Teaching Reflective Writers

Being reflective helps us improve in so many areas of our lives… in teaching, in parenting, in cooking, in marriage.  It pushes us to be better, to grow.  The same is true of writing.  Reflective writers are better writers.

Throughout the year in our school district, our students in grades Kindergarten through 8th are asked to choose written pieces to put into their writing portfolio.  They are encouraged 1) to choose pieces that demonstrate their growing abilities as a writer and 2) to describe what they tried as a writer in each piece.

Picture A

We are trying to teach them to be reflective writers. A reflective writer can step back from a piece and think, “What did I do well here?  What worked in this piece?  What does this piece say about me as a writer?  What am I able to do now that I wasn’t able to do before?  What have I learned about writing through this particular process?”

Hefty questions, right?  How can we teach children as young as kindergarten to be reflective?

Picture B

First, a writer needs time. Immediately after finishing a piece, our writerly minds are still turning.   Perhaps our ending line is still circling around in our mind, or maybe our final revisions on word choice are still pinging around in our heads. Our emotions may be still be raw.  We need time.  We can’t reflect immediately after finishing a piece of writing.  So, we ask our students to put all their writing aside in a classroom folder and reflect once a quarter.  On Portfolio Pick Day, we pull out all the writing from that quarter and begin to ask ourselves those hefty questions.

A reflective writer is usually working with a goal in mind.  Perhaps the goal is to make the reader laugh or to accurately convey some information or to describe the tiniest details of a scene.  (For this piece that you’re reading now, my goal is to be practical and straightforward.  How am I doing?)   No matter the goal(s), a reflective writer is able to decide whether or not a piece of writing met the goals.  They ask themselves, “Did this piece of writing do what I wanted it to do?” To this end, we encourage our teachers to have learning targets for each lesson and to share those targets with the kids.  For example, a kindergarten class might have the learning target: I can tell about my story in the order it happened.  A 7th grade target might be: I can use dialogue to develop my characters.  The targets provide a point of reflection for our students.  They are the lenses through which we look at each piece of writing.   Additionally, the learning targets provide a writing vocabulary for the students so they can articulately reflect on “leads” and “pace” and “dialogue” and “sequence”.  They help our students talk and interact like writers.

And, finally, a reflective writer knows that writing is social.  It is hard, perhaps impossible, to deeply reflect on a piece of writing that has never been shared.   Writers have to know how their writing impacts others.   Even writers who prefer to work in solitude eventually need to share their writing.   It’s a social act.  Even when sharing simply means clicking “publish” and waiting for comment notifications… we all need to know how our writing made others feel and/or what it helped our readers learn.  So, even though we are encouraging self-reflection, we still need peer conferences, specific teacher feedback, and time to talk about our writing in the classroom.   The reactions of others help us think about the impact of our writing.

In our lives, we all turn to others for feedback and support.  We seek the counsel of those we trust: our parents, our mentors, our friends and colleagues.  Let’s nudge our students to also look within themselves.  Let’s teach our students to reflect – to give serious thought and consideration – to their writing.  Let’s teach them to be their own critics in order to become better writers.

Dana Murphy is a Literacy Coach in Midlothian School District 143, located in the suburbs of Chicago.  She provides professional development for the staff and coaches in the K-8 classrooms.  At home, she likes to spend her time reading, writing, and playing with her two young daughters.  She blogs at Murphy’s Law: Musings from a Literacy Coach and Tweets at @dmurph08.