Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Write in the Middle
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Listen to the Experts: Linda Rief's Reflections

Workshop 1: Creating a Community of Writers

Essential components of building a writing community

I think in a writing program, if you're dedicating your language arts to a really in-depth process of writing for kids, the very first thing you have to have is a community of writers who respect each other and who trust each other so that you can share what you really think, what you really believe, what you really feel. And I think that takes teachers who write, teachers who read, to be models for the kids. It takes giving the kids a lot of time—real writing for real reasons, for real audiences, I think, is essential in a writing classroom.

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The importance of teacher as part of the community of writers

One of the other components I think that's really important in a writing classroom is teachers who model that writing. I think when I'm not writing with the kids I don't get writing that's as effective as it could be. But when I am writing with them, and sharing the problems that I encounter and how I try to solve some of those things, those kids trust me as a writer and they begin to trust each other. So that when I'm sharing writing that is difficult for me to do then they know that I trust them as responders to that writing and that they can in turn trust me.

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The benefits of writing with your students

I never wrote until I actually started teaching. And when I shared that writing, those first drafts of writing, I was really a little nervous about sharing it with the kids because I didn't know how they would react. But they react so honestly and so thoughtfully when you're writing yourself for reasons that are really real for you, that I realized I had to be doing my own writing in the classroom. But I also know it takes a tremendous amount of time. And I think so many times as teachers, in the 45-minute to 50-minute blocks that we have, we think we have to get in so many things for the kids that we rush time. And the minute I've slowed down and I let those kids go back to that writing again and again I get some of the most effective writing because I've allowed those kids some time. And I think that comes from knowing it yourself. I think so many things that I do in the classroom now come from the fact that I am writing myself and I am trying to figure out how can I make this the best piece, how can I get response to it that helps me grow as a writer and move that writing forward? So because I'm trying to figure that out for myself, it helps me figure out what would work best for the kids also.

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The importance of routine in a writing workshop classroom

I think kids need routines the same way we need routines. I know I try to set up routines in the classroom that Monday through Thursday the kids know they're going to come in and for that 45 minutes there is going to be some whole-class presentation or I might be reading something out loud to them when we are focused on the writing. But they know what the routine is, they know where materials are, they know when certain pieces are due, they know I have a deadline after so many weeks, they know that they have so many pages of drafts due by the end of the week, and I think that's part of the routine so that they stop to ask, "What are we doing today?" They know ahead of time over several weeks that these are the expectations and she's giving us the time to meet them, and she's giving us some guidance, and coaching, and direct lessons or direct instructions as part of this. But we know what we can do with the time that she's giving us. So I think routines are really essential.

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The reading-writing connection

One of the components I think of a writing classroom is just many, many books—many many kinds of reading in many different ways so that kids can begin to study authors, study the techniques that they use, just relish the way somebody writes a lead sentence, or relish the way somebody writes a piece of description that is a surprise with words, a surprise that lets us see. I think Don Murray calls it, "We see the extraordinary and the ordinary." And for kids who write a lot, they begin to recognize that in professional writers, too. So I think reading is really important.

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Workshop 2: Making Writing Meaningful

Helping students find meaningful reasons to write

Middle school kids are so into themselves. It's almost as if the world revolves around them, and they just don't see an awful lot happening outside of that personal world. So at the very beginning of the year I really do try to get the kids to write about themselves.

I share pieces of writing with them from authors such as Sandra Cisneros, from Gary Sotto. I talk about Gary Paulsen, I talk about Catherine Patterson, all as writers, and share pieces that are more personal narratives from each of those writer's points of view and try to get the kids to see they had stories to tell of their own lives, and how can I get them to start telling me some of the stories of their lives. And that's part of what I do in the beginning of the year. We interview each other. I have the kids write out, it could be a biography of the person they interviewed or they could do their own autobiography and that's right when I'm beginning to teach biography, autobiography, personal narrative, memoir, and just get the kids to think about themselves knowing that they do have stories to tell even as 14-year-olds, and they do have very strong opinions about things. And so, how do I get them once they've written those to think about others and to be empathetic with parents, with grandparents, to think about the community at large, to think about the world at large? But it's almost like I'm trying to pull them into themselves, because I think that's where they are to begin with and then start to broaden them out.

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Knowing your students

I think we have to talk to the kids constantly. I mean, that's what's happening at the beginning of the year. We're talking to them in the hallways, we're kneeling down beside them and talking to them in the classroom when they're beginning to start drafting some ideas, we're helping them construct some of those ideas or just list out some of the things that they know and can do or that they care about; it really takes us knowing those kids.

I mean, Trapper is another perfect example of my not knowing the kind of writing he was doing outside of the classroom. He was being sent mountain-biking parts by a cyberzine magazine online. He would try out the mountain-biking parts. He was writing two articles, technical writing, a week to an audience of 12,000 people, and he was barely passing my class because he didn't realize that that writing he was doing outside of the class counted. When I finally figured out in talking to him and asking him to bring in some of that writing and show me what you're doing and saying, of course, I'll give you credit for that. Don't be silly, this is writing. This is writing for a real audience. I really have realized that kids need to know that writing is going to another person—that somebody cares about what they have to say. If they're writing meaningless exercises then they're not writing the best that they can write. And we're going to continue to get fairly ineffective writing that's done for their teachers, and the audience, and it's got to move beyond that.

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Workshop 6: Responding to Writing: Teacher to Student

Content before conventions

I'm not going to red-pen and look at the conventions or mechanics of language right from the beginning. Do I care in the very end that they do a piece that is polished, and is correct, and is written with intent? Absolutely, but I'm not going to do that in a first draft. I want to hear the content. What do you honestly believe and what's the most powerful and compelling way of saying it? And let's look at the conventions or mechanics of language last, but I respect what you have to say first. Let's make sure we get that the best it can be.

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Responses that help move the writer forward

One of the things that I did years ago was after reading Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers. And what helped me, I realized, I read his book and then I was also in several writing classes. What I realized, the best response that helped me move forward with my writing was to tell the writer what he or she did well, to ask questions that came to me honestly as a reader and a good listener to that writing, and then one or two suggestions based on what I said I needed help with as a writer really helped me move that writing forward.

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Workshop 7: Responding to Writing: Peer to Peer

Teachers using their own writing as models for student response

I think it's hard to teach kids how to care about writing and responding to each other unless we're doing it in front of the class ourselves first. So that I'm probably sharing two or three pieces of my writing at several different junctures during the beginning of the year so that I can get them to respond to it. I take their responses very seriously. I show them what I do with their suggestions or what I don't do and why I don't do those things, and that's the beginning of modeling for them how they're responding to each other.

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Making time for informal talk and responding to one another's thinking and writing

I'm finding that when you put kids at tables, four to five to a table, there's a lot of informal talk and response going on where kids will lean into each other and say listen to this, what do you think about this, and that's wonderful talk. I love that when I hear that happening all the time. But then every couple of weeks I will have them go into response groups where they literally are reading their writing out loud to the three or four other kids at their table, but those kids have those conference sheets in front of them so they know they've got that frame to respond to and can hold onto that.

Another thing that I've tried to do—I think I need to—we all need to kind of think of writing in different ways other than just constructing a piece, a stand-alone piece. That our kids keep reader's-writer's notebooks or journals where they're doing a lot of nightly responses to quick writes that are just short quick pieces that I would put up on the overhead at the beginning of class. And so what I've asked the kids to do is every couple of weeks they will share their journals at the table and actually read what the other kids have written and write a response to that or talk about some of the things they heard them saying.

Another thing that I've started doing is pulling excerpts from books that we might be reading together as a class and having them actually glue those into their notebooks. And responding to it, it might be a passage, for instance, from The Giver, and I would have the kids respond to it in writing and then pass their notebooks to the person to their right and then do it again, again, and again. So that they have written response from three or four kids at their table to their thinking. And it's amazing to me how many different topics the kids can realize can come from one passage when they all begin with their first initial thoughts and then other kids have responded to it. So I'm trying to do more of that in the classroom where it's written response, spoken response directly to individual pieces of writing, but also to writing that they would be reading.

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Allowing time for informal sharing

I think we need to set up our classrooms so that kids are actually responding to each other informally all along in the writing process. That they can talk informally at tables, and I try to put them at tables that they really don't know each other, but you're doing things so that they get to know each other and feel comfortable with each other. So that they're talking about ideas that they had, they're sharing that writing with each other, they're asking kids what they think of what they just read. So I see that happening all the time.

I mean, we can't have absolutely silent writing classrooms where we're saying, okay, this is the time, we're going to take ten minutes at the end of this period for you to respond to each other. That just realistically—I don't think that's a healthy thing to do. We just have to realize that talk happens in a writing classroom and that kids have to be respected for that.

I'm just amazed at the number of things kids can balance all at the same time, so that if we think that they're off task, I think that response is definitely on task. It's as they're finding ideas, it's when they're drafting, it's when they think they've got their writing to the best draft it can be so they want some formal response to it. I ask kids to—they can't take a piece to final draft until they've read it to at least three of their peers and until they've read it at least once to me.

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Peer responses to final drafts

Then, in final draft, I think it's really important that kids hear each other's writing so that when we're through a particular cycle of writing, perhaps at four weeks or even eight weeks depending on how we're set up with quarters or trimesters, that we actually have a reading of the best piece of writing. And I have kids read their writing and then they pass it around the circle and all the kids have Post-it® notes so they they can actually respond to what they found they really liked in what the kids read and they put the Post-it® notes on the piece of writing so the kids get that writing back with responses from 25 or 26 of their peers.

Or another thing I've also done is put up a portfolio wall where the kids' name tags are on the wall, and they actually put their best piece of writing up under their name so kids can begin to see it, read it at their leisure, and use it as examples of, you know, these are some really fine pieces of poetry, fine short story, so that it's available for kids to see all the time and give response to it.

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