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?
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).