Tailoring Our Teaching: Stretching our gifted writers
Every year, I have one or two writers who arrive at my sixth grade writing workshop door fully formed: they love to write, they write beautifully, and they write well across many genres. While some of their classmates struggle with everything from generating ideas to the nitty gritties of punctuation and paragraphing, these writers are ready to hit the ground running from day one. Their writer’s notebooks fill up quickly, they are always eager to begin writing, and they seem quite happy to be left alone to write. Which makes me nervous. Very nervous. For these are just the sort of writers that are easy to overlook from day to day – in a classroom full of students who need careful, daily conferring and guidance, the one or two who seem to be doing fine on their own, are often in danger of being conferenced with the least.
I think I realized this during my very first year of teaching. I had an unusually large class, and I was (quite frankly) overwhelmed with the orchestration of writing workshop: managing the minilessons, the conferences, the small group strategy sessions, and all the reams and reams of notes. About half way through the first marking period, in consulting those notes and trying to figure out where I was and where our workshop was going, I realized that I had spent the least amount of time conferring with one particular student: the one who was my strongest writer.
Determined to make up for lost time, I made a concerted effort to make sure Caitlin was part of my daily rounds. And, in doing so, I learned bit by bit how to tailor my teaching to meet the needs of this gifted young writer – and other writers like her, who were sure to follow in the years to come. Here are some ways I do this:
Using Mentor Texts:
Strong writers tend to be strong readers; they’ve read widely and they are more attuned to a writer’s nuances. Often, they approach their own writing with their reading ears, wanting to try on a technique they’ve noticed in books they’ve read. Sometimes we study a favorite author that this student has developed a particular fondness for, sometimes I will introduce passages from fiction that I love, and sometimes I share poetry. Although I do similar work with the other writers in my class, mentor text work takes on a more experimental feel with this group of writers. They enjoy the freedom and the process of weighing options, trying out new techniques, combining elements from mentor texts, and developing new ways of expressing themselves.
Varying and extending genres:
Writers like Caitlin tend to also have great writing stamina. They work purposefully and with confidence, incorporating strategies from conferences and mini lessons with efficiency. As a result, they are often “done” with particular memoir, essay, or argument pieces before their classmates. I am mindful of these lines from Nancie Atwell’s In The Middle:
“I expect them to try to make literature every time they write, to never be killing time by “doing another piece for the folder.” We have just 175 days together as writers in a workshop. I want to make the most of every one of them.”
So, rather than churn out “another piece for the folder”, I present options to take the piece in another direction: a narrative poem, a fictionalized account, a theatrical play or screenplay, a multimedia story on the lines of The New York Times’ stunning Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.
Building a sense of responsibility about their craft:
I love this particular video from the TCRWP collection – it’s of Lucy Calkins (of course!) conferring with a student and guiding him to extend and enrich his writing. I love her purposeful intentionality, and the utter care with which she listens and guides. It’s what conferring is all about, and I watch it to remind myself of all I must be mindful of when I sit next to one of my kids and ask, ”how’s it going?” But, I especially love what she says at about the 6:00 mark – “it’s about pushing yourself…when you’ve got talent, it’s like a responsibility,” and I feel that this is something I want to really stress with my gifted writers – they have a responsibility to challenge themselves and make the most of their talents.
I encourage these students to send pieces they’re especially proud of to magazines and online venues such as the following from the National Writing Project:
Now, I realize that any or all of the above are suggestions and options that can and should be made available to all students. However, I believe that students like Caitlin (now a sophomore in college – how time flies!) need writing workshop tailored to push them in new directions. And the beauty of workshop is that it allows us the flexibility to do just this.