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Write in the Middle: A Workshop for Middle School Teachers

Teaching Multigenre Writing

Multigenre writing offers students a wide range of options for expressing ideas and communicating knowledge. In this session, participants examine two different, but equally successful, examples of this eclectic and engaging writing approach

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Workshop 5 Overview

Workshop 5 centers on multigenre writing, an eclectic approach to writing instruction that offers students a wide range of options for expressing ideas and communicating knowledge. As students explore different avenues for translating what they think or know into writing, they begin to understand that there is no single “right way” to communicate. Instead, writing demands intelligent, informed choices based on purpose, audience, content, and personal preference. Giving students the freedom to make these choices fosters their creativity and increases their engagement.

The first teacher featured in the workshop is Laurie Swistak from Newport, Rhode Island, whose fifth-graders are starting work on a research-based multigenre unit. Laurie begins by reviewing FQI—Facts, Questions, Interpretation—an inquiry framework that helps students think critically about genre choice. Through the course of two class periods, we see Laurie use a skillful mix of whole-class and small-group work to prepare her students to use FQI independently.

In the second part of the program, St. Paul teacher Mary Cathryn Ricker and her seventh-grade students approach multigenre writing from a different angle. Over the next few months, the students will prepare a portfolio of multigenre pieces focused on personal experience. To get the students started, Mary Cathryn introduces several literary models including Jerry Spinelli’s entertaining memoir, Knots in My Yo-Yo String, and a collection of biographical poems about George Washington Carver. Later, we see her use a student poem—written in both English and Spanish—as a prompt, a particularly apt choice for her class of second- language learners.

Also featured in the program is Tom Romano, a national expert on multigenre writing.

Key Practices To Observe in Workshop 5

This workshop demonstrates the following effective practices for teaching writing in general and for teaching multigenre writing specifically:

  • Teachers choose an approach to writing that reveals a broad definition of genre and that enables students to communicate in a variety of forms for a variety of purposes and readers. The range of options stimulates students’ interest in their work and gives them experience in writing in various realistic forms.
  • Teachers reveal their appreciation of the diversity of interests and cultural backgrounds in their classes. The approach establishes a meaningful reason for writing, which improves the odds for students’ development as writers, and it also indicates the teachers’ affirmation of their students, as well as the importance of differentiating practices to meet the needs of students.
  • In the multigenre project, teachers promote student ownership as writers and as learners. Students consider options for genres, as well as topics they may focus on. Such ownership, choice, and decision-making are important influences on student writers.
  • Each teacher establishes a specific structure and logical method of guiding the students in their work, for example the FQI (facts, questions, interpretation) method demonstrated by one teacher and the autobiography project demonstrated by another. Though students have many options, teaching practices are intentional and well organized.
  • The teachers prompt students’ curiosity, leading them to inquiry that is significant to them. Writing is for a genuine, meaningful-to-student purpose. Students investigate and recognize that writing is a mode of learning and discovery. The purpose of multigenre writing is not merely to gain experience in writing a variety of forms.
  • Ample opportunity is provided for students to talk about possibilities and to help each other in the project. Teachers emphasize that the students are part of a community and should support and help each other. Class activities reveal the efforts of students and teacher to work in a supportive community.
  • Teachers read often to the students, and the students themselves read to understand different genres, as well as to learn about their topics. Reading serves both to engage the students and to teach them about the genres. Reading aloud is especially important for students who are early learners of English.
  • Both teachers and classmates respond to students’ work through whole-class discussion, small-group work, and teacher-student conferences.
  • Teachers provide appropriate examples and help students understand how they can learn about different genres. With the variety inherent in multigenre writing, having examples available is especially important. Students are challenged to read carefully to determine the characteristics of a chosen genre, and, of course, teachers provide information to help students.

Related Reading

  • “Exploring the Past Through Multigenre Writing” by Sirpa T. Grierson with Amy Anson and Jacoy Baird in Language Arts, Vol. 80, No. 1, September 2002, pp. 51-59. Copyright 2002 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission. (pdf)

For more information and resources, visit the NCTE Web site at:

Mary Cathryn Ricker's Multigenre Unit

Mary Cathryn Ricker uses models to teach multigenre autobiographies.

The capstone writing assignment for Mary Cathryn Ricker‘s seventh-grade class is an autobiographical booklet that includes at least 15 different genres—from poems, memoirs, letters, and personal narratives to more unusual modes of expression like maps, photographs, and drawings.

In the early part of this seven-week unit, Mary Cathryn’s teaching follows a predictable routine. Using models to illustrate what she’s teaching, she gives her students a mini-lesson on a specific genre or revision strategy. Then she gives the class time to apply the lesson. As the students write, Mary Cathryn moves around the room offering individual encouragement and help. After the writing session, she usually breaks the class into pairs or small groups so the students can share their pieces and get feedback from their peers.

“Teaching Multigenre Writing” documents two days in Mary Cathryn’s class. During this time, she introduces her students to a new genre—a list of things they wish they could do. The students also mine for topics in their writer’s notebooks, review and practice the memoir, and begin poems based on a bilingual model.

Unit Plan (pdf)

Materials for Mary Cathryn Ricker's Multigenre Unit

Mary Cathryn Ricker's Reflections

On making writing accessible:
“My philosophy really is getting students to recognize that we’re all writers and that they are writers as well.”

On multigenre writing as an approach to differentiating instruction:
“I really like the multigenre approach for a few different reasons.

On different styles, different genres:
“I find that the multigenre approach is so useful… .”

Read Mary Cathryn Ricker’s Reflections transcript.

Samples of Student Work

Editor’s note: The sample student papers have been reproduced exactly as the students wrote them, including mechanical and grammatical errors.

Laurie Swistak's Lesson

Laurie Swistak interacts with a small group during a prewriting activity.

In January, Laurie Swistak‘s fifth-graders at Cranston-Calvert Elementary School in Newport, Rhode Island, begin a multigenre research unit based on people or events of historical significance. Over the course of the semester, the students produce at least ten pieces in ten different genres about their topics. The unit culminates in May with oral presentations for the students’ parents.

During the project, Laurie collaborates with Dr. Camille Allen, who teaches education at nearby Salve Regina University. Dr. Allen’s students serve as mentors, meeting with the fifth-graders once a week to assist them with research and writing.

To help the students organize their research and focus their inquiry, Laurie uses a strategy called FQI—facts, questions, and interpretations. Through reading and online searches, the students locate interesting facts about their topics. Then they think of questions related to those facts. Finally, they decide what interpretations or genres they could use to answer the questions.

The two-day lesson featured in Workshop 5 provides students with practice in FQI. Laurie begins by modeling the process for the class, and then the students start applying FQI to their individual topics.

Lesson Plan (pdf)

Materials for Laurie Swistak's Multigenre Lesson

Laurie Swistak's Reflections

What is FQI?
“These children really needed some kind of a blueprint in order to have a well-done project.”

On using multiple genres to explore people and events:
“I wanted the children to write in different genres, because it’s so important to their learning process and their writing process.”

On defining and choosing genres – part 1:
“Genres, I like them to come up with them.”

On defining and choosing genres – part 2:
“I require a research piece, which is two to four pages long.”

On using inquiry in multigenre writing:
“By using that inquiring process, you get them to be inquirers.”

On the importance of student choice:
“If you give them choice, then they have ownership.”

Read the transcript of Laurie Swistak’s reflections.

Tom Romano's Reflections

Defining multigenre writing:
“Multigenre writing is, it’s a piece of writing, right?”

On opportunities to write narratives:
“I think the reason that the students generate so much energy and enthusiasm for multigenre is, one, there is so much freedom about what they can write.”

On including the arts in multigenre projects:
“I’m this word guy.”

On the importance and types of support students need:
I think there is a danger in multigenre that I learned about the first year that I taught it… .”

On unifying themes in multigenre papers:
“There’s another aspect of multigenre that I think is difficult and that’s the idea of unity in a multigenre paper… .”

On providing students with models, practice, and support:
“The kids need to see some models of multigenre so they can get an idea of the territory.”

On different approaches to multigenre writing:
“Well, I look at multigenre in two ways or two different ways of doing it.”

Read the transcript of Tom Romano’s reflections.

Additional Resources

Allen, Camille A. The Multigenre Research Paper: Voice, Passion, and Discovery in Grades 4-6. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001. ISBN: 032500319X.

Bowen, Barbara. “A Multi-Genre Approach to the Art of the Biographer.” English Journal80.4 (April 1991): 53-55.

Dickson, Randi with Jon DeGraff and Mark Foard. “Learning About Self and Others Through Multigenre Research Papers.” English Journal 92.2 (November 2002): 82-90.

Glasgow, Jaqueline N. “Fusing Social Justice With Multi-Genre Writing.” English Journal90.6 (July 2001): 62-66.

Glasgow, Jaqueline N. “Radical Change in Young Adult Literature Informs the Multi-Genre Paper.” English Journal 92. 2 (November 2002): 41-51.

Grierson, Sirpa T. “Circling Through the Text: Teaching Research Through Multi-Genre Writing.” English Journal 89 (September 1999): 51-55.

Grierson, Sirpa T. with Amy Anson and Jacoy Baird. “Exploring the Past Through Multi-Genre Writing.” Language Arts 80.1 (September 2002): 51-59.

Mack, Nancy. “The Ins, Outs, and In-Betweens of Multi-Genre Writing.” English Journal 92.2 (November 2002): 91-98.

Moulton, M. R. “The Multigenre Paper: Increasing Interest, Motivation, and Functionality in Research.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 42 (1999): 528-539.

Ondaatje, Michael. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. New York: Penguin, 1990. ASIN: 0140072802.

Richison, Jeannie D., Anita C. Hernandez, and Marcia Carter. “Blending Multiple Genres in Theme Baskets.” English Journal 92.2 (November 2002): 76-81.

Romano, Tom. Blending Genre, Altering Style: Writing Multigenre Papers. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2000. ISBN: 0867094788.

Romano, Tom. Writing With Passion: Life Stories, Multiple Genres. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1995. ISBN: 0867093625.