Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Practical, (Yes, PRACTICAL) Help Supporting Striving Writers with Chris Lehman

I'm a Chris Lehman groupie.  I was fortunate enough to work under Chris in October at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) Coaching Institute.  Not only is Chris a talented staff developer and writer, he is amazing in front of middle school students, and that's when I was sold. It takes a special personality to walk into a class of students you've never met before, and teach them a strategy or skill with 20 teachers watching.  Back in October, I darted to the bookstores and read his Workshop help desk series book, A Quick Guide to Reviving Disengaged Writers and I walked away with so many helpful hints to teaching striving writers.  So, when I saw that Chris was leading a session at the TCRWP Writing Institute this year, I crossed my fingers that I would be able to learn from him again, and I was excited to be part of his session.  He did not disappoint last week, so I'll have to write multiple posts about the take-aways from the session titled, "Very Practical Help Supporting Striving and Resistant Writers in Information and Essay Writing"; one will not suffice.  Notice the striving in the title above.  This was originally written to be struggling.  I love the shift to striving. As Chris pointed out, we're the ones that struggle-  struggle to help, struggle to teach... young writers are striving to improve, to please, to learn.  Here are some very practical strategies to engage students who may disengage during the writing process.

Strategies to help students who have nothing to write about:  

  • Model, model, model... for everyone. "The risks we don't take are the risks they won't take."- Chris Lehman.  Think about the hidden stories in the room and the tone that you use to model writing.  As we model stories and information, we have to be careful not to pigeon hole ourselves  and our students into one corner.  I tend to write meaningful, life changing models.  But not all students have life-changing meaningful events happening in their lives.  We need to model situations that are outside our normal realm of writing.  Humor?  Sadness?  Social Issues?  Think about the issues that are happening in your life now (so you remember details) and mold it to fit the experiences and issues that your students may be experiencing.  
  • Compliment the Writer.  As you are building a relationship with the writer, make sure that you high-light what they are doing well.  Don't worry about the teaching point, the errors, the problems.  You can resolve that later.  For now, foster a writer who feels willing to experiment and take risks in their writing.  Reread a line from the student's work that you like... over and over.  
Strategies to help students who seem allergic to the writing process:  
  • Create measurable goals.  As you send students to work independently, ask them to create a goal, plan, or agenda that is measurable.  Students should use numbers and words.  "I will create 5 new topics" or "I will experiment with 3 new strategies".  Students should share this with a writing partner.  Is it attainable? Realistic?  This makes it public and manageable for students.  
  • Always stress "experimentation".  Allow students to take risks.  Model how writers may try multiple strategies for the same idea.  For example, ask students to write the topic sentence (detail or meaning they are trying to convey) at the top of a piece of paper.  Divide the paper into two half-sheets.  Ask student to write out the same idea in two different half sheets of paper (narrative, cause-effect, compare-contrast, facts-statistics, etc.)    
  • Invite parents into a writing celebration at the start of the unit.  If you send out a date to parents/families, you are more apt to keep the deadline.  Students, too, know there will be an audience for their work, which will keep them centered and focused. 
Strategies for students who are always talky-talky-talky:  
  • Embrace conversation.  I love this!  Lester Laminack says, "Words don't grow in a garden of shhhh.  Quiet classrooms are barren places."  The CCSS calls for speaking and listening standards to flourish in language arts classrooms, and Chris Lehman says, "Think about conversation as its own curriculum."  Embrace conversation.  Teach into the discussions and teach students roles and responsibilities of writing discussions.  Our ILA staff worked on writing circles one year, and I see a lot of connections to this standard and this topic in their work.  
  • Create a Partner Spot for Conversation.  On a sign-up basis, students can confer with their writing partners in a specific classroom location.  The students should have a set amount of time in the partner area that is equipped to handle two to three students at a time.  Students should log their time (names, purpose, where you (teacher) will find evidence and documentation of work completed).  This should be a privilege for writers. 
Strategies for students who are constantly worried about being "right:"
  • Model uncertainty to teach Habits of Mind.  Create mini-lessons and strategy lessons around the "Habits of Mind"of thinking through writing, not just writing strategies.  Pretend to do a teaching point, and then model for students how you are stuck. Teach a new lesson about how to unstuck yourself.   This could relate to collecting, rehearsing, drafting, revising, editing, or even publishing.  
  • Ask partners to reteach concepts.  This can also help us, as teachers, to examine our own teaching.  Ask a partner to teach the concept to another student.  I can see a lot of different ways this can be used in the classroom.  

And that's just Day 1.  Stay tuned for information about note-taking, Webb's Depth of Knowledge, Citing Sources, and Universal Design for Teaching.  Chris has a new book out, too, that was just released this week.  It's titled Energize Research and Writing:  Fresh Strategies to Spark Interest, Develop Independence, and Meet Key Common Core Standards:  Grades 4-8.   If any of the above strategies intrigue you, you'll love his books, too.  Mine is on it's way and I can't wait to read it.  Thanks, Chris! 

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