The Secret Ingredient to Creating Engaged Writers

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I’ve been thinking about student engagement in writing workshop for the past couple of weeks.  I started thinking about it as I was reading Guy-Write, Ralph Fletcher’s new book.  My thoughts about engagement continued as I sat in Maggie Beattie Roberts’s class about technology and media at the summer Reading Institute.  Everything came to a head when I received a Tweet from UWKatie which said:

Looking for ideas to get middle schoolers engaged in ind. writing as part of workshop #RWworkshop #engchat @raisealithuman @chrislehmann

There isn’t one way to engage students in writing workshop.  In fact, it’s hard to know what the exact ingredients are in the recipe for creating a workshop full of engaged writers.  I know that some of the ingredients for making students engaged with writing is to give them choice.  Students who have the opportunity to make choices about the topics they write about will care more about their writing.  In addition, there are other choices teachers can give to writers, which can range from choice in the revision process to choice of materials to choices about the audience of a given piece of writing.  All of these choices honor students for the people they are.  (Our book, Day by Day, has an entire section about choice, which is one of the pillars of a strong writing workshop.)

Another ingredient for engaging writers is by understanding and infusing technology into the workshop.  In most schools, students are using technology in ways none of us could have imagined when we were kids.  Many kids are walking around with computers in their pockets (i.e., smart phones).  They’re using those phones to text, blog, Tweet, Facebook, and stay in touch with their friends.  Often, they’re not even talking on their phones!  Rather, they’re using their phones to read content and to communicate with others through writing.   Therefore, it’s incumbent upon teachers to not only understand the technology students use, but to figure out ways to integrate it into the classroom.   (As someone who taught in schools where students did not have their own computers, I realize that integrating technology can be costly and challenging.)

That brings me to the secret ingredient of creating engaged writers in the classroom.  I believe you have to know your students well.  Kids are different.  Therefore, every child will be engaged in writing in a different way.  Therefore, it’s up to teachers to get to know their students.  Some ways you can get to know your students are through literacy interviews, 1:1 conferring,  casual conversations, and even through focus groups. (By focus groups I mean anything from a lunchtime conversation to gathering students together to learn more about them by watching them as people.)

To get you started, I updated the writing interview I used to hand out to my students on the first day of school.  The responses I received on this type of questionnaire allowed me to assess who my students were as writers… not who they were as writers based on what their former classroom teacher had told me.   Reviewing a writing interview students submitted to me helped me to prepare for my first writing conference with them since it allowed me to know a bit more about them as writers.

I made the writing interview more 21st century friendly, asking students questions about both classroom writing and non-school related writing.  (In the past I only asked about school-related writing.  I’ve come to realize that kids are doing a lot of out of school writing, which needs to be honored if we’re going to engage with them as writers.)  If we show our students that we care about them and take a true interest in who they are as writers, then we are on our way to engaging them as writers.

If you’ve ever eaten a delectable chocolate soufflé, then you know it takes time to prepare.  One has to be patient as the soufflé rises in the oven.   Just as a soufflé takes time and patience to make it just right, it’s important to remember that it takes awhile to get to know writers well.  One questionnaire is not enough to engage students.  We have to work hard, in a variety of ways, to learn who students are so we can find exactly the right way to engage each student so they can become engaged as writers.

You can download the writing profile I created below.  Feel free to adapt it to your grade level.

Writing Profile

What are some ways that you’ve used to engage students as writers?  Please share your tips below.


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