Learning from Yesterday’s “Failures”

When I was just a wee young lad, the word “fail” was considered almost as bad as other curse words like the “F word.”  If you failed at something, it meant that you were not good and lacked talent.  No one wanted to fail or be thought of as a failure.  It was a Scarlet Letter that you wore with you for the rest of your childhood.

Now, of course, we all know that times have changed and the word failure is synonymous with success.  In order to do something well, you have to fail at it first.  We want our students to fail in order for them to learn how to grow and succeed.  While it’s amazing that our ideas on teaching have progressed so much thanks to technology and research on the neuroscience of education, I do wish that the adults in my world when I was a child would have embraced failing as an essential part of the learning process.  Had I failed more because I was inspired to take more risks with my learning, I wonder how many other things I’d be capable of doing now.  Perhaps I would have learned to stick with playing the guitar.  Maybe I’d be in a band right now, touring Europe.  That would be cool.  I’ve always wanted to see London during this time of year.

As I now see the value in failing on a regular basis because of the learning that comes from the experience, I am more willing to try new things in the classroom as a teacher.  I’m not afraid to try out a new application on the computer or a new instructional strategy in the classroom.  If it works, great; if not, it provides me with a teachable moment in the classroom.  Luckily too, I can also reflect on my failed lessons or activities and learn from them.  While I was not overly happy with the outcome of yesterday’s Humanities lesson on the process of revising writing, I had the chance to reflect on what didn’t go well yesterday.  Then today, I was able to more effectively introduce and explain the purpose of the revision process and the power that it holds.  “Revision is the most important step in the writing process because it provides you with a chance to fix what’s broken with your work.  No writer, regardless of age and experience, is able to craft the perfect piece of writing.  Every writer is in need of fixing and revising their work.  Today, you have a chance to receive feedback from as many people as possible so that you can create an even better story than what you currently have.  You also have the chance to receive such valuable feedback that you will be able to, hopefully, exceed the three graded objective for this assignment.  So, treat today’s revision period with the respect it deserves.”  After feeling as though I did not explain the process of revising one’s writing well yesterday in class, I wanted to be sure that I highlighted the benefits in revising one’s written work based on feedback from others, and I feel like I did that today.  After my introduction and review of what was to happen in class during the work period, I felt quite confident that things would be better today than they were yesterday.

My future-telling skills were clearly right on par today as the work period was phenomenal.  The boys worked so well on providing each other with feedback, revising their work, and growing as writers.  I conferenced with three students and was able to provide them some meaningful feedback that will allow them to make their story far better than it was.  While I didn’t have a chance to observe every student or group as they worked during class today as I was conferencing with students at the back table, the groups I could see and hear seemed to be bleeding greatness.  To conclude class today, I some had students share how the peer editing process went for them in class today.

“Me and my partner worked on helping each other come up with better words to describe the setting in our stories,” one student said.  I praised those two students for the great effort they put into looking at one aspect of their writing.

“My partner helped me fix grammar stuff in my story and I helped him make his story funny and not boring,” one student said, laughing.  “He even said that he’s going to write a whole new story since he doesn’t think he did a good job on his first one.”  He was describing what he and his partner worked on during their peer editing conference.  Awesome!  I then explained how amazing it was that because of feedback, this specific writer will be able to grow and develop his writing skills.

I can’t wait to read the revised stories my students will complete by early next week.  They are sure to be far better than what they had typed this week.  And to think that if I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on yesterday’s lesson and thought about how to change things for today’s class, I would not have been able to inspire my students to see the value in revising their writing while also helping their peers make their stories better.  Failure helped me better support and challenge my students to utilize a growth mindset in Humanities class today.  Making mistakes is how genuine learning is fostered.  I need to fail in order to grow.  It seems counter intuitive, but it’s how the brain works.  We are wired to remember things that are tagged with emotion, and so failed experiences stick with us because they don’t make us usually feel very good.  I thought about my “failed” class yesterday for hours, which is why I was able to spend so much time thinking about how to fix the situation in class today.  How could I help my students better appreciate the editing and revising stages of the writing process?  And wallah, I found my answer in class today.  Failure rocks!  I can’t wait to do it again.

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How Writer’s Workshop Allows Me to Differentiate My Instruction in the Classroom

At the beginning of each new academic year, students will exclaim, during our Writer’s Workshop introduction, how much they hate writing.  “I hate writing and I will never like it,” students are often heard saying during that first week of classes.  By the end of the year though, those same students can’t stop writing because they have grown to enjoy it so much.  The Writer’s Workshop approach to the teaching of writing provides students with freedom and choice.  They can write whatever they want based on a broad topic.  At the start of the year, we introduce students to the personal narrative style of writing and have them craft a personal narrative piece.  It can be fiction or truth, they get to decide.  It can tell the story of literally anything.  We want our students to play with writing and words so that they learn to see the fun that can be had while writing.  As most of our students have never experienced this style of writing instruction, they are usually so excited that they are able to choose what they write about.  It’s not that our students ever hated writing, they were just never provided opportunities to see how much fun writing can truly be.

Today in Humanities class, the students had one final Writer’s Workshop block to work on their most current writing piece.  Throughout our unit on Africa, we had the students begin working on three different writing pieces based on our mini-lessons.  From those three pieces, they chose their very favorite to finish and bring through the writing process.  We’ve spent this whole week working on this process in Writer’s Workshop, and today was the final chance for students to receive feedback from their peers and teachers.  While a few students had already finished their piece prior to today, most students had not.  Those students who had finished, spent the period reading or completing other work.  They were focused on the task at hand while the other students polished their Africa writing piece.  Some of the boys sought feedback from their peers while my co-teacher and I conferenced with the others.  It was so great to have one-on-one conferences with each of the students.  I asked them what kind of feedback they were looking for.  “What do you want me to look for while I’m reading your piece?  What kind of feedback would you like?” I would ask them at the start of the conference.  I then asked them, “How would you like me to provide you with this feedback?  Shall I comment in your Google Doc, tell you the feedback orally, or write my suggestions at the end of your piece?  What method will work best for you?”  I want to make sure that I am tailoring the conference to meet the needs of my students.  Every student was looking for something different.  Some students wanted me to help them with their grammar while others wanted me to be sure they used enough details from our mini-lessons in their piece.  These conferences were so individual and unique.  It offered me the chance to praise my students, notice their growth as writers, and provide them meaningful feedback to help them grow and develop as writers.  During these conferences, the other students were focused and diligently working on making their pieces even better so that they could exceed each of the three graded objectives.  It was an amazing period filled with beautiful writing, excellent questions, quality feedback, and hard work.  I was so impressed with my students.  They continue to amaze me on a daily basis.

Now, getting the students to the point at which we are currently in the classroom takes much time.  Our first few Writer’s Workshop blocks are filled with learning opportunities.  Some students write for about 10 minutes and then move onto another task.  Helping the boys learn to develop their stamina as writers takes time.  During our first go-round at peer editing, the students give and receive very little feedback that is at all useful.  They focus on the font size or color.  They don’t analyze the writing to see that adding more depth to the character would help move the story forward faster.  All of these little details about writing and what an effective Writer’s Workshop should look like takes much time and effort.  We do much modelling for the students on how to provide quality feedback, utilize feedback provided by others, stay focused on writing for long periods of time, self-edit and revise their own work, and generate writing ideas.  After several months of mini-lessons and practice, the students get to the point that we were able to witness first hand today in the classroom.  The students know what to do and how to do it and so they just do it.  They write, edit, peer edit, revise, conference, talk about writing, and really work to make their writing stronger and more detailed.

Observing an effective Writer’s Workshop in action is quite the amazing sight.  It almost feels like you are in a tiny cafe in a city where writers sit and work all day, drinking coffee, writing, and talking about writing.  Fostering this love of writing and care for others takes much time and energy but is so worth it.  Because I am able to meet with every student and not worry about what the others are doing as I know they are focused and on track, I am able to differentiate my instruction to meet the needs of each individual student.  I make sure to pay extra close attention to grammar when I am conferencing with my ESL students.  I also do some teaching during these conferences too as I notice recurring mistakes.  For my more advanced writers, I focus on the nuances of writing like plot holes, character development, and setting.  I challenge those authors to focus on revising the bigger parts of their writing.  These conferences provide me this time to really focus my instruction for each student so that I can be sure they are prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English.

Using the Writer’s Workshop method to teach writing has not only made me a better teacher, but it has helped my students learn to find the enjoyment in writing.  By June, my students love writing and enjoy talking to their peers about it.  This method of instruction also allows me to make sure that my students are accurately applying the skills discussed and practiced during our mini-lessons.  Differentiating the instruction is crucial to helping students be and feel successful, and Writer’s Workshop is one easy way to create opportunities to do just that in the classroom.

Rethinking The Structure of Writing Groups

One of my favorite courses in college was Poetry Workshop.  The class was structured like a big writer’s conference or writer’s workshop session.  Each Wednesday evening, we would meet for three hours and share and discuss our work.  Each student would read his or her poem aloud and then receive feedback from the group.  I loved the discussions best of all because they were a chance to talk about writing and figure out how to improve or change a piece to make it more effective.  The conversations were dialogues, not each person saying, “I liked how you used the word flagrant in your piece.  It was cool.”  Oh no.  The students asked each other questions and discussed word choice and line breaks.  Everything was a give-and-take.  We provided each other with constructive feedback so that everybody in the group could grow and develop as a writer and poet.  I learned more about writing in that four-month class than I ever did in all of my years of elementary school.

As a teacher, I want to inspire my students in the same way.  I want them to like writing and the process of writing as much as I did back then.  I want them to see the value in revision and want to talk about writing for the sake of honing their craft.  While we utilize the writer’s workshop model for literacy instruction in the sixth grade, I do wonder if we are effectively implementing every aspect of it.

Today in Humanities class, the students participated in writing groups as a way to receive feedback from their peers on how to improve upon their poem to make it even stronger.  The goal of writing groups, which we share with the students every time, “is to help your peers improve their piece so that they are able to meet and/or exceed every graded objective.”  We reviewed the protocol with the boys today at the start of class since it has been a while since we’ve had writing groups.  “Each student will share his piece aloud with the group while the other two or three members will take copious notes on noticings and wonderings based on the type of feedback the reader said he is looking for.  Then, the writer will physically remove himself from the group while the other members discuss the author’s piece.  While the writer is listening and taking notes on the feedback provided, he does not participate in the discussion.  He doesn’t ask questions and accepts or declines the suggestions and feedback offered.  The other students will ask each other questions and make suggestions about how the author could improve the piece.”  Although some of these discussions were quite strong today, most of the conversations were more of a “do it to get it done kind of thing” than an actual task and opportunity that is taken seriously.  The writers listened for feedback they liked and ignored the rest while the other students discussing the piece just shared noticings and wonderings and weren’t able to have a genuine conversation about the piece and what the author can do to make it stronger and better.

So then, why do we do it this way?  Why do we structure the writing groups so that the students can’t be involved in the discussion?  My co-teacher from a few years ago took several courses through the National Writing Project and they use this same format for writing groups.  She loved it and so we’ve done it ever since despite noticing how much the students have struggled with the process.  They aren’t mature enough to handle having high-level conversations regarding much critical thinking at the sixth grade level.  The writers want to ask their peers discussing the piece questions about the feedback.  They want to speak for themselves and take ownership of their writing.  They can’t just sit and listen.  But, that’s how we structure it.  And after today’s writing groups experience, I’ve realized that this format needs to change for next year.  It’s not beneficial to all students.  Sure, some students receive helpful feedback, but most are not provided with the kind of feedback that allows them to grow and develop as writers.  Most sixth graders are not able to notice the figurative language and how it builds the scene or foreshadows future happenings.  They get stuck on how their peers read the piece aloud.  “He read it very slowly without emotion.”  How is that specific tidbit of feedback going to help the writer improve his piece?  It’s not.  What if we allowed the writers to engage in the conversation and speak for their piece?  What if we allowed them to explain and discuss the questions raised by the other members of the group?  Wouldn’t that elicit higher-level thinking and discussion?  Wouldn’t that allow the writer to be provided with more valuable feedback?

Instead, today, a few of the students felt frustrated and as though they didn’t receive any sort of helpful feedback.  Of course, one of those students utilized a fixed mindset going into writing groups and wouldn’t have liked any feedback he received unless it was positive and praised his poem.  But, a few of the students felt like they didn’t receive the sort of suggestions they were hoping for.  The ideas for revision some of the boys received lacked depth and were more like editing marks than deep revision suggestions.  Plus, many of the authors wanted to address the questions brought up by their peers, but because we structure the writing groups in a specific manner, they are not allowed to get involved in the discussions.  This proved frustrating to some of our boys.  So, why not change the format?  Why keep something in the curriculum that is clearly broken?

So, next year, when we introduce and utilize writing groups, they will be structured more like conversations and dialogues.  We want the students to own their work and feel as they though can explain their choices and work.  We want the boys to analyze writing and dig into it instead of just scratching the surface.  Next year, writing groups in the sixth grade will look more like the writing groups I experienced in my college course.  We want to bring the fun and engagement back into writing.  No more staying with the status quo.  It’s time to admit defeat and overhaul the format.  Why keep repeating something that the students clearly don’t enjoy and that doesn’t seem to help them grow as writers in any way?  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  No more shame will be had in the sixth grade.

Writing Conferences with Students Rock!

I’m a writer by design.  I have brilliant (well, I think they’re pretty awesome but by most people’s standards they are probably just good) ideas inside my tiny cranium and writing is the only way I know how to effectively convey them to the world.  I can’t carry a note to save my life despite my love of music and singing.  I can’t dance in a way that others find amazing.  I’m not a very good public speaker.  So, writing is the only vehicle I have to carry my ideas from my brain to the world.

Because I am a writer, I love to write.  Because I’m a writing teacher, I love receiving feedback on my writing.  While I am not involved in any writing groups, I do love putting my writing out there in search of feedback.  While I think my writing is well done, how do others view it?  In order to grow and develop as a writer and teacher, I need feedback from my peers.  Due to my chaotic schedule, I rarely have time to meet with others about writing or share my work with my colleagues.  Recently, I shared a reflective narrative piece I wrote regarding some of the big ideas discussed in my class’ unit on community with my co-teacher.  It felt good to receive feedback and ideas for improvement.  Plus, I learned that she had crafted a similar piece.  I never would have realized that had I not put myself out there.

So, to inspire our students to feel the same way about feedback and the writing process, we had the students workshop one of their recent writing pieces regarding our community unit.  Today in Humanities class, the boys chose the piece they found most interesting or engaging and continued working on it.  Those students who felt their piece was done, moved onto the revising and editing stages.  (We try to avoid using the word finished when discussing writing in the classroom because writing is never truly finished.  You can have a piece that meets the requirements and is done, but that doesn’t mean it’s finished.  It just means that it has a beginning, middle, and end and is developed.)  The students proofread, revised, and edited their piece individually before completing the process with a peer.  If time permitted, those students then conferenced with a teacher.  The other students continued working on writing their piece.

I had the chance to conference with two students.  It wasn’t just a chance to meet with the students and provide them with feedback on their piece, it was a conversation and a discussion.  I asked each boy what kind of feedback they wanted.  Do you want me to give you feedback orally, in writing at the bottom of your piece, or as comments in your document?  The first student wanted me to insert comments with feedback while the other student wanted a list of my feedback suggestions at the end of the piece.  I then asked each student what they would like me to look for as I read over their piece.  What do you want me to notice or look for?  After they gave my specific instructions, the fun began.

I read each of their pieces aloud.  The first author wanted me to notice his word choice.  Did he use the most effective words for the piece?  So, I went through each line very carefully and talked to him about effective word choice.  We also got off-topic a few times talking about different ways to tell a story.  How might you tell this same story if it were a mystery?  I noticed in his piece that he liked to end paragraphs with a bit of intrigue.  What happens next?  So, we talked about that and why he uses that motif.  He likes leaving readers with a sense of wonder.  However, his ending wasn’t much of an ending.  It left too many gaps and questions. This lead into a discussion on leaving a story’s ending open versus not effectively closing a story.  He understood the difference and asked what he should do next.  I said, “You’re the author.  You tell me.  What should you do now?  How should you end your story?”  He seemed a bit frustrated by my response, but he also seemed to know what he wanted to do.  So, we parted ways and I let him get on with the writing process.

The second student wanted me to provide him feedback regarding the flow of his story.  Did it make sense?  As this student wanted my feedback at the end of his piece, I read his story straight through without stopping before I gave him feedback.  The end baffled me a bit.  It seemed as though his whole story was played out in blocks by a young boy, but it wasn’t entirely clear.  So, I asked him about this.  Indeed, that was his intention.  So, I talked to him about making it a bit more clear.  I then explained to him the difference between showing and telling a story.  Rather than listing out what happened in the story, a good author will explain and detail what happened.  I used an example that I came up with to model this.  This seemed to help him understand what he needed to do.  Our conversation continued on a bit longer before he got back to work.

Writing conferences aren’t just a time to proofread a student’s story or piece and then have them work on it.  Effective writing conferences are conversations about writing.  You get to understand a student’s writing voice and help them to develop it.  You don’t go through their piece with a fine toothed comb and correct every little mistake.  You discuss writing techniques and tricks that will help them make the piece stronger and more effective.  Each of the students I conferenced today left the conference feeling good about themselves and their piece.  A good conference is about positivity and improvement.  While it’s easy to focus on what needs to be fixed in our students’ writing, that can be difficult for our students to swallow.  They may leave the conference feeling like they failed.  We need to help our students see writing as an adventure.  There are challenges encountered but numerous ways to defeat the evil monster.  For me, writing conferences are a time to help my students learn to see writing for more than just a task they need to complete.  Writing conferences with students rock!