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Learning from others

For each unit, we analyze a mentor text, we look at the sample I write, and we write together as a class. Say we’re learning to write persuasively. We study a picture book like The Pain and the Great One. I share my letter to the editor. We write to the principal about offering more after-school clubs, for example. From studying the picture book and the teacher mentor text and writing a sample as a class, the students can better envision the piece they’ll write independently.

1. What makes writers feel safe?

For writing workshop to work, students have to feel comfortable. I talk about choosing words carefully when responding to someone else’s writing. I uncovered three key tips to share. (1) Students work hard on their writing. All that work requires a delicate wording of suggestions. (2) Sometimes the confusion is a lapse in the writing and authors should be open to help from others. (3) Sometimes the confusion is the responder’s comprehension problem since the she listens without benefit of seeing the writing. Writers can politely read a part and say, Does this sentence clear up your confusion?

2. How can I become a better listener?

Start a chart of good listening behaviors (Rick Duvall). Ask a student to tell you a story in front of the class. (Brief him on what you’re going to do ahead of time.) The first time you “listen,” constantly interrupt the storyteller with anecdotes of your own. After just a minute, ask him, do you feel like I’m listening to you? As a class figure out what it is that you’re doing that’s so disruptive. Put their recommendations on the chart i.e., stop talking. The second time you “listen,” follow their advice, but twirl around, look at your watch, and yawn. After just a minute, ask, do you feel listened to? Add suggestions for listening better to the chart. The third time you listen, use all the behaviors you’d like your students to use. Ask again, do you feel I’m listening to you? Add the behaviors they saw to the chart. Clarify. Listeners know they can listen and do other things at the same time. The point is not just to listen but to make the other person feel listened to. Add to the chart throughout the year.

3. Who are my partners?

The very first thing my students do in writing workshop is share with two partners for about 5 minutes. Each reads a favorite line, explains a new idea, reads a whole story, asks for help, etc. They start workshop this way all year – with the same partners. Partners who know you can say, Wow. You tried something new, or I’m not sure that line works, or Why didn’t you do your homework? Writers think about their writing buddies as they’re writing anticipating the moment when they’ll get to share. Triads work because everyone can share in a short time and even when one member is absent. Starting with partner share allows me to check that homework s done, walk the classroom and listen in, work with one small group per day, or select excited writers to share creative ideas. In the beginning of the year, they select their partners and where they’ll sit. Partners model listening, sharing the paper, appropriate language and body language, tone of voice, and other norms that we inevitably have to address.

4. What can I learn from my teacher's writing?

Writing whatever genre your students are writing will help in so many ways. Students see that writing doesn’t just flow out of pencils; they understand the process much more clearly when they watch you. I share what I’m thinking as I write, how I solve problems, the decisions I make and why, how tired I get, how I spell words I don’t know, how I can’t find the right words and what I do as a result. I don’t even have to complete the piece. I might use my writing to model beginnings. Later, I add dialogue or quotations to just a paragraph that I share.

5. What can authors teach me?

Choose just the right book as your mentor text. Examine how authors start stories or essays, write endings, use punctuation, format their writing, write descriptively, persuasively or poetically, etc. Make reading an option during writing time. If students are stuck, they read to get an idea. For example, one of my students wrote a breaking-out-of-jail scene. To help her, she reread the chapter in Tuck Everlasting where Winnie breaks Ma out of jail. Teach students to consult the authors in the room. Any problem in writing can be solved by examining what others did.

6. What’s an editing invitation?

Teach grammar and mechanics by examining mentor texts (Jeff Anderson). Copy a well-crafted sentence or two from a mentor text on the whiteboard. Ask students to notice how the sentence is punctuated, for example. Let them talk to one another about why they think the semi-colon or question mark is used in just that way. Once the students figure out the question of the day, the teacher invites the students to use the technique in their own writing where appropriate. Anderson contends that we learn two things by inviting students to edit: (1) how to use grammar and mechanics correctly, and (2) how to write well. Instead of the gotcha feel of grammar lessons of the past, invitations allow teachers to model that writing correctly is just a matter of noticing what they’re reading.

Next: Helping students find their topics

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Help students listen

Teach students how to listen to each other read their writing aloud.

MINILESSONS

A resource for people passionate about helping students write well, compiled by Karen Haag

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Copyright 2016 by Karen Haag

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