Yesterday’s lesson was pure magic.
There I was, standing in the center of my classroom at 7:45am. Coffee thermos in hand, jeans and school t-shirt on (who doesn’t love casual Friday’s?) and words were flying around my room. Students were reading their personal narratives out loud to each other and I could hear snippets of their workshop: I really like your craft here. Consider showing this detail instead of telling it. I like the structure of this sentence here, what if you repeat it here? I think you lead is great; it really pulls me in. I love your voice! It’s so sarcastic.
I walked around my classroom, eavesdropping on each group, checking for errors or questions and realizing, slowly, happily, that they didn’t need me anymore. After two solid weeks of busting my butt with this narrative unit, it was over. They knew the craft. They knew the language. And they could articulate it with each other.
So I stayed out of the way.
I repeated this in all my classes and not a single class needed me. My administrator even walked in during one of the afternoon classes and I had that panicked moment: She’s not going to see me teaching! In fact, I was sitting on my stool in the front of my room just watching the workshop. She came over and asked what they were doing and as I explained the process of the workshop I realized that she was seeing my teaching; she was seeing the culmination of the past two weeks of my teaching.
Two weeks where I wanted nothing but sweat pants and wine when I got home from work. Two weeks where I was in bed, asleep, by 9am each night. And two weeks where I taught these kids how to write.
Teaching writing is darn hard. Assigning writing is a heck of a lot easier. I’ll be honest, sometimes (usually while in sweat pants) I long for the days where I used to assign a novel within the first few weeks of school and assign a 5-paragraph essay, a test, and a project. It was easier back then. But I never had days like Friday. I never had days where I knew they learned a skill that was not only useful, but magical. When Stephen King visited my school last May, he said that if students can learn to read and write well then they could own the world. What a huge task we are challenged with. How can we help our kids realize the power of language?
I start with the personal narrative. And I teach craft, not content.
Here is my two-week unit in a nutshell.
Day 1: Topic Selection: I like Nanci Atwell’s “Writing Territories” for this. Though for some reason I thought it was Writing Landscapes, so I call it that.
Day 2: Mentor 1 and Craft Mini-Lesson: I love mentor texts. Thanks to Penny Kittle’s and Kelly Gallagher’s work, I use mentor texts with everything. I choose my mentors based on the craft marks I want my writer’s to use. In this case Ideas/Organization, Details, Voice/Dialogue, Word Choice, Sentence Fluency, One Sentence Paragraph/Italics for Effect, Conventions. So, I organize each mentor with the craft marks that the writer uses (strong leads, voice, varied sentences, great word choice, details, etc.) and these “craft marks” are the categories of my rubrics. I start off with a great piece by Neil Gaiman called “The Flints of Memory Lane” from his book Fragile Things. It about a time when he thinks he saw a ghost.
Here is my process:
- I give each student a highlighter and identify the 2 or 3 craft marks I want him or her to annotate (highlight and label). In this case it’s details, sentence variety and word choice.
- I then read the piece out loud and have my kids mark for the three craft marks I’ve chosen for this piece.
- Then, we have a discussion. I always start with small group talk because I feel like this allows for 2 things:
- 1. The groups to start trusting each other and relying on each other and
- 2. If a student is confused or unsure, they can see what the other students say before embarrassing themselves or not participating.
- Then, we have a whole group discussion where I make notes on the board.
- And finally we emulate Mr. Gaiman by pulling a line from his piece (There were places I believed to be haunted as a child…) and we quickwrite for a while.
Day 3: Mentor 2 and Craft Mini-Lesson: This mentor is called “The Magic Marble” by Jimmy Santiago Baca in Stories from the Edge. The details in this piece are wonderful and it always grosses the kids out (he swallows a glass eye!). We follow the exact same format as I outlined above only this time we quickwrite from this one about childhood pranks we pulled or saw.
At this point, students should have a topic in mind and were drafting. We go through 4 drafts over the next few days.
Day 4: Mentor and Craft Mini-Lesson (Draft 1 is due). We focus on details here. I book talk If I Stay and pull a scene from the car accident. We discuss details and word choice. Then, there’s this great book Guys Write for Guys Read and I use a piece in there called “The Crossing”. Again, we discuss the craft marks, but instead of emulating the writers, we enhance out own draft 1 through RADaR and looping (see Kelly Gallagher for this) in class.
Day 5: Mentor and Craft Mini-Lesson (Draft 2 is due). We focus on voice and dialogue here. I used “The Truth About the World” from Guys Write for Guys Read for voice and a piece called “Walk Softly” for dialogue. Again, we discuss, then RADaR and loop in class.
Day 6: Workshop Day (Draft 3 is due). My students are freshmen and I have no idea if anyone has ever taught them to workshop. I have been slowly modeling workshops over the past few days because after I read each mentor out loud, we discuss the craft. But they need to see it in action. So I use a student mentor from the previous year for this. We pull all the craft techniques we’ve been working on together (on a rubric) and we use the rubric to annotate the student piece. Again, small group talk then large group talk. Next, I ask them to actually put a letter grade on to the piece and explain where and why she lost points. Then I show them how I graded it. This allows for several things: 1. They can see how the rubric really works (and they are forced to actually read it). 2. They see how I grade and 3. They experience breaking down a student piece into craft categories and rating it. Then we discuss the word choice that was used during the discussion: would they say the same thing they said about the student mentor to a student sitting in their group? We make rules for the following workshop.
Day 7: aka the Magical Day. I only have one rule for workshops and that is the students must come prepared. I expect them to print out a 4th revised draft at home and carefully select 3 craft questions that they believe they need help with. They are required to write these questions down on the top of the draft and make copies of their 4th drafts for each member of the group. In class, the read the drafts out loud to their groups and the group members annotate for craft (like we’ve done each day in class). Then they discuss the craft (like we’ve done each day in class) and try to answer the three questions the writer had.
That’s it. And that’s where the magic lies.
I am not saying that this is the only way to teaching writing, or even the best way to teach it. But it works for me. Especially since I realize I have become what I’ve always wanted – their coach. I was their writing coach and today, game day, they didn’t need me. I could stand on the sidelines and watch them do their thing. Watch them hit that ball out of the park. And take pride in knowing that not a single one of them asked me to look at their fourth draft that day.
I truly cannot wait for Monday when I get to start grading narratives. I never thought I’d say that.