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Inside Writing Communities, Grades 3-5

Reasons for Writing

In this workshop you will explore practices that motivate students to write and help them develop into independent, motivated writers. These effective practices include allowing students to make their own choices about their writing, helping them keep a writer’s notebook in which to record their thoughts and draw inspiration, and providing opportunities for students to write for authentic audiences.

Katie Wood RayI’ve seen children transformed when they had a clear sense of audience and purpose and when they were preparing their writing for an occasion where they can imagine the writing is read.

— Katie Wood Ray, consultant and author or co-author of five books on teaching writing, including The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts)

Learning Goals

In this workshop you will explore how to:

  • encourage students to choose topics based on their interests and knowledge
  • help students learn to write for authentic audiences
  • create an environment that nurtures the voices of all students
  • allow students to choose the mode of writing that fits the ideas they want to express
  • help students discover the power of writing to communicate ideas and influence others

Prepare for the Workshop

Prepare for the Workshop

To prepare for this workshop, you will review the strategies you already use and read two articles about enabling students to write about topics that are personally meaningful and authentic.


What Do You Do?

Recall a time when you had to write about a topic in which you had little or no interest (perhaps a paper for a college course). Jot down some details about this experience.

Next, recall a writing experience that motivated you to share your ideas. Jot down some details about that writing task.

Now compare and contrast these experiences:

  • How did it feel to go through these two different writing processes?
  • What did you do with each piece when it was finished?
  • Did you share each piece of writing with someone other than the person who originally gave you the assignment (e.g. teacher, supervisor)?

What implications do you see for student writers after comparing and contrasting these experiences?


Examine the Literature

Print out the Examine the Literature Response Chart (PDF). Then read each article listed below, recording your ideas on the chart during and after reading. When you have finished, save your chart to submit as an assignment.

The Writer’s Notebook (PDF)
This article explores the potential of the writer’s notebook and how students can use their writer’s notebook for multiple purposes.

Fletcher, Ralph. “The Writer’s Notebook.” School Talk 6, No. 4. (July 2001): Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. Copyright 2001 by the National Council of Teachers of English ( Used with permission.

Multiple Cultures, Multiple Literacies (PDF)
This article examines the positive impact students from different cultures have on a writing community and how teachers can build on the strengths of students who speak different languages.

Koshewa, Allen. “Multiple Cultures, Multiple Literacies.” Primary Voices K-6 (National Council of Teachers of English) 9, no. 4 (April 2001): 27-33. Copyright 2001 by the National Council of Teachers of English ( Used with permission.

Analyze the Videos

Key Practices To Observe

“Reasons for Writing” and “Fostering Choice and Independence” explore strategies that help students develop into independent, motivated writers. The videos feature commentary from experts on teaching writing, as well as classroom illustrations highlighting the practices of several teachers.

As you watch, look for the following key practices:

  • Teachers acknowledge and respect the family and cultural backgrounds of their students.
  • Teachers expose students to the power of writing and help them see how their own writing can be powerful.
  • Teachers model ways to transform tiny moments of experience into writing.
  • Teachers encourage students to “live like a writer” by practicing rituals and routines, using a writer’s notebook, and observing their world closely.
  • Teachers enable students to imagine their writing being read by a real audience.
  • Teachers allow students the freedom to choose topics that have personal meaning.

Extend Your Learning

Examine Your Practice

The act of writing is an ongoing process of decision making. Students develop this critical skill when teachers show them how to make choices and then allow them to do it. Read the following quote, consider your own students, and answer the questions below.

Let the child make decisions about writing on his or her own. Choice is not just something we do to be polite or to make writing more fun; learning to make decisions is part of the writing curriculum.
— Katie Wood Ray


Guiding Questions

Reflect on the quote from Katie Wood Ray and consider your own students. Then write your answers to the questions below in your notebook. If you are working in a group, share your responses.

  • What is your response to the idea that student choice is essential to a writing curriculum?
  • Writing expert Lucy Calkins wrote that teachers should “teach the writer, not the writing.” What do you think that means?

Try an Activity

Interactive. (This interactive has been disabled due to Flash content.)

Using Your Day To Inspire Writing

This is an activity you can use with your students to spark ideas for writing topics and genres. Adapted from Donald Graves’s book Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, it’s an activity that helps you find writing inspiration from everyday events.

Start Activity

Put It Into Practice

The videos, activities, and readings in this workshop illustrate effective practices for helping students generate their own ideas for writing. For example, Latosha Rowley’s “heart maps” allow her students to practice an important part of the “writerly life” — namely, writing about things they love. Now apply what you have learned to help your students generate ideas for writing.


Teaching the “Writerly Life”

Think about the strategies you have learned for generating writing ideas. List three strategies that you could teach your students right away. Be sure to include the following:

  • a detailed description of each strategy, including topics and genres that it covers
  • how each strategy engages and motives students to write
  • how each strategy helps students learn how to generate ideas for writing topics

When you have finished, save your work to submit as an assignment.

Try out at least one of these strategies in your own writing. Use your work as a model, or re-create your process with your students.

Reflect on Your Learning


What Did You Learn?

Summarize what you have learned about reasons to write from the experts’ statements, classroom examples, and the readings and activities in this workshop. Use the questions below to guide your thinking. When you have finished, save your written summary to submit as an assignment.

  • Which classroom practices from the videos reflect what you currently do?
  • Which practices or ideas are new to you?
  • What changes do you plan to make?
  • What support and/or resources will you need to implement these ideas?

Related Resources

Web Resources

National Council of Teachers of English
NCTE provides research, teaching resources, and articles for teaching writing at all levels.

Center for Media Literacy
This site helps students understand the influence the media and advertising have on their own lives.

Exploring Diversity: Themes and Communities
This section of Cynthia Leitich Smith’s personal Web page gives access to many Web sites concerned with issues of culture and gender in children’s and young adult literature.

Global Dimension
This site provides materials, practical guidance, and support to help teachers incorporate a global perspective into their classes.

PBS TeacherSource: Arts and Literature
PBS TeacherSource provides searchable access to the various lesson plans, teaching resources, and student activities.

Publishers’ Bindings Online 1815-1930: The Art of Books
This site includes images of 5,000 decorative bookbindings along with research tools and lesson plans.

Publishing With Students
This site gives practical advice to teachers interested in helping students publish their writing.
This site features include interviews with children’s writers, writing contest links for young writers, classroom resources for teachers and librarians, and a directory of children’s authors and illustrators who are available for school visits.

Print Resources

Buckner, Aimee. Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer’s Notebook.Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2005. ISBN: 1571104135

Lessons, tips, and samples of student writing help teachers in grades 3-8 make the most of writer’s notebooks without sacrificing time needed for the rest of the literacy curriculum.

Cruz, M. Colleen. Independent Writing: One Teacher — Thirty-Two Needs, Topics, and Plans. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004. ISBN: 0325005400

Cruz offers a variety of methods to get students in grades 3-6 not only writing independently, but also producing work that both reflects their own interests and displays their skills.

Ernst, Karen, and Ruth Shagoury Hubbard, eds. New Entries: Learning by Writing and Drawing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996. ISBN: 0-435-07204-8

In thirteen essays, teachers share the ways they connect writing and visual art in their classrooms and their lives.

Fletcher, Ralph. Breathing In, Breathing Out: Keeping a Writer’s Notebook.Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996. ISBN: 0435072277

This book, considered by many to be a seminal text on writing, examines how writers use the writer’s notebook.

Fletcher, Ralph. How Writers Work: Finding a Process That Works for You. New York: HarperTrophy, 2000. ISBN: 038079702X

Geared toward 8- to 12-year-olds, this book examines the processes and strategies used by successful writers.

Hindley Salch, Joanne, and Marianne Marino, co-editors; Ralph Fletcher, guest editor. “Writer’s Notebook: A Place to Dream, Wonder, and Explore.” School Talk(National Council of Teachers of English) 6, no. 4 (July 2001).

This issue of School Talk includes articles by multiple authors and looks at the practical ways teachers can help students learn to use and rely on their writer’s notebooks.

Madigan, Dan, and Victoria T. Koivu-Rybicki. The Writing Lives of Children.Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 1997. ISBN: 1571100113

This book follows the development of third- and fourth-grade writers in an inner-city school, with a particular emphasis on how the children find meaning through their writing.

Wheeler, Rebecca S., and Rachel Swords. Code-Switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. ISBN: 0-8141-0702-8.

Focusing on building on the linguistic knowledge that children bring to school, this book advocates “code-switching” to enable students with the language patterns of many African American communities to add another linguistic code — Standard English — to their linguistic toolboxes.


Literacy Experts

Ralph Córdova, Ph.D.Ralph Córdova, Ph.D.

An assistant professor of education at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, Ralph has been a Spanish/English bilingual teacher since 1992. He has been a member of the National Writing Project for 11 years and serves on the Elementary Steering Committee of the National Council of Teachers of English. Ralph co-directs the educational program for the Austin Val Verde Foundation as it intersects with CICERO Learning network, a national Finnish educational initiative, of which his Cultural Landscapes Teaching and Learning Collaboratory is a part.

Isoke Titilayo NiaIsoke Titilayo Nia

An educator for more than 25 years, Isoke also spent 13 years as Director of Research and Development at the Reading/Writing Project, Teachers College, Columbia University. She currently travels throughout the U.S. and abroad as a literacy consultant through All Write Literacy Consultants, an organization she founded in 2001. She writes short stories and is at work on a book on the study of genre in the process classroom.

Katie Wood RayKatie Wood Ray, Ph.D.

Katie is a full-time writer and researcher on the teaching of writing. With a particular focus on the study of writing craft, she leads teacher workshops and summer institutes across the nation related to the teaching of writing. Her professional background includes both elementary and middle school teaching experience; eight years as an Associate Professor of language arts education at Western Carolina University; and two years as a staff developer at The Reading and Writing Project, Teachers College, Columbia University. Katie is also the author or co-author of numerous articles in professional publications and five books on the teaching of writing, including Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom(1999, NCTE) and The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts) (2001, NCTE).

Karen SmithKaren Smith, Ph.D.

Karen is currently an associate professor in the education department of Arizona State University. She spent 20 years as a teacher in a multilingual, combined fifth- and sixth-grade classroom. Prior to her position at ASU, she served as Associate Executive Director at the National Council of Teachers of English. She has written numerous articles and a book chapter, “Enhancing the Literature Experience Through Deep Discussions of Character,” from What a Character, published by the International Reading Association.

Jack WildeJack Wilde

Jack retired in 2005 after more than 35 years teaching first through fifth grade, most recently in Hanover, New Hampshire. He has two master’s degrees: a master’s of arts in liberal studies from Dartmouth College with a concentration in math and science, and a master’s in education from the University of Toronto. Jack has been a workshop presenter and college-level writing instructor at various institutions including the University of New Hampshire. He is author of A Door Opens: Writing in Fifth Grade.

Featured Teachers

Sheryl BlockSheryl Block
Fourth-Grade Teacher
Simpsonville Elementary, Simpsonville, Kentucky

Sheryl Block has been teaching for 26 years, the first 9 years in special education. Since 1990, Sheryl has provided professional development training in writing instruction in her own district and throughout Kentucky. She is a member of the Kentucky Department of Education Writing Advisory Committee and the Scoring Accuracy Team. She also serves as a writing cluster leader for the north-central region in Kentucky.

About the School:

Located in a rural, agricultural community, Simpsonville Elementary places a high priority on writing instruction — the principal received the Patronus Award, the highest honor given by the Louisville Writing Project (a National Writing Project affiliate). Although the students are primarily Caucasian, Simpsonville has a growing Hispanic population, higher than the state average.

Silvia EdgertonSilvia Edgerton
Fifth-Grade Teacher
Herrera School for the Fine Arts, Phoenix, Arizona

A 22-year teaching veteran, Silvia Edgerton has worked with students ranging in age from 6 to 14. She received her bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University. A second language learner herself, Silvia leads reading and writing workshops for parents of Herrera School students.

About the School:

Located in the urban core of Phoenix and among the poorest districts in the nation, Herrera is a fine arts magnet school with a comprehensive arts curriculum. Predominantly Hispanic (93 percent), 44 percent of the students are second language learners. The school has a two-way bilingual immersion program in which non-Spanish-speaking students are learning Spanish and native Spanish speakers are learning English.

Mark HansenMark Hansen
Third-Grade Teacher
Clarendon Elementary, Portland, Oregon

Mark Hansen graduated from Swarthmore College with degrees in anthropology and sociology. His first experience in teaching was as an assistant working with fourth- and fifth-graders with severe emotional problems. He went on to teach adjudicated teenagers in a Los Angeles mental health facility before returning to college and graduating from Lewis and Clark College’s MAT program in 2001. He has been teaching third grade for four years at Clarendon, where he is also the Title One Coordinator. He serves on the steering committee of Portland Area Rethinking Schools, and published an article in Re-thinking Education On-Line.

About the School:

Clarendon’s student population of 338 represents a wide diversity of ethnic groups — almost 50 percent of students speak a language other than English in their homes, and bi-weekly parent meetings are held in English, Spanish, and Hmong. No walls separate classrooms, and teachers are encouraged to mix students of different ages for a variety of activities.

Mark HardyMark Hardy
Third-Grade Teacher
Partnership Elementary, Raleigh, North Carolina

Mark Hardy recently returned to classroom teaching after working for five years as a national literacy consultant, both for the Teachers’ College Reading and Writing Project and independently. Mark spent his first seven years in education teaching upper elementary grades in the Bronx. He is currently at work on his first young adult novel, to be published by Front Street Books.

About the School:

Partnership Elementary is a school of choice within the Wake County, North Carolina, public school system. The school has a diverse student population, with equal numbers of Caucasian and African American students. Each of the school’s 300-plus students has an individualized learning plan, called a Personal Education Plan.

Latosha RowleyLatosha Rowley
Third-Grade Teacher
Cold Spring Academy, Indianapolis, Indiana

Latosha Rowley has been teaching for six years in grades 2-5. She serves in her school district’s leadership program, and co-wrote an article published in the NCTE publication Primary Voices, titled “Making Meaning.” She received her degrees from Indiana University and currently attends Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

About the School:

More than 300 students attend Cold Spring Academy, a K-8 program with a focus on environmental studies and stewardship as well as on commitment to community action. Nearly 90 percent of the students are African American.

Christine SanchezChristine Sanchez
Third-Grade Teacher
Tohaali Community School, Toadlena, New Mexico

Christine Sanchez has been teaching for 11 years, two years at Tohaali Community School on the Navajo reservation. Christine is also Navajo and, like her students, grew up on the reservation near Crownpoint, New Mexico. Christine received her bachelor’s degree in humanities from Fort Lewis College and her master’s in educational leadership at Western New Mexico University.

About the School:

Tohaali is both a day school and a boarding school — many of its 200 students live in dormitories during the school year. All students at Tohaali Community School are Navajo. The school serves kindergarten through eighth grade, with about two-thirds of students eligible for free or reduced lunch.