For the first ten years of my career, this was a question I wrestled with constantly. I purchased my fair share of books and attended more than a few workshops in search of the answer. I DID find it, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Then I kept looking.
The answer came in my third year on the job: Make them write more. That’s it! Make them write everyday. Make them write at the start of a lesson. Make them write at the end of a lesson. Make them write for homework. Write. Write. Write.
How? There are a lot of ways a teacher can do this. For me, the answer came in the form of The Writer’s Notebook.
In year three, I gave it a try. And I failed. Several times actually. And because I couldn’t make it work on those trials, I decided to give up and moved on.
But now I’m back! And I am even more convinced that this is the best tool in a writing teacher’s equipment bag.
Take Away the Pressure
I want to make on thing very clear. I am not talking about assigning more essays. Nobody wants students to write more and more essays, especially because someone (you) would have to grade those essays!
Instead, the kind of writing I am talking about in this post is low-pressure, low-stakes writing. In my classroom, students do this low-pressure writing in a 100 page, wide-rule composition book.
I keep it simple. I only give three rules and guidelines. They work out of it daily. It has been the most valuable tool for writing instruction that I have ever used.
It’s so valuable, I have written a book about it– a field manual for implementing it in the classroom.
Writer’s notebooks now 50 cents at Staples. The bad news? You can only buy 30 at a time. I think Target also has the same deal right now. pic.twitter.com/AKZOQm19Ga
— Kelly Gallagher (@KellyGToGo) July 9, 2017
Why is the Writer’s Notebook such a great tool? It is a pressure-free space for students to write what comes to mind about a topic they choose. There is very little they can do wrong. It’s a place for them to practice skills, develop ideas and, most importantly, revisit first drafts to turn into high quality second drafts.
When It’s Most Complex, That’s When We Teach Them. Why?
Tell me if this sounds familiar. I used to put all of the pressure of writing instruction on the big essay the students would write each quarter. they were high-stakes, pressure-filled, academically complex assignments. I would teach them grammar, format, how to quote, how to paraphrase, how revise writing, and on and on. I would pile on so many different lessons and requirements that by the time we were done, we all hated writing.
And, to top it all off, I would get frustrated that they would turn in poor writing!
But it wasn’t their fault. They had no practice. Instead of throwing the students into writing when it’s high-stakes, pressure-filled and academically complex, I take all the pressure off. My students get a chance to build some writing, revision, and editing “muscle memory” before they get to the writing that really counts–at least in the grade book. Just like athletes that chalk-talk and run drills at practice before they show up on game day, students need to practice writing before they really write.
Edutopia put together a great video that paints a clear picture of what this low-stakes, low-pressure writing looks like. Take a look:
The answer is to assign and teach more writing. Not essays. Writing. Make your students do more and more of it. Let them do it their way. Let them make all kinds of mistakes. And let them learn from those mistakes. DO NOT give them more essays. That is not the answer. But you should make them write A LOT!
What is one thing that unlocked your potential as a writer? How do you get students to produce great writing in your class?
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