When I started my teaching career in 1987, I was fortunate to begin in a school that implemented classroom libraries for English/language arts instruction. And despite knowing with my whole self that what I was doing each day was best for students, I definitely floundered when trying to implement and execute.

I focused on one component at a time, and I started with writing workshop. Since then, I have twenty-seven years of writing workshop experience at the primary, intermediate, middle school and college level under my belt. And I can say with complete honesty that there are many more commonalities than differences among students at the various age groups. The workshop approach is always the same: mini-lesson, write/confer and share. It never changes.

In honor of National Day on Writing on October 20, here are my top 5 favorite pieces of advice for teaching and empowering students of all ages to write well:

Choice

We hear this word so often that it sometimes can lose its impact. Students need to be able to express their ideas, memories, wishes and hopes. When teaching primary and elementary students, my students had free choice probably about 80% of the time. Other times, we would work on collective books, letters or prompts, but they were few and far between.

When I taught middle school, I gave students weeks of free writing interspersed with a two-week genre study—usually essays (and not the dry five paragraph essays, real authentic essays)—and contests. Writing contests are offered throughout many organizations. It is beyond exciting when someone wins or gets published in something…anything! It’s a time for cake and confetti!

When teaching college writing, assignments were focused on genre, but topics were always free choice. Nothing was discouraged. They shared their passions and had an audience who would hear them out. Choice brings out students’ best writing, always.

 

Mentor Texts

Whether I was reading a passage from Dracula to illustrate the epistolary format or the picture book Voices in the Park to teach the concept of voice and characterization, students learn to write by reading. Mentor texts provide them with an example of their expectations. The internet is filled with thousands of essays, articles and descriptions that also provide samples for students.

And remember, the whole story or book doesn’t have to be read. In fact, reading a portion of a book is a great way to inspire and motivate others to want to read it, too.

 

Share

Students’ writing serves as a perfect mentor text. A subtle, competitive boost offers students the opportunities to better their writings on their own terms. When I taught middle school writing, I had a stool—the share chair—and an old karaoke machine with a microphone. My students loved to share! Sometimes I would ask for volunteers to share their favorite paragraph, a detailed description or even their favorite verb.

Conferencing with students during the workshop session gave me opportunities to be familiar with the writing before share time. It is also a big motivation when the student and I would find the “perfect” passage to share with the class.

 

Publish!

Authentically. We write for reasons. Providing students with opportunities such as creating a website, writing a book review for Classroom Organizer or developing a plan for change, gives students greater purpose which leads to deeper interest and stronger writing.

 

No Red Pens

In order to establish a trusting culture where students take risks in their writing, avoid the mark ups. For the first month of school, I would provide a lot of verbal feedback, but nothing written at all. By the time October came around, penciled suggestions were welcomed and taken as constructive feedback, not “wronged” work.

While these five points may seem so simplistic, I have had such great success with them with students between the ages of seven and seventy! They help develop a casual and trusting atmosphere, yet set high expectations for everyone. Giving students space to create on their terms develops a desire to be the best writer they can be.

 

Booksource Recommendations