When I first started teaching, I thought that I could never show weakness, fear, ignorance or imperfection. I am not proud of this, but if a student asked a question to which I didn’t know the answer, it was so important to me to seem as if I knew everything that I sometimes made something up. I apologize now to any students I may have misled, and I hope that by now they have cleared up any confusion they may have had as a result of my pride.
A major tenant of writing workshop is that the teacher brings his or her own writing into the classroom, using it in a very direct way to model specific teaching points, and also to show in indirect way that writing matters, that building a writing life is something that people always do, and not just for school. When I first learned the writing workshop approach, I was stunned to learn that it is not only acceptable, but also highly valuable for teachers to let students in on their writing processes. In other words, it is okay to show students that we are not perfect, that we have to work at writing too, and sometimes the process is scary.
A subtle but important change in Lucy Calkins and colleagues’ Units of Study for Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing versus the previous Units of Study is the way in which teacher writing is approached. In the previous Units, it seemed more as if teacher writing was held up as a model, as a goal for students to strive towards. Teachers referred to the writing as “my” writing, and were encouraged to use language such as, “let me know you how I do…”
In the new Units, teacher writing is more often referred to as “class” writing. The teacher’s writing is discussed, revised, pulled apart, and put back together again. Teachers are more likely to use phrases such as, “let’s think together about how we could…” Even though the teacher orchestrates the way in which the conversation about the writing goes, popping out specific points, and of course creates the writing itself, the The Teach portion of the minilesson is less about the teacher putting on a show and more about the teacher inviting students to think alongside her.
Even though the way in which demonstration writing is approached has changed subtly, it is just as, or perhaps more so, important to the writing workshop. Of course, those of us who believe in writing workshop already believe in the power of using teacher writing in minilessons. That doesn’t make creating it on a regular basis, when we are bombarded with countless other responsibilities, any easier.
Following are three tips (plus one bonus tip!) for demonstration writing, meant to help you get more bang for your writing buck.
1. Demonstration writing need not be long. Just a snippet to illustrate a teaching point usually will suffice. For example, when demonstrating an elaboration move such as: One way information writers teach readers is by using commas to embed definitions of important terms, it would probably be overwhelming for students and would likely muddle the teaching to share an entire chapter or section of an information book.
The following snippet is plenty to illustrate the teaching point:
The Iroquois were a group of Native American tribes that all spoke the Iroquois language. They lived in longhouses alongside members of their clans.
Here it is, re-written with the class:
The Iroquois were a group of Native American tribes that all spoke the Iroquois language. They lived in longhouses, traditional Iroquois homes, alongside members of their clans, or large family groups.
2. Writing should match what kids are able to do and what they’re struggling with. At the Reading and Writing Project, this kind of writing is often referred to as “mirror writing.” When the teacher’s writing reflects the writing of most of the class, he can most effectively model next steps or revision moves that match what most writers need.
The following samples are representative of most of the writing in a fourth grade social studies class.
Studying this writing, we can see that the class could benefit from some work on structuring sections of their information writing, or more specifically, grouping like information into paragraphs.
Here is one example of demonstration writing that matches what the kids are doing:
The Iroquois were a group of Native American tribes, the Seneca,Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk, that all spoke the Iroquois language. These tribes were called the Iroquois Confederacy because they were a group of nations working together. The Iroquois believed that they should live in a way that protected the natural environment around them. For example, when they hunted, they used all of the animal. They only fished or hunted when they needed food. They picked wild fruits and berries, but they made sure not to pick so much that there were no fruits or berries left.
The teacher could lead the class to help him think about how to organize the writing into paragraphs so that this section makes more sense to readers, revising it to look like:
The Iroquois were a group of Native American tribes, the Seneca,Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk, that all spoke the Iroquois language. These tribes were called the Iroquois Confederacy because they were a group of nations working together.
The Iroquois believed that they should live in a way that protected the natural environment around them. For example, when they hunted, they used all of the animal. They only fished or hunted when they needed food. They picked wild fruits and berries, but they made sure not to pick so much that there were no fruits or berries left.
The teacher might then show the class how sometimes separating the writing into paragraphs leads a writer to want to add more to some parts, and could work with the class on adding more to the first paragraph.
3. Writing should be attainable for kids. Sometimes you may bring in writing samples from your own notebook that truly reflect your writing life and are inspirational and grand, and there is certainly much value in this. Most of the demonstration writing that you use in minilessons and conferences, however, should be at a level that is just slightly above what kids are able to do on their own, but that they could achieve with some instruction and practice.
4. Use your writing as a way to show what you do when the going gets tough. In perhaps the most important tip of all, Share your struggles and triumphs with your students. Perhaps information writing is a genre that comes easily to you. Perhaps you have to force yourself to eke out a paragraph. Contrary to what I thought when I first started teaching, it’s always okay to show imperfection when sharing writing with students.
Bonus tip: Finding the time to write. It goes without saying that the practice of teaching with our own writing to is invaluable, and time spent doing it will yield a huge return. But, with all of the other pressures we face, it doesn’t always mean finding time is easy. Write at lunch. Write with others (start a group with like-minded colleagues, and bring snacks). Compose on your commute. Block off part of a prep period at the same time each week to write (find a quiet spot so no one can interrupt you, even if it means leaving the building). Recruit those at home to write with you by designating a family writing time each week.
Please share: How do you find the time to write each week, and what tips do you have for effective demonstration writing?
11 thoughts on “Demonstration Writing Tips: Information Writing as a Case in Point”
#3 is my favorite. As an ELL coordinator, I work with classroom teachers on how to make their curriculum attainable for ELLs. Writing demands are often so high that ELLs end up producing nothing. Getting teachers to understand ELLs proficiency level is always a work in progress. We want students to improve their writing, not just be stuck at the level they feel comfortable. Thanks for sharing your ideas and thoughts.
What a great point about differentiation, Jaana. Some teachers may even need to create a few versions of parts of the class book to meet the needs of all of their writers. Thanks for the reminder of the importance of tailoring our teaching for all students.
Thanks for sharing these tips, Anna. I especially liked #4 – we can learn so much from working through the rough parts together as a class.
Anna, these are great tips! I sometimes struggle with the level of my demonstration writing. I don’t want it to be too simple, but I know sometimes my writing is too complicated for them. Thanks for the reminder that it should be attainable for them!
Finding my own writing time is one of my goals for this year. I usually take Tuesday night to write my weekly update for my parents on my class blog and then I also write about my teaching experiences on my blog.
I do my best to find time during the week to write in front of my kids, but to be honest it doesn’t always happen because of time.
Thank you for sharing your tips it will help me focus my integration of sampled writing into my instruction!
Thanks for sharing your writing schedule – a weekly “appointment” is a great idea.
I’m glad you wrote about this today, Anna. I just received my UoS books (5th grade). I haven’t sunk my teeth into them deep enough yet. However, I knew this change was included thanks to a workshop I attended with Lucy back in 2012 at the March Sat. Reunion. Your tips are great. I will keep them in mind as I delve deeper into the UoS books.
That’s fun you just got the 5th grade set. Will be great to hear your thoughts as you peruse!
I enjoyed reading this article. I teach special education and co-teach writing with the fifth grade teacher. We are writing personal narratives this quarter, but I’m also going to try this with our informational writing. This is the first year that I’ve tried writing along with the class. I could not believe the difference this makes in their engagement.
It’s a struggle to get the students to revise their own writing. After we finished their flash draft, I gave each team a copy of my flash draft and the first revision of a few paragraphs of my narrative. Their job was to tell me which one was the revision and how it was revised. They did well, better than I expected, and loved making comments on my work. Some teams even made a compare and contrast model! I looked around the room and saw heads together and heard lots of good conversation. After that, the students went right to work on revising their own narratives. Once again, I saw more engagement, excitement and willingness to take the time to revise and craft their own writing.
Thanks for this article. It helps me validate my teaching and gives me ideas to fine tune and improve.
That’s wonderful Vanessa- thank you for sharing your experience with using teacher writing. How fabulous that your fifth graders were so engaged! It’s true modeling for them really makes a huge difference.
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