July 9, 2018

Teaching Field Notes: How I Taught Writing and Why

Teaching Field Notes is a series on my time spent in the elementary classroom with the hopes that it might encourage fellow educators in the same place and space or point you towards quality resources to use in your classroom. Like any type of field notes format, these are informal thoughts and notes that are my own; they capture what I was or have learned while in the classroom--which means they are not perfect, and sometimes messy.

Throughout my years of teaching, I've always taught writing with a workshop model. It's what I was trained in with my undergrad and student teaching, so when I had my own classrooms in the year's that followed, I took what I had learned with that model and applied it. Just for some context here, after I graduated, the schools where I worked in had what I would call bare-bones curriculum for writing. I wasn't handed a lovely set of Lucy Calkins curriculum or anything of that sort. I certainly had standards (Common Core and the individual school's) that my students had to meet with their writing throughout the year, but how I went about teaching it... there was a lot of freedom. I personally loved that freedom with writing though because it was one of my favorite's to teach! So I essentially wrote my own version of a writing curriculum that still used the Calkins basics model and my favored strategies from her, while leaving out my not so favorite parts of her work, and adding in other favored parts of different writing curriculums out there.

In short, I basically used the Calkins workshop model, with the following additional resources that I highly recommend if you find yourself in a similar writing curriculum dilemma:
  • The Big Book of Details and Chart Sense for Writing, both by Rozlyn Linder. These were fantastic mini-lessons for my third and fourth graders, and I used lots of interactive charts throughout all of my subjects, and Linder's book had the best ones for writing. You can watch Linder walk you through a few of her lessons here too. 
  • Joy Write and The Writing Teacher's Companion both by Ralph Fletcher. As I said before, I have a lot of appreciation for Calkins, but there are things in here curriculum I just never liked. One of those was that a lot of different types of writing got cut out of the curriculum all together that students didn't get the opportunity to really try their hand at. This was the book that made me reconsider how I could take out what wasn't useful to my students from the Calkins material and add in those other writing genres that I loved to teach and that students still love to write. More to come on this in the future though...
  • For setting up writer's notebooks I took a lot of cues from Notebook Know-How and The Writer's Notebook
  • Teaching Without Frills makes some simple, fantastic Youtube mini-lessons essentially. If I had students that needed to go over concepts these were great for them to access in a playlist I had given them access too. It was also tremendously helpful for my students to use that were pulled out of the classroom for extra support because the other teacher could use it as well to help the students. And finally, in a pinch, on those days when you're sick but you don't want to plan for a sub and you're getting through your day (if you're a teacher you know those types of days that I'm referring to...) these were a real lifesaver. 
  • When I taught second grade I really liked using Susan Jone's Writer's Workshop Bundle for a couple of units, and Amy Lemon's unit on persuasive and letter writing.
  • Mentor texts for each unit that exemplified things such as quality writing structure, author's voice, etc. 

I think every educator needs to figure out their personal 'why' to each subject that they teach. It helps tremendously with keeping priorities straight in a field that is filled with constant changes and everyday craziness. Each teacher is unique, therefore your why has the potential to be different than another teacher's why--which is great! Students need to learn in different ways from different teachers throughout the course of their schooling. So ask yourself, why do you personally teach writing?

Teaching Field Notes: How I Taught Writing and Why
You can get this free printable on developing your core beliefs about literacy here--highly recommend it!
Hint: There are a lot of great answers here, but "because my administrator told me to," or, "because it's required by the state," are not correct answers. Dig deeper. If you're not passionate about teaching writing and it does feel like a requirement more than anything, reframe that answer to a more positive outcome: "I teach writing because I want to equip my students to become proficient in communicating." See? Much better! If you need to steal that--you have my permission. The point is it doesn't have to be a flowery answer like mine would be, but it should be something positive. Then take some time to jot down your ideas about writing too, as those will equally influence how you teach it. Let me share my why and some of my ideas:

Why I teach writing: I want to empower my students with the knowledge and skills to use their personal voice in the medium of writing in order to connect with others through their authentic self. Humans write to connect with one another to better understand each other and ourselves. 

Other Ideas I have About Writing Are...
  • Not every style or type of writing fits every student, therefore student choice in what they write matters in developing personal ownership over their writing
  • Since students will enjoy different types of writing a broad exposure to a variety of writing is a must
  • Writing for some students can be more personal than to others, educators should respect that
  • Writing is a practice, therefore students need lots of time to practice
These are just a few ideas, but they helped me form my curriculum and how I managed my workshop time. For instance, they are the reasons why I cut down Calkins timeline for writing units; I wanted students to have opportunities to write poems, tall-tales, fairy tales, etc. equally as much as they wrote personal narratives or informative pieces. It's why I never forced students to share their writing in full to each other and I always had a contract between myself and students about how writing feedback would be given. It's why my writing block was substantial... we wrote a lot! I had no problem cutting down other subjects when time constraints happened, but man, I tried with all my might to keep that writing time at its fullest. And it's also why...

Fridays were free-write days, where we didn't do the workshop model at all!!! Students could write about anything they wanted, however, they wanted, and I only graded them on participating and getting something--anything--down in their notebooks. And I gotta say, most students ended up doing the most amount of writing on those days. I rarely had to pull teeth to see pages filled up by the end of the block. I would often write during this time as well, and students could read what I wrote later. 

Towards the end of the school year, I'd play a game with students too that was ALWAYS popular: I'd start a story for them in their notebooks then they'd have to continue it for a couple of paragraphs, then I would write a couple of paragraphs, and back and forth we'd go. I promise you that this can be an incredibly engaging writing practice to have going on in your room throughout the year. My students who claimed they hated writing, still LOVED this activity.

And this gets back to the heart of why I teach writing to begin with: connection. Students need to experience meaningful connection through writing to really have it be meaningful to them in life. The teacher can give them that meaning, curriculum just doesn't--you have to bring that to the table.

The first day of the writer's workshop I really tried to utilize as an excitement builder for students. It became a well-known fact that Ms. Grimm's class wrote A LOT throughout the year. Some students looked forward to that, but as you can imagine, there were equally students who would come in at the beginning of the year dreading that "fact" about me. My goal was to show them though that writing was broad--many different styles and formats--and that writing gave them a great gift: an ability to use their voice and communicate, connect, and bring joy to others and themselves. You only impart that by showing a great deal of sincere excitement about writing.

Writers Workshop Teacher Notebook

Sidenote: If you're a teacher who doesn't enjoy writing personally, maybe ask yourself why? Is there a particular style of writing that you do enjoy over others that you can share with your students? Also, maybe challenge yourself to write with your students together! I started doing this my second year teaching, and it changed how I taught the subject forever. You should really keep your own writer's notebook throughout the year and write in it when you're students are too. I promise your writing block won't suffer if you take 5-10 minutes to sit down with them and model writing to them. We ALL learn to enjoy things more via the people who model them with excitement to us. Then share that writing with them. Both you and they will learn a lot about one another.

So the very first step in creating that excitement? Notebooks. Notebooks that are personalized and personal to them. I'd usually dedicate one of the first writer's workshop days to notebook decorating. I'd throw out a selection of stickers and scrapbook papers and let them go to town, and then we'd get them set-up with post-it note tabs and a table of contents.

Writers Workshop Journal Decorating
© Natalie Grimm. Made with love by The Dutch Lady Designs.