My students are good at coming up with writing ideas and they like free-writing. New topics are exciting. They have reasonable stamina during writing time, and look forward to sharing drafts with each other. They understand that writing is not just a skill for stories, but for many purposes, and that context determines style and tone. They don’t tend to cheer when it’s time to revise drafts, although they understand that revision is part of a larger process, and they have several strategies. I’ve learned to encourage them to work with shorter pieces if the revision process seems too overwhelming, so that it’s more manageable to complete and publish their work. That’s a lot to celebrate.
Two years ago, I gave up trying to ask students to write the same piece at the same time. On Day 1, we could generate ideas, and on Day 2, we could outline, and on Day 3, we could begin drafts . . . but some students were ready to draft on Day 1 and others were still playing with ideas. Who am I to insist that a stage of the process can only take a 30-minute block of time? I moved toward a system that encouraged students to write continuously, by using model texts and issues and topics to spur quick-writes, and helping students to select the most interesting pieces to develop more fully. I used mini-lessons to give students strategies to apply to pieces, even if they were in different stages with pieces in different genres.
I still like that method, but I found that it was a little challenging not to have any common writing experiences, just as it would be difficult to talk about reading if we only read independently and never had any shared text experiences to reference. This year, in addition to blog reflections and goal-setting, students will have four core writing pieces in common: a persuasive essay, a piece of speculative fiction, a review, and some poetry. They will also have 4-8 other self-selected pieces for their writing portfolios at the end of the year.
So here we are, developing our reviews in individual writing conferences, and I’m floundering a little. It’s tricky to know exactly which writing skill to support in a five-minute conference, and to give each student enough instruction that s/he feels confident with a particular strategy. I also have to fight my tendency to take over the analysis myself, and nudge each student to identify a strength and an important step to take to improve the piece. My conference notes are messy and vary widely from student to student, so I have a nagging sense that I’m doing it “wrong.”
Then I remind myself that writing is difficult work. Besides, some of my favorite authors – Lisa Yee, Susin Nielsen, Adam Rex, Jordan Sonnenblick – are unlikely to use the same process, even though they are all successful writers. I’ve decided it’s more crucial to move each student forward than to try to insist that each student gains exactly the same amount of writing knowledge in the year we spend together. I’m also pretty sure I need to increase the amount of modelling I’m doing, even though students are working in various genres at different stages. And I need to trust students to own their own writing pieces, without trying to “save” them – the pieces, that is. I want students to have high expectations for themselves; I can’t help cringing when basic capitalization errors still appear in final pieces. However, it’s clear that students need to make thoughtful decisions about their own writing, and I think the writing conferences have to support that above all else. That’s the new thing I’m going to try from this week forward.