
As we began our fiction writing unit, I took the kids through the things that they needed to learn in order to get their stories going. I chose the lessons, I selected the mentor texts to teach those lessons and I was in charge of finding ways to help the students practice applying those lessons to their own writing. Here are some of the things that we focused on:
After these basic lessons, we began a study of how writers use details. I shared with my students that too often we, as teachers, tell kids to add more detail to their stories, but we don’t often enough stop to think about where those details should go and what purpose those details should serve.
So again, I pulled out some mentor texts and helped my students to see that sometimes writers use details to introduce an important character, sometimes writers use details to reveal something important about a setting, to highlight a turning point, to emphasize a moment of high emotion or to set a mood in the story. For these lessons, I shared picture books and copies of pages from novels. I showed my students the places in the text that writers used details for these purposes and then I asked students to use their notebooks to practice how they might use details in these ways in their own stories.
And all of this, it was completely led by me. And certainly my students were learning. I saw them thinking more deeply about the fiction they were writing, I saw them grappling with how they could make their stories better, I watched them dig deeper into the worlds they were creating. But still, they looked to me as the source of the information on how to make their writing better.
So many weeks into our fiction writing unit, I typed out and photocopied the text of the book Pete and Pickles. I read the text to the class and then I modeled for the students how I looked back into the text in order to find parts where the writer used details for a purpose. I underlined the lines where the writer used details and then I tried to name the purpose, in the margins, of how the writer was using those details.
I then had the kids work in pairs or small groups to go into the text and look for new ways that the writer of Pete and Pickles used details. I asked them to underline the parts and try to put into words, what the writer was using details to do in the writing. I had asked them to code the text and keep track of the new ways they were finding that writers might use details. HERE is the sheet that I asked them to use to keep track of their newly discovered strategies.
I was nervous about how this would go. It was still fairly early in the year, my students still looked to me to guide them through the writing process. They had not yet worked with analyzing texts on their own to discover new writing strategies. But, as is usually the case, I should not have worried.
The students quickly became engaged in their work and they discovered the strategies that I hoped they would discover. And then, the very best part is that they discovered ways that the writer used details that I never would have discovered on my own. After they finished working, we came back together and shared the strategies that we found and I was simply blown away by what they had come up with.
Students noticed that the writer used details to show us something important about the relationship between characters, to show us that time was passing, to help us feel empathy for a character, to help us show more than one side to a character, to help us understand the changing emotions of a character and many other brilliant ways that the writer used details.
As I was conferring that day, I realized something fascinating. As I walked around and talked to writers, focusing on how they were using details in their own writing, I realized that the kids were using the strategies that they themselves had discovered in the piece of writing we looked at. They were using these strategies way more often and way more willingly than they had previously used the strategies that I had taught them.
My students owned these writing strategies. Because they themselves had discovered these ways of using details, these strategies were much more integrated into their writing selves. They were therefore much more willing and likely to use them.
This was huge.
This was something I needed to capitalize on. Instead of sitting passively while I brought mentor texts to them and tried to fill their writer’s toolboxes with strategies, I needed to find a way to make my students a part of that process. I needed to teach them the processes through which they could become better writers on their own. I would, of course, be there to guide them through the process and teach them the things that they might not be able to discover on their own, but if I did not start teaching them how to grow as writers without me, then I knew they had no hope of continuing to grow as writers outside of the walls of our schools.
In the next post, I will describe how as a class, we worked to learn how to find our own mentor texts, how to analyze them for writing strategies, how to apply these writing strategies to our own writing and how to teach these strategies to other writers in our classroom community.