Awesome Sauce: When Learning Happens in the Classroom

Being a teacher has its many perks and rewards:

  • Observing students really “get” stuff and have A-Ha moments in the classroom.
  • Being able to decorate your classroom anyway you want with no one telling you, “Those drapes clash with that carpet.”
  • Helping students grow and develop.
  • Challenging students to change their perspective on life.
  • Halloween.  Need I say more?
  • Celebrating a furry brown creature who lives in the ground with songs, poems, and fun.
  • Meeting new students on the first day of school.
  • Running into past students in strange places and taking a stroll down memory lane.

I bet that some of you thought snow days and summer vacation were going to be at the top of my list.  While we, as teachers, do love our time off, we’d much rather be in the classroom with our students molding minds and helping create the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and doers.

Another thing teachers really love about their lifestyle choice is seeing that their students are actually learning.  Yes, it’s great to see the moment when they understand something like a lightbulb going off in their brain, but seeing students apply that new knowledge they learn is even cooler.

Over the years, I’ve wrestled with how to help students see the power of the peer editing process.  How do I help students understand the value in providing their peers with meaningful feedback that will help them effectively revise their written work?  How can I best teach students to be effective peer editors?  Each year I feel as though teaching students to be great peer editors is like what early American settlers went through when they journeyed west in search of land, an arduous and long journey.  It takes many students the entire year to really be able to master the skill of providing their peers with useful feedback.  I get it.  Having a careful eye and providing constructive feedback to others is not an easy thing to do.  It’s hard to effectively help others to make their writing better.  I sometimes struggle with this skill myself, and I’m an adult.  I understand that this journey to becoming an effective peer editor can be bumpy and filled with unexpected twists and turns, which is why I don’t expect my students to be able to meaningfully help others revise their written work until later in the academic year.

Now, while I’ve heard that miracles do happen, I have yet to see any in my short life.  Wait a minute, I take that back: My teenaged son once woke up in a pleasant mood.  That was definitely a miracle.  Inside my classroom, I was fortunate enough today to see another miracle: My students effectively peer editing each other’s written work.

Today’s class began much like any other.  The boys wrote down the homework and completed a Brain Puzzle activity altogether as a class.  Nothing special or miraculous happened.  The boys did what was expected of them.  Then, I introduced the peer editing activity that the students would be completing in class.  I reviewed the difference between editing and revising and made a list on the board of the various writing features they should be looking to comment on regarding their partner’s Learning Goals Plan.  I went over the steps of the process and made sure they understood what was expected of them.  As I was definitely employing a fixed mindset going into today’s class, I was certain that they would have time to peer edit with at least three different students since they usually only provide their partner with superficial feedback on how they can improve their work.  Then came the miracle.

The students got right to work.  No, that wasn’t the miracle.  While I have had previous classes struggle with this skill, this year’s group is great at getting right to work.  The miracle came when they started to work.  The students were asking each other questions like, “How will you use a growth mindset?  What do you mean here?  Could you explain more here?”  I was amazed.  They were really trying to provide their partner with constructive feedback.  They were focusing on the big features of their written work and not the little, nit picky stuff like spelling or grammar.  They were trying to help their partner become a better, more effective writer.  They posed great questions and provided each other with effective and meaningful feedback.  It was awesome.  They were completing the peer editing process in a real and genuine manner.  They weren’t just going through the motions like classes in the past have done, oh no.  They were taking the time to really dissect their partner’s work so that he could put it back together in a more effective way.  I was amazed.  They spent so long working with one partner, that they only had time to provide feedback to one student prior to the end of class.  Wow!

How were they able to accomplish this task so early in the year?  No other group has demonstrated mastery of this skill so soon in the school year.  What allowed or helped my students to be successful during today’s activity?   Was it because we’ve been focusing on helping our students utilize a growth mindset while working?   Was that it?  Or was it that I explained what they needed to do in a way that made sense to them?  Perhaps it was because I reminded them that I will be grading them on their ability to provide their partner with effective feedback.  Maybe the sunny weather motivated them to buckle down and really work in class today.  Who knows what it was, as there were so many variables at play.  I don’t feel as though I taught the skill of peer editing any differently this year than I did in past years, and so I’m not sure what it was that helped them all showcase their ability to peer edit their partner’s work in a meaningful way.  I do know that something special happened in the classroom today.  If my students apply the feedback with which they were provided today, they will all certainly be able to exceed the two graded objectives for this task.  I can’t wait to read the final draft of their Learning Goals Plan on Friday as they are sure to be “legen- wait for it- dary.”

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Group Writing: How to Inspire Your Students to Enjoy Writing

Sixth grade students love to talk and interact with their friends and peers.  They solve problems through talking, play games while talking, and even talk when they shouldn’t be talking.  Many sixth grade students tend to be very outgoing and interpersonal.  They experience life through social interactions, as they love doing things together in small groups or with a partner.  Teamwork and group work play vital roles for sixth grade students.  If offered the choice to work alone on a project or activity or to complete the task with a partner, most sixth grade students would choose to work with a partner.  They crave social togetherness and feeling like a part of something greater than themselves.  These connections are crucial to how successful sixth grade students feel and actually are in reality.

So, to capitalize on this important facet of sixth grade life, I wanted to try a different kind of writing activity today during Humanities class.  While many of my students have already begun to find the fun and enjoyment in writing, a few of them are still stuck in thinking that writing is a required task and not something they enjoy doing.  To help inspire my students to get into the Halloween spirit today while also helping them find the fun in the writing process, I had the boys participate in a Group Writing activity.  The students each received a different spooky story starter that was the springboard into their story.  They used this prompt to begin their story.  Each student worked on their story for five minutes, formulating a strong beginning.  They then all traded stories with a peer, read what their classmate had written, and then continued building on this new story for five minutes.  They rotated stories with their classmates three more times, as they added to new stories, building on what was already written.  The last rotation had the students finish the story that was worked on by four other students.  Throughout the process, laughter was heard on numerous occasions as they read each other’s stories and added to them.  Smiles spread across the faces of my students as they busily worked to craft scary and strange Halloween-themed stories.  The boys had a blast with the writing portion of this activity.  They all seemed so proud of their work as they pointed out some of the highlights from their pieces while they traded stories with their classmates.  One student came to me towards the end of the writing process and said, “Mr. Holt, I’m loving writing so much now that I may start doing it during my free time.  This activity is so fun.”  Another student, who struggles to write as he finds it boring, told me, “Thanks for doing this activity, Mr. Holt.  It was a lot of fun.”  The boys seemed to thoroughly enjoy crafting crazy, weird, and morbid stories together as a group.  They loved adding to what their friends had crafted and enjoyed reading what their peers had written.  While there was very little talking happening during the writing part of this activity, the social interaction component was quite high.  The students were silently interacting with their peers in written form.  I was impressed and amazed by how much my students seemed to like this activity.  It was awesome.

Before moving into the sharing portion of the activity, I asked the students for some feedback on the process.  Almost all of the students raised their hands to express how much they loved this activity.  To wrap things up, I had the students gather in the reading area of the classroom, turned off the lights, and read aloud their group write stories.  I not only had a blast reading their bizarre, scary, and often funny stories, but the students couldn’t stop laughing.  When their part of the stories was read aloud, shouts of laughter and “This is mine” were heard.  It was such a remarkable experience.  By making writing a social activity, I inspired my students to find their passion.  My students found the fun in writing during today’s activity.  While this is only one way to teach students how to write and craft stories, it is a highly successful method as it allows the students to silently engage in social discourse.  They talked with their friends through their writing.  Many of the stories had tinges of a video game the boys love playing together during their free time.  Almost every story seemed to include some reference to this game.  While I have done this activity every Halloween for the past four years, I’m amazed each and every year by how much my students truly enjoy it.  This activity is usually just the bridge many of them need to cross over the river of challenges and into the land of Writing is Fun.  I can’t wait to see what wonderful masterpieces my students put together during our next writing activity.

Varying the approach to teach writing is important in helping all students see how much fun writing can be.  While some boys love writing creative stories or historical fiction pieces, others like writing non-fiction essays or reports.  Each student is different and unique in their own way, and as teachers, it is our mission to help them tap into their potential as a writer.  What type of writing activity or genre will inspire them?  By providing the students with various writing opportunities throughout the year, we are helping them unlock the writer within.  Group writing activities like the one I did today, can help students uncover the writer inside of them.  Who knows what’s possible unless we give our students a chance to try?  So, if you’re looking to mix things up and make writing fun for your students, try a Group Writing activity.

How My Students Help Me Become a Better Teacher

When I was a young lad, I always wanted a rock polisher.  I thought they were the coolest things ever.  You can take an old, nasty looking rock and turn it into a polished stone in a matter of hours.  How awesome is that?  Every year for Christmas I asked for one, and you know what I never got?  Yes, that’s right, a rock polisher.  Now, this isn’t some rant about what I never had growing up.  This rant is all about rocks.  You see, rocks are constantly in a state of change.  The rock cycle causes them to melt, harden, shoot out of Earth, and repeat.  They also become weathered, break down, reform into something else, and then do it all over again.  Rocks are amazing like that.  Although we can never see these processes take place as they happen over long periods of time, I’ve always been in awe about how focused rocks are on changing and growing.  What I always found spectacular about rock polishers is that they can make a process that usually takes years in rivers and on Earth’s surface, to happen almost overnight.  What I love most about rocks is that they are never happy with their current state as they are always longing for improvement and change.  Liquid rock inside Earth is always trying to find a way out to become something a bit more solid and hard, while large chunks of granite rock are always looking to roll into something a bit smaller and more compact.  Rocks are fantastic role models for humans.  We can learn a lot from rocks.  Rocks teach us to value a growth mindset and persevere through problems no matter their size.  Rocks also teach us to look at the world and see the endless possibilities that exist.  Rocks are pretty phenomenal and beautiful naturally occurring objects.

Great teachers, like rocks, are always looking to grow and develop.  How can I become a more effective educator?  Reflection is definitely a huge part of that process of change, but the rest comes in the form of feedback.  Feedback we receive from our colleagues and our students.  The most effective feedback I’ve received over the years, comes from my students.  They know what they like and what they don’t like and they aren’t afraid to tell the world all about it.  Students can be brutally honest, which can be both good and bad.  However, the feedback students have provided me with over the years has allowed me to grow and mature as a teacher.  The implementation of Reader’s Workshop came out of reflecting on feedback received from my students about the books we were reading altogether as a class.  The structure of units and activities used throughout the years is all due to the wisdom I’ve gained from asking my students to comment on what they like and what they would change if they were in charge.  Reflecting on and then using feedback received from my students is why I am the effective teacher I am today.

Humanities class provided me with yet another opportunity to receive two different kinds of feedback from my students today.  As we have come to the end of our first unit on the Canaan Community, I had the students complete a survey, providing me with their thoughts on the unit as a whole.

Questions posed in the survey:

  • What was your favorite part of this unit and why?
  • What fact or piece of information, that you learned throughout the unit, did you find the most interesting or engaging?
  • What did you think about our class read-aloud Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman?
  • What did you like about the Historical Fiction Story Writing Project and why?
  • If you were the teacher teaching this unit, what would you change about it for next year?
  • Using Cardigan’s Effort Grading Scale, grade Mr. Holt on how effectively he taught this unit.

I was impressed with the honest and detailed feedback I received from the students.  Overall, they seemed to enjoy the unit.  I was a bit surprised by their favorite parts though.  While I thought for sure that almost everybody would say, “The archeological dig,” only three students cited that as their highlight of the unit.  Three other students explained how the historical fiction story writing project was their favorite part of the unit.  What?  I don’t think any student has ever cited the final project as their favorite part of the unit, which means that because I focused on helping the students find the fun and excitement in writing, they were actually able to dig into their stories more meaningfully than digging for bottles by the river.   I was happy about that.  I was also pleased that many of the students stated different facts about Canaan’s diverse history that really stuck with them, which means that I didn’t overly discuss or talk about one topic or piece of Canaan’s history too much.  Yah for me.  I also enjoyed learning that the students seem to enjoy our class read aloud novel Seedfolks.  While we don’t spend a ton of time reading and discussing this novel, I’m glad that the students enjoy it and seem to understand how it ties our unit together.  I was worried that this group of students did not like this text because they often seem so disengaged during read-alouds.

While all of the feedback I received from the boys today via this survey is useful to me, the fourth and fifth questions allowed me to extract the most meaningful feedback.  I wanted to determine what aspects of the writing process I have done an effective job explaining and introducing.  Those that I found creative and engaging ways to introduce to the students, I figured, would be their favorite part. I also wanted to know what aspects of the unit the boys did not like and want to see changed for next year.  The answers I received from the students on these two questions will help drive the revisions and changes that I make to this unit for next year.  Their feedback will also help guide me in planning future lessons this year.

Here’s what they had to say:

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It was great for me to learn that many of the students seemed to enjoy writing their historical fiction stories, which means that they found their passion; they found how to make writing fun for themselves.  If that’s all they get out of sixth grade this year, I’ll be happy.  Learning to love the act of writing will help them be successful in almost every area of school life in their future.  I also love that a few of them seemed to enjoy the choice and engagement act of the project.  They liked that I allowed them to write about whatever piece of Canaan’s history most interested them.  As research on the brain tell us, students learn best when they are engaged in the act of working and have the ability to choose the vehicle through which they showcase their learning and understanding.  It’s nice to know that at least a few of my students see the benefit in being provided choice when working.

I wasn’t very surprised by the responses my students provided regarding things they would change about the unit.  I know that in every class I have one student who doesn’t like anything, and so I wasn’t shocked to read that one student found the field experiences boring.  It wasn’t because he truly found them boring, it’s just that he doesn’t know how to utilize a growth mindset and provide meaningful feedback.  I get that.  It is nice to know that the most common response focused on time.  They want more time spent on the really fun parts of the unit.  That makes sense.  I wish we were able to allocate more time in our schedule for those fun field experiences.

Overall, the feedback from the survey will be very helpful for me to think about and reflect upon as I look at revising this unit for next year.  As the students seemed to really enjoy the historical fiction story project I used this year, I think I will stick with that as the final project for next year.  I changed it from last year because many of the students explained how they didn’t like the final poster project they needed to complete as the final project for the unit.

The second piece of feedback I received from the students today, came in the form of a rubric.  The focus for my Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan is on grading rubrics and their effectiveness for introducing and describing graded projects and activities to students, and since the students just completed the historical fiction story project using the grading rubric as a guide, I wanted to know what they thought of the grading tool.  Did the rubric help them in the writing process, and if not, what would have made the rubric more effective?  After a short whole-class discussion on that question, I had the students, working with their table partner, create a new grading rubric that I could use to assess this project next year or assess future writing projects the students complete this year.

I was so impressed with how focused the students were in working with their partner to create a new rubric.  They seemed dedicated to providing me with useful feedback.  Every group gave me some amazing insight and ideas on how to create a more student-friendly grading rubric.

My takeaways:

  • Students want me to use more simplistic, student friendly words when describing what is being asked of them to meet or exceed the objective.  For example, in the grading rubric I had the students use, I wrote, “The setting is described so well that you feel like you’re there.”  One group suggested that it should read, “You see the picture in your mind.”  I like it.  That’s some quality feedback that I can easily incorporate into the next grading rubric I create.
  • One group thinks that having visual or picture cues would help them better understand what is being expected of them at each level.  As the native language is not English for half of my class, pictures are easier to read than words.  That’s a unique idea I hadn’t thought about for a rubric before.  While they couldn’t provide any concrete examples of how I might do this, I really want to give this idea a try  for the next rubric I create.
  • One group suggested that I need to include a writing standard about not copying ideas or information from other sources in the rubric.  These two students seem to think that originality is important.  I like it, but I’m also aware that sometimes, imitation leads to inspiration and new ideas.  While I’m not sure that I will use this in a future rubric, it’s definitely something worth considering.
  • One group approached the rubric creation from a very different perspective.  Instead of starting out with what it takes to exceed the objective, they began with how not to meet the objective.  Their thought was that if I start with the lowest point value on the rubric, I can easily add more to each one as the point value increases.  They thought that would be easier than starting with the highest point value and subtracting details.  Interesting.  I never thought about this method of creating a rubric before.  Perhaps I’ll try this on a future rubric.
  • Grading rubrics seem to help the students.  Many of them found the rubric to be a valuable guidepost for them along their writing journey.  Here’s what my students had to say about them:
    • That rubric help me a lot. Because that paper tell me every moment, what did I need to improve for my story.
    • I think the grading rubric helped me in a phenomenal way because i new the objectives my story needed to meet like for example when I was trying to write my story at the beginning it helped me get a thought about what i’m supposed to do and how to get a good grade.   
    • Lastly, I have a sheet call the grading rubric, I helped me to complete the story. For example, I can see if my sentences make sense or not or see if my sentences have included everything a sentence need to have.
    • The grading rubric helped me a lot because without it I wouldn’t know what I was doing and what to change. I needed a rubric so I knew exactly what to edit.
    • I think the grading rubric helped me by providing some goals and giving me an idea of what I need to write to get a good grade.
    • I thought the grading rubric helped because it showed me what the expectations were and what exceeding the objective was. It helped me because I just focused on exceeding the objective. For example I saw that I didn’t have enough facts on the rubric so I added more in. Also I saw that I didn’t have enough details so I looked at the rubric and fixed my story.
    • The rubric helped me to put requirements in the story. For example, first I read the grading rubric. After reading it, I started to make story with requirements like five facts, correct grammar, and more.

The feedback I received from my students on the grading rubric will greatly help me as I look to create and design future rubrics.  It’s nice to know that many of my students seem to find them useful.  So, my next big data-gathering event will be when I create a project with just a simple explanation instead of using a detailed rubric.  Will this more simple project introduction better engage the students in asking questions and thinking creatively about how they will showcase their learning, or will it be too confusing for them?  I can’t wait to find out.

Because I seek feedback from my students, I’m able to grow and develop as a teacher, like a giant chunk of obsidian rock.  If I didn’t ask my students for their thoughts and ideas today, I would never really know what they thought about grading rubrics and the Canaan Community unit.  How can I collect data for my Individualized Teacher Improvement Plan if I don’t ask my students for feedback?  I can’t better support and challenge my students if they don’t challenge me by providing me with ways I can improve and grow.  As I told my class today, the best teachers make the best students as they are always looking to learn and improve.

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.

What’s the Best Way to Help Students See the Value in Editing and Revising their Work?

As an adult, I love receiving feedback from my colleagues on how I can make my lessons more meaningful, my student comments more effective, and my blog entries more reflective.  I crave input from others as I know that I am far from perfect and am looking to grow as a teacher, thinker, and writer.   I need help from my peers to improve as an individual.  I realize this now as a grownup.  When I was a young student, things were very different for me.  I wasn’t focused on growing and developing my skills as a writer or student.  I was way more focused on having fun.  I rushed to finish every assigned task so that I could have more time to chat and interact with my friends.  I wasn’t focused on growing and making use of a growth mindset as a student, and so when a classmate or teacher provided me with feedback on how I could improve my work, I usually ignored whatever was said or quickly made a single change to the work.  I wanted to be done with my assignments when I was in school.  I operated under the assumption that when I put my pencil or pen down, my work was done.  It had to be perfect because I was finished.  No feedback given to me from anyone could make my work any better than it was in that moment.  And I certainly never went in search of feedback back then, oh no.  I was all about turning my work in and being done.  I definitely made use of a fixed mindset when I was in school.

As a teacher, I understand where my students are at.  I get it as I was once them.  They don’t want me to tell them what to do.  They don’t want me to take away their fun, play time.  They want to do the work and be done.  So, my goal is to change the atmosphere of the classroom.  I need to help my students learn to rewire their brains so that they want to learn and grow.  I need to help my students learn to accept feedback and utilize it to make their work even better.  I try to show my students the importance of using a growth mindset in the classroom.  I want my students to see the value in receiving feedback from their peers and teachers.  I want my students to want to transform into the complete opposite type of student that I was in school.  Now, I know that most middle school boys are not set ready to want to take suggestions on how to improve their work.  This is a learned skill.  I need to help them rewire their brains a bit so that they see the benefit in seeking feedback from their classmates.  This is a year-long process, but one that is near and dear to my heart.  I don’t want my students to be like me back then.  I want my students to be able to grow and develop as students and writers.

Today in Humanities class, my students worked on the self-editing, self-revising, and peer editing processes regarding their historical fiction stories as they work to create a second draft that is far better than their first, sloppy copy.  On Wednesday, I explained the difference between editing and revising and then modelled this process with a story a student of mine had written several years ago.  The boys seemed to understand that these two steps, that sometimes get lumped into one, are individual processes that need to be completed separately.  I even spent time discussing the importance of editing and revising by comparing it to a bike.  “When your bike gets a flat tire, you can’t ride it anymore.  So, what do you do?  You fix the flat tire.  That’s like the editing process.  You fix the little things.  Now, what happens to that same bike after five years of wear and tear?  It gets rusty and probably too small for you.  So, then what?  You have to make some big repairs.  That’s the revision process of writing.  You fix the big things.”  I’m not sure if this helped them better grasp the two concepts, but perhaps it did.  Those who finished their historical fiction stories in class, began the editing and revising processes.  Then, today, I went over the peer editing process by reviewing the difference between editing and revising.  I then modelled this process with a student as I explained the different parts of the worksheet that will guide this step of the writing process.  I explained this process as more of a discussion.  “Tell your partner what you specifically want feedback on so that he can hone in on that as he reads through your story.  Then, after you have both completed the worksheet and read each other’s story, have a discussion.  Talk about what your partner did well and what he needs to work on.  Be specific.”  I reminded them of their goal: To provide your partner with effective feedback so that he is able to revise and edit his story in such a way that he exceeds all of the graded objectives.  I had hoped that this explanation would be enough for my students to understand the process and be able to complete it with little to no issues.  Wow, was I ever wrong.

Two groups had meaningful discussions as they peer edited each other’s stories, talking about writing and what they need to do to make their stories more effective.  It was quite awesome to listen to these discussions as they seemed very meaningful and relevant.

“I think you need to add more detail here,” one student said.

“I sort of already do that here.  Check it out,” he responded as he pointed out what he had already typed on his laptop.  These two groups were really digging into the task of peer editing.  They seemed to really enjoy it.  Perhaps it was because they saw the value in it or maybe it was because they were trying to make their writing better so that they could exceed the objectives.  Either way, great stuff was going on in two of the groups.

Then, one student took almost the entire period to finish writing his story as he hadn’t completed it for homework like he should have.  This meant that one student was unable to have a buddy with which to peer edit.  I stepped in and provided him with feedback, but our conversation was one-sided for the most part as I had no story in need of being proofread.  The other two groups seemed to be more focused on laughing and goofing around than actually accomplishing the job of peer editing.  Despite a few reminders to stay focused and on task, they continued laughing loudly and not providing each other with useful feedback.

So, what happened with those two, ineffective groups?  Why were they unable to complete the peer editing process in the same, meaningful manner as the first two groups I mentioned?  What was the difference?  Did they not care about growing as writers?  Did they not see the value in the editing and revising processes?  Did they just want to be done with the task so that they could do anything else?  While one group was composed of two, low functioning ELLs who struggled to comprehend the task at hand, the other group did not.  So, what was their issue?  Why were they not as engaged in the process?  Did they not see the relevance in it?

As I pondered these questions for quite some time after class, I had an epiphany.  For as much as I want my students to be like the adult me and see the value in revising and editing their written work, they are sixth graders going through this process for the first time.  Developmentally, there shouldn’t be complete buy-in just yet.  They are not able to see the relevance in the important process of revision.  They need more practice before they will see how beneficial it is to them as writers.  In the meantime, I need to remember where they are at developmentally.  Their frontal lobe is not fully developed and so reasoning and critical thinking skills are lacking.  Like me back then, they won’t be able to see the power of revising and editing their work for quite some time.  This means that they also won’t see the benefit of receiving feedback on how to improve their work for a few years.  It doesn’t mean that I should stop them from completing this process.  Oh no.  It just means that I need to be more patient and flexible.  Not every sixth grader in my class is going to desire feedback on their written work like I do.  The more I can provide them with opportunities to practice giving and receiving feedback on how they can better revise and edit their written work, they more that they will able to see how important this process is to their growth as writers.  Writing is a journey, much like teaching.  And so, I need to remember that not every story or student is going to be a polished work of art at first.  It takes much time and energy to foster a sense of valuing the refining process.

In the meantime, is there anything else I could be doing that would better support those students who are struggling to see the value in the revision process?  Are there other activities or methods I could be using?  While the writing group process can work, I don’t want to utilize that activity quite yet as they won’t be able to understand the significance of providing and receiving feedback.  Tackling the task of revising and editing in small groups is a great way to allow students to test the waters to see what happens.  Tomorrow in class I will reemphasize the benefits in providing each other with meaningful feedback as they complete the peer editing process. I will review their goal and hopefully offer them one more chance to practice this difficult task.  While I’d like my students to see the value in the revision process now, I know that their brains aren’t currently ready to tackle such a complex task in a relevant manner.  As I continue to foster a sense of community in the classroom and the students grow to see each other as valuable resources, they will begin to make better use of a growth mindset when approaching the writing and revision processes.  They just need more practice and time.

Helping Students Find Enjoyment in Writing

Ever since I was in the sixth grade, I’ve loved to write.  I used to write poetry for fun when I was bored in high school.  I even used writing as an emotional outlet.  When I was struggling to accept the death of my grandfather, I wrote about it as a way of processing my feelings.  It really helped me work through a lot of challenging emotions I was facing at the time.  Writing has always been a hobby of mine.  Even now as an adult, I treasure the time it takes to blog on a daily basis, as it allows me to reflect on my teaching in a creative and meaningful manner.  Writing is my way of documenting my life and journey on Earth.  It’s how I can prove that I exist.  I also find much joy in writing.  It makes me happy when I can sit in front of my computer or at a desk with pen and paper and pour my heart, soul, and being out via words and sentences.  What seems such a simple action, provides me with such a cathartic release.  It’s free therapy.  I love it.  It’s like mental Legos.  I get to put letters and words together in new and fantastic ways so as to bleed my emotions and thoughts out.  It’s like bloodletting, without the mess and death.

As a teacher, I make it a personal goal of mine each and every year to inspire my students to find the joy in writing.  While they may not all view writing through the same rainbow-unicorn glasses I use, I want to help them find the peace and fun in writing.  I want them to write stories and poems that make them happy.  I want them to find the passion in writing.  I challenge my students to write pieces that make them want to never stop writing.  I want my students to see writing as an experience and not a task they are forced to do.  Although this is a difficult goal for me to meet on a yearly basis, it is one that I hold near and dear to my beating heart.

There are many ways to help students find enjoyment in writing.  By using the Writer’s Workshop model of writing, I help to engage the students in what they are writing.  Because they can choose what they write about, they have a far better chance of falling in love with their work than if they were pigeonholed into specific writing topics.  I also try to inspire creativity within my students by using various prompts to promote unique thoughts to be born in their minds.  Using Quick Write activities, the students use prompts as springboards into their writing.  These activities aren’t graded and rarely looked at by me.  They are word-vomit activities for the students to begin to find the fun in writing.  They begin to learn to take risks in their writing as they aren’t being graded on these short writing tasks.  While I do teach the students all about the process of writing, I try to make it fun and inviting.  I want them to see feedback as essential to the growth process.  I want them to value the thoughts and ideas provided to them by their peers and teachers.  I want them to think of writing as a never ending journey.  I tell them from the start of the year that writing pieces are never finished.  Even published authors would tell you that they would gladly revise their published books based on new ideas and feedback received.  I hopefully help my students to see writing as something they are able to do that is fun and exciting.

Today offered me the chance to provide a few students in my class with feedback that will hopefully help them better find the joy in writing.  As my students worked on their historical fiction stories, I meandered around the room like a Brook Trout searching for shade on a warm summer’s day.  I observed the students as they extracted thoughts and ideas from their brains.  I watched them play with words in order to tell a story that intrigued them.  This observation time allowed me to help two students who seemed stuck.

The first student sat at his desk in front of his laptop, tapping away on the table, not his laptop.  His body language told me that he was bored.  So, I stopped to chat with him.

“It seems as though you are stuck.  Can I offer you some help?” I said to him as he stared longingly into his computer screen.

“Yes,” he responded.

So, I read what he had typed and provided him with some feedback, “While you do a fine job explaining facts about Canaan’s history, this piece reads more like a list of things that happened than a story.  How can you transform this into a story that reads more like the books you love reading?  How can you bring life into this piece?”

He seemed a bit mystified and so I shared some examples of how I might begin a piece based on his topic.  As I didn’t want to steal too much thinking from him, I walked away at that point.  A few minutes later, I noticed that he had deleted everything he had previously written and was starting from scratch.  While he didn’t have much time to start a new story before class ended, he seemed inspired to write something that made him happy.  I can’t wait to read his sloppy copy.

Then, another student said to me, “Mr. Holt, I’m almost done my story and it’s quite long, but I’m getting bored with it.  What should I do?”

“Shall I take a look at what you’ve got and see if I can provide you with some ideas or suggestions on how to move forward?” I responded.  He seemed to like this response.  So, I sat with him and read over what he had already written.  He had crafted a unique story about the destruction of the Noyes Academy.  He approached it from an interesting angle, but he wasn’t having fun with it anymore and it showed.  I was bored just reading his piece.

“While this is a fine story and will allow you to meet the objectives covered, I can totally see why you are bored with it.  You know how the story is going to end.  You have the timeline etched onto your brain already.  There are no surprises or possibilities for fun.  I think you need to find a new story.  I think you need to start from scratch,” I told him.

He agreed with me and quickly began working on a whole new story that made him happy.  He wanted to find his passion in the writing and it wasn’t in his first piece.  While I’m glad he spoke with me about this, I wish he didn’t feel like he needed my permission to start over.  I want my students to write with joy and passion.  I tell them every time we write that they should stop and restart if they are not in love with their piece.  “If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it wrong.”  This student saw that in himself today and then made a change.  He knew what he wanted to do, but he wanted my blessing and feedback.  When I gave it to him, he seemed relieved.  It was a pretty cool experience.

Like the two students I helped today, I hope I am able to inspire all of my students to find the joy in writing.  I want them to see writing as an experiment.  Try something new to see what happens.  If you get the result you want, great, and if not, then try again.  Don’t be afraid to fail.  Embrace the challenge of failure so that you can find the soul within your writing.  Great writing allows you to transfer your beating heart into the piece.  Great writing is alive with description, vivid details, risque topics, and remarkable settings.  I hope that my students leave the sixth grade next year able to see what fun writing can be.  I hope that I am able to help my students find enjoyment in writing this year.

How to Help Students Find their Writing Flow

When I was a younger, I used to love writing.  I would sometimes just write stories for fun when I was bored at home.  In elementary school, we were rarely provided time to write, but when we were, I would craft magical stories of fantasy and action.  Possibly due to my numerous hours of practice when I was younger, I became quite a fine writer and minored in it in college.  To this day, I find great joy and comfort in creating new pieces of writing.  Writing to me is more than just typing letters on a keyboard or pressing a pencil against a piece of paper.  Writing is an art.  It’s about playing and experimenting with word combinations: What words working together conjure up just the right image or emotion.  Writing is so much more than just something I do to be done with.  Even in school, I rarely finished stories I started as I never wanted to be done with the journey or writing process.  When I write, I can escape into new and uncharted worlds or ponder ideas no one else has ever thought of.  Sometimes when I write, I find myself lost in the act.  I get so caught up in writing that time flies by.  That’s the writing flow.  When I’m in my writing flow, nothing else matters.  I just write.  It’s a pretty amazing experience.

As a teacher, I want to try and inspire my students to find their writing flow.  I want them to be so engaged with the process of writing that they lose track of time.  I want my students to fall in love with the words they type.  I want writing to feel like fun time for my students.  To help foster this love of writing within my students, I use the Writer’s Workshop model of writing instruction.  Today’s Writer’s Workshop block went like this…

  • I completed a mini-lesson with the students on historical fiction.  I posed several questions to the class in order to generate a discussion around the following questions: What is historical fiction? and What makes a good historical fiction story?  I want my students to think of the writing process as a recipe.  Begin with a fact or historical knowledge nugget and then add in some realistic characters, a dash of a historically accurate setting, and a pinch of an overall sense of reality based on a happening in history.
  • After I was sure they understood the ingredients of a well made historical fiction story, I explained the process that they would go through to transform their homework writing piece into a historical fiction story.  “You need to revise or change what you wrote last night about something you learned regarding the history of Canaan from Wednesday’s field experience and transform it into a historical fiction story.”
  • With that, the students got right to work.  While a few students had clarifying questions and needed a little support to get started, most of the boys jumped right into their historical fiction story with ease.  They almost seemed excited to get started.
  • As I fielded questions, I also observed the students as they worked.  I read sentences they had written and praised the students for their fine focus and effort.  I even asked one student to reread his first sentence and decide if he thought it was interesting or provided enough of a hook to draw readers into his story.  Even though he had written it, he didn’t like it and found a more creative way to begin his story.
  • Many of the students were so enthralled in their story that they didn’t even notice I was walking around and observing them as they worked.  I had some soft instrumental music playing as a way to keep the boys mindful and focused on the task at hand.  Several of the students seemed to be in the writing flow.  When I asked them to finish up the sentence they were working on, very few of them wanted to stop.
  • I wrapped up today’s Writer’s Workshop block with some questions and a brief share.  “How many of you are in love with your story?”  Many hands shot right up into the air, as I had predicted would happen.  “How many of you felt like you were in the writing flow, as Mr. Wilkerson mentioned in yesterday’s Chapel Talk?”  Five or six hands went right up.  The boys thoroughly enjoyed crafting new stories of Cannan’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, how the town was founded, and Noyes Academy.  They just couldn’t get enough.  Then I had three students share aloud a few sentences from their piece.  Wow! was just about all I could say.  They had crafted masterpieces of intense scenes and action.  They seemed to take today’s task seriously and really dove headfirst into their historical fiction stories.  I was amazed.

So, how did this happen?  Why were my students so engaged in the writing process?  What allowed them to enter the writing flow?  Was it my introduction or explanation of the assignment?  Were they excited to craft action-packed stories about Canaan’s rich history?  Or was it that they take their academics seriously and just wanted to be sure they put forth their best effort?  Was that it?  Did their great effort help today’s writing period go so well?  Almost every student had at least a half-page of text by the end of the 20 minute period.  Was it the subject matter?  Were they so engaged with what they learned from Wednesday’s field experience that they were inspired to craft lyrical works of art in class today?  Perhaps it was a little bit of everything all rolled into one.  Maybe some of the students were enthralled with the history of the town while others were motivated by grades to work well.  I do feel though that flow events don’t happen accidentally.  I believe that something else was at work in the classroom to cause such brilliant writing to happen.  Something magical and special must have occurred to allow so many of the students to fall into the writing flow within minutes of beginning the writing process.  Maybe that’s what it was.  Well, no matter what happened today, I was impressed and amazed by the work my students completed.  They worked like published authors.  I just hope I can inspire this same kind of magic during our next writing period on Tuesday.

The Power of Providing Students with Choice when Writing

“What would you like for sides with that?” wait staff at various restaurants often ask customers when they are ordering their meal.  With so many choices, it’s almost too difficult to choose; however, at the end of the day, people like being able to pick what they eat.  Some people like French fries while other people like rice or pickles.  If restaurants did not offer choices, I wonder how many customer would become repeat patrons.  Humans like to be offered options.  It empowers us and makes us feel as though we are in control.  As teachers, we need to remember this same principal when teaching our students.  Our students don’t like when we make choices for them.  They like to be able to select how and what they learn.  It engages them and allows for genuine learning to take place in the brain.

Today in my Humanities class, I made sure to provide my students with choices and options so that they would be excited and engaged in the learning process.  Following a discussion on community and what it means to be a part of a community, the students completed a Quick Write activity.  As this was our first Quick Write of the academic year, I did explain the protocol and procedure so that they understood what was expected of them.  Today’s prompt was, “Imagine the perfect community.  What would it look like?  How would it function?  Who would live there?  Where would it be located?  Explain and describe your perfect community.”  After explaining how a Quick Write works and what the prompt is asking them to do, I addressed questions the students had: “Does it have to be about a real community or can I make it up?”, “Can I write about a community I’m a part of?” and,  “Can I write it like a story?”  The boys were thrilled that they could write about any sort of community.  They were also excited that they could write it as a story or any form of writing.  They liked that they had choices for how they could complete this task.

For 15 minutes, the boys sat, quietly typing away.  Some of the students had almost a full page of text when the time had expired.  A few of the boys were upset when the time was up because they wanted to keep writing.  I love their enthusiasm and excitement.  They were all so engaged in this activity because they could choose what to write about and how to do so.  I didn’t pigeonhole them into one style or topic.  They had the freedom their brains crave.  Once the writing portion of the activity had finished, I had the students share their piece with their table partner.  They seemed to enjoy sharing their work with a peer.  I then had the students analyze their piece to determine their favorite sentence or short chunk of sentences, and a few volunteers shared what they had chosen aloud to the group.  I was so amazed with the variety of topics and genres the students utilized to accomplish this simple writing task.  To conclude the activity, I asked students to raise their hand if they had fun with this writing exercise and almost every hand in the classroom quickly shot up towards the ceiling.  That’s a great sign in my book.

My students were excited about writing, communities, and creativity today in Humanities class all because I provided them with options and choice.  Sometimes, little things make a huge difference.  I certainly could have outlined exactly what I wanted them to write about and how, but would all of my students have been as engaged with the assignment if I posed it like that?  Are all students interested in the same things?  Clearly, we know that effective teachers tap into how students learn best by providing them with options in the classroom.  Just as customers don’t like to be forced into ordering one particular side with their burger, our students don’t like to have only one way to complete an assignment.  So, let’s make sure that we find creative, engaging, and fun ways to provide our students with choices in the classroom this year.  Not only will it help our students learn better and be more excited in the classroom, it’s also a lot more fun to read different types of stories and papers than the same one written by 15 different students.  Let’s vow to make our classrooms more fun for us and our students this year.  Bring on the choices!

Teaching Students to Enjoy Drama

Writing has always been one of my passions.  When I was struggling to deal with the death of my grandfather back in my teen years, I turned to writing to deal with and address my emotions and feelings.  I processed my grief, anger, and sadness by scribbling letters and words onto lined paper.  The weight I placed upon myself after my grandfather passed away, seemed to leave my body when the black pen chaotically danced upon the paper, revealing more of my true emotions and feelings.  Aside from music, writing was one of my main outlets.  It served a purpose that blossomed into a passion.  I love crafting creative stories, sculpting poems, and constructing expository pieces.  Writing has always been my jam, like the first song on Thursday’s Full Collapse album.

While I dabbled in multiple writing forms over the years, one genre I tried to avoid, like any country song ever made, was drama.  I just didn’t get plays.  What purpose do they really serve?  The character development is usually quite weak and the setting is so bland and gray.  I used to view plays as the unnecessary form of writing, like any movie starring Brad Pitt.  They seemed so mundane and artificial.  I just didn’t get drama.  So, as a teacher, I avoided teaching a play or even introducing the writing form for many years.  I let my bias of the art form influence my choices in the classroom.  Because I didn’t like plays, I would make sure that my students felt the same way.  Well, back then anyway.  Then, a co-teacher of mine from a few years ago opened my eyes to the genre.  “We should introduce drama to our students.  We should read a play altogether as a class,” she suggested.  So, as I valued her opinion, I listened.  I remembered reading the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose many moons ago when I was in high school and not totally hating it, unlike any play ever penned by Shakespeare.  So, I grabbed a copy and refreshed my memory.  It was short and contained enough roles for every student in our class.  Plus, a few of the boys would have the opportunity to curse.  They’d like that.  So, we went with it.  The students loved it.  You would have thought we gave them an extra free period to play games.  They couldn’t get enough of it.  That was quite a few years ago, and I have taught this play ever since.  Each year the students in my class have a blast acting out and performing this play.  They love examining the symbolism of the eighth juror and the anger some of the men in the jury room possess.  So it seemed that my dislike of plays and drama started to transform into something else.  I’m not willing to say that I like plays now, but I do have space in my writing heart for the genre now.

As we completed reading 12 Angry Men in class earlier this week, I realized that we still had class time together prior to our March Break.  Instead of beginning our new unit on the Middle East Region, I decided to give the students a chance to try creating their own play.  As we analyzed Rose’s masterpiece over the past two weeks, I knew that the students understood the form of drama and how it works.  So, why not have them take a crack at writing their own play?  It seemed like a rather cutting edge idea.  I liked it.  So, I did it.

Today, I explained the assignment that laid ahead of them: “Now you have the chance to be like Reginald Rose.  You get to create your own play.  Perhaps you’ll want to rewrite a scene from 12 Angry Men or update it or maybe you’ll want to craft a parody of 12 Angry Men.  If none of those ideas seem to tickle your fancy, you could always craft an original play about something completely different.  You get to choose.  So, choose an idea that is exciting.  Pick a topic that will be fun for you to write.”  After fielding some questions, the students got right to work.  I could tell that some of the boys were very excited about the prospect of crafting their own play.  One of the students asked the class if it would be okay for him to use their names in his play.  The students gave him the big thumbs up.  While most of the students quickly whipped open their laptops and started feverishly typing as though their life depended on it, a few of the students sat, staring at a blank screen for many minutes.  No ideas seemed to come to them.  They were stuck.  Rather than provide them with ideas, I let them struggle through.  They were getting to what I like to call the sweet spot.  When students begin to struggle with a task or assignment, they either shut down, misbehave, sit motionless lost in thought, or persevere.  As long as students don’t have a meltdown in the classroom or start distracting their peers, I know they’ve hit the sweet spot.  The point at which the neurons in their brain begin to sizzle with creativity.  Sometimes, students stay stuck in this sweet spot for a while, until the right idea comes to them, but when it comes, oh man.  It’s awesome!  You can almost see the mental wheels begin to turn.  The creative juices flow through them like sweat from the brow of an athlete in the heat of competition.  After twenty minutes of staring at a blank computer screen, those three stuck students, found their idea.  They worked through the struggle to find that one special idea.  Then, even they couldn’t be stopped.  They kept writing and writing.  Some students had several pages of their original play finished by the end of the sixty minute work period.  They were on fire.

Many of the students were so excited by what they had begun to create, that they felt the need to share what they had with me or a peer.  During the Morning Break period, instead of taking a break to get a snack, use the restroom, or check their email, several of the students stayed in the classroom working on their play.  At that same time, I noticed a few of the students gathered around one student’s computer screen.  Usually, this means they are playing a game or doing something they shouldn’t be doing.  I waited a few moments before checking on the situation.  Giggling erupted from the group of students as they stared at the computer screen.  “What are they doing now?” I thought to myself.  Then, when I walked over to find out what was going on, I realized that they were reading a play that one of them had written.  It was titled 12 Angry Bunnies and was a parody of the play we had read.  Bunnies were in cage deliberating on a case involving another bunny.  It was quite original and funny.  The boys were so into this playwrighting exercise.  I was in awe.  The genre that once felt like a thorn in my side, was now being enjoyed by my students.  They had so much fun writing their own, unique masterpiece.  It was amazing.  My students were taking to drama like I took to Coheed and Cambria and City and Colour.  Was it me?  Did I help to inspire them?  I may be a really cool educator with a lot of fantastic talents, but an inspiration?  Really, I doubt it.  I think it was 12 Angry Men.  They enjoyed this play so much that it inspired them to want to create their own play.  When at first some of the students seemed stuck or even a little frustrated about having to write a play, they all ended the period enamored by this genre that I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them continued working on their play over the upcoming break.  Who knew that something I used to loathe could turn into a teachable moment and fun for my students.  Maybe I’ll some day learn to like country music and share my new love with my students.  Yah, no.  Country music is not for me and never will be.  Frankly, it should really not be for anyone, unless there are people out there who like when their ears bleed.

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.