Pushing Past Frustration in the Writer’s Workshop

My previous post, You Catch More Bees with Honey, was about breaking old habits and establishing new routines that limited frustration and increased productivity in the classroom.

Well, this week I became a little frustrated with the way writing workshop was going because my students were not focusing on writing, in spite of the changes I had made–they were not on task. They were talking, walking around the room, and creating a lot less than they should be with the time I was giving them. I imagined that other teachers must experience the same problem, but when I googled phrases like “writing workshop model” and “writing workshop frustrations” I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. I needed to know how to enforce the importance of focus during the writing process. And Roy Peter Clark’s prompt chart, which I had displayed prominently in the room was not working either.

Here is the prompt chart I created from Roy Peter Clark’s tweet on August 24, 2016 (in case you’d like to create one of your own).

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So how was I going to help my students understand the importance of focusing while they were writing? Too Noisy, a new prompt chart, and Jolly Ranchers.

Shhh! It’s Too Noisy in Here!

Too Noisy Online is a free online app for the classroom that helps teachers and students maintain a healthy noise level.

By Thursday of last week I was so tired of nagging my students about the noise level and lack of concentration on their work that I knew something had to change. In spite of my creating a news room atmosphere and reminding students of their impending deadline, they just were not using their time wisely. This app became part of the solution.

Too Noisy provides students with a visual of the noise level in the classroom. I think part of the reason I was frustrated with my students is that I did not understand that they did not realize how loud they were. This app shows them what their noise level and provided them with the proof they needed.

When the noise level is acceptable, the graphics look like this:

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When the class is too noisy, the graphic looks like this:

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This application has an invaluable feature: It allows the teacher to adjust the sensitivity according to the activity. So if you want the class to be exceptionally quiet, you can heighten the sensitivity. If you want to allow a little bit of talking and sharing, you can lower the sensitivity. To do this, click on the settings icon (a gear in the lower right hand corner of the screen).

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At the beginning of class, I showed the app to the students by projecting it onto the Smart Board. I asked them to whisper to each other and watch what happened on the screen. Then I asked them to shout and yell. The meter moved into the read, and the happy face changed to a frown. The students laughed but clearly understood the expectation.

Quiet Time = Focus Time

After demonstrating Too Noisy, I reiterated the protocol for writer’s workshop using a new prompt chart instead of Roy Peter Clark’s. It’s an amalgamation of different images I found when searching “writer’s workshop anchor chart” in Google Images. I modeled the format after a pin on Pinterest by Hello Literacy and borrowed ideas from several different charts I found as well as adding my own expectations. I think in the future, I will create charts like this with the students, but for the sake of expediency this time, I delineated the expectations. What mattered to me most, my primary goal, was to make sure the students were engaging with their writing for a concentrated period of time. After all, their deadline is  approaching closer every day! My student teacher Rebecca Spangenberg, helped me create chart below. She is a nascent blogger, reflecting on her student teaching experiences, and if you are interested, you can also follow her on WordPress at rebeccaspangenberg.wordpress.com.

writers-workshop

Never Underestimate the Power of Rewards!

Every single class period met my expectations on Friday, and as a result, I feel much more confident about moving forward with writing workshop. Next Wednesday, students will begin publishing their news stories using Google Sites, and many of them are excited (and some are are a bit nervous) about the fact that their work will be read by a wider audience. At the end of Friday’s class period, I gave students four Jolly Ranchers for their effort and hard work.

If you can share any strategies that you are using to create a smoother and more productive writer’s workshop, please share them with me! I am a newbie and welcome any suggestions you have!

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You Catch More Bees with Honey . . .

This week has been extremely busy for many reasons, and because so much is happening, I have many topics I would like to write about. I will, however, focus on one and save the others for later. Sometimes ideas become more earthy and and fuller bodied when they brew in the mind a a bit anyway.

So this post is about breaking old habits.

1. Wrangling with Writing

Before I met the writer’s notebook, teaching writing was somewhat of a struggle between my students and me. They didn’t want to do it, but I felt like I needed to make them do it for a variety of reasons, one of them being that good writing skills are an asset in every aspect of life. Even though I worked hard and my efforts were genuine, I don’t think I I met my goal–I don’t think I sold my students on the idea that learning to write was for their benefit. They treated it like a cat treats a dose of medicine–they saw little benefit from the torture of the task. The curriculum and my style made writing were too laborious for them–I took the fun out of writing.

The writer’s notebook changed everything for me.

I started using the writer’s notebook last year in preparation for implementing Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study (Grade 8) this school year. The spirit of this idea, which I first heard of from a colleague, Sarah Lucci, who was more familiar than I with Ralph Fletcher, has changed the way I view writing and, in turn, the way I teach writing. As a result, writing became fun again, for me and my students.

How did this happen? I can give you the short answer, but if you want to know more, you need to read Ralph Fletcher’s book, A Writer’s Notebook: Unlcoking the Writer Within You. Essentially, the writer’s notebook is a safe place for students to SAFELY experiment with writing techniques and ideas without fear of censure, evaluation, or assessment. If they want feedback, they may ask for it and the teacher may provide it. It takes a while for the students to get used to the concept, but once they do, their volume increases and then so does the quality of their writing.

In my opinion, though, the best outcome from using the writer’s notebook is that students no longer utter the dreaded phrase: But I don’t know what to write about! The writers notebook becomes their bank of ideas.

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2. The Grammar Gauntlet

Jeff Anderson’s book Everyday Editing changed the way I view grammar lessons. I started small last year by having students notice and imitate good writing, mostly from young adult novels, novels, as Anderson recommends, that I thought the students should read. This year I began implementing some of the more extensive lessons in the second half of the book.

The short noticings and the focused lessons ask students to analyze and then writer’s craft and style as opposed to identifying grammatical components. Anderson does not completely forgo the standard language and throw grammar completely out the window. Instead, his lessons focus on inviting students to examine good writing and analyze why it works. The final step is for them to imitate the author’s style and make it their own.

I can’t tell you how happy I was when I finally received permission from the curriculum director to stop teaching students how to identify grammatical elements such as parts of speech, complements, clauses, and phrases. This kind of work was never fun. It seemed necessary for a while, but it was never enjoyable for anyone.

3. The Long Lecture

One of the most important ingredients of the writer’s workshop model is the mini-lesson. I have not come near to perfecting this art yet, but I understand it’s value. Teaching writing and grammar lessons in five to ten minute snippets is so freeing for teachers and definitely more digestible for students. No one wants to focus grammar rules for an entire class period, and frankly, talking in front of the class all day makes me tired and bored. I have found a new, more sustainable groove. And the most important part is that I am getting to know my students as individuals. Even though we are only half way through the first marking period, I feel as though I know more about this group of students in a shorter amount of time.

Today I tried something completely different for the mini-lesson. I showed a TED Ed video instead about zooming in on a moment. The title of the video is Slowing down time (in writing and film). It’s perfect because it’s less than six minutes long, it makes an effective connection between film and writing, and provides students with a distinct focus. I can honestly say that out of the 136 students I saw today, all of them wrote consistently without interruption for at least ten minutes. Now that might not seem like a long stretch, but for students who have never experienced the writer’s workshop model, it’s a true accomplishment.

4. Catching More Bees with Honey: The Unintended Results

The unintended consequences of the many shifts that have occurred this year in my building, my classroom, and me, my relationship with my students is changing.

  • I am more encouraging and appreciative of students’ efforts as young writers.
  • I am providing students with more focus, more authentic feedback.
  • I am more forgiving of students’ mistakes.
  • I am pushing past my own frustrations.
  • Most importantly, I am building personal connections with them, and these connections are making the classroom a place where learning is fun.