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Tailoring Our Teaching: Stretching our gifted writers

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     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.

Go public!:

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:

World of Reading

My Hero

Figment

KidPub

Candlelight Stories

Cyberteens

Frodo’s Notebook

Teen Ink

KidLit

Space

     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.

Tara Smith View All

I teach Writing Workshop, Language Arts and Social Studies to sixth graders at a middle school in suburban New Jersey. This blog is my attempt to capture all the "stuff" that goes into my teaching life - the planning, the dreaming, the reading, the preparing, the hoping and (above all) the kids.
Please note that the content of this blog is my own. It does not reflect the opinions of my employer.

12 thoughts on “Tailoring Our Teaching: Stretching our gifted writers Leave a comment

  1. Love this post and thinking of those strong writers. The video is masterful – what I value and have a hard time finding is the time she takes to just talk quietly with one writer. I am so often balancing other activities and writers ( my 3rd and 4th graders have a hard time working on their own we are working on that skill.) Thanks for the push to think of those more polished writers and the great video.

    I will come back to this piece to listen again at her quiet way of asking and pushing her writer forward.

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  2. So much truth in this post. The opportunity to “go public” is so wonderful and vast. In the not so distant past this wasn’t an option. Such a great way to encourage the naturals to push themselves and develop their talents. I also love the video with Lucy Calkins. Thanks!

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  3. I love this, Tara! These kids are were and still remain my focus as the former teacher of our gifted program. They are too often forgotten until they push themselves. These kids need just as much nurturing and attention as the others but in a different way – a way that shows you have confidence in their abilities. I was in desperate need for an outlet for public venues as well. Thank you!

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  4. That video is such a great example of a conference with a talented writer. I also love your suggestion of “varying and extending” genres. That is such a practical and authentic way to keep these talented kids writing, without just “adding a piece to their folder”. Thanks, Tara – great post!

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  5. The old adage of the squeaky wheel getting the grease is so true! As a former teacher myself, I too had to remind myself to check in with the quiet ones. Sometimes they were floundering too and just didn’t know how to ask for help. Sometimes they didn’t even know they were floundering.

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  6. Thanks Tara, for paying attention to these students too. They are often overlooked, need to be challenged to take ‘the next step’, and I am especially glad to see you don’t believe adding ‘one more piece to the folder’ is the way to respond. Love all the extras you gave us as well!

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  7. Sometimes these kids come to classrooms and we see all of their peers’ deficits and think, “They don’t really need me.” But, as you know, these are the kids who do need us if they’re going to grow. Taking off on what Lucy says, it’s our responsibility to nurture their talent.

    Thanks for this marvelous post, Tara!

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  8. Tara, this is a wonderful post. I agree with you. Talented students are in danger of being overlooked in a busy, crowded classroom. They know how to “do school,” and give the outward appearance of not needing attention. It takes an equally talented educator to know that these students are thirsty for encouragement and attention. Using mentor texts is a great way of offering that support. How many accomplished authors have written about the librarian or teacher who loaned them a book that stretched their imagination?

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  9. As a third grade teacher, I can get consumed with that group of students who I’m trying to get to be proficient. As a writer, I feel “bad” when I don’t spend the same amount of time on those gifted writers. Thank you for the reminder and I will be looking for more videos too!

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  10. Last year when we were having a criticycle session (in my class what we call critique), my gifted writer said, “You never have anything to say to me.” in the tone of an insult. It woke me up to the fact that I wasn’t giving her what she needed.

    I also challenge my students to enter writing contests, such as the Letters about Literature and the River of Words. I was proud to have a top 100 in River of Words last year.

    I did not know there were so many magazines to submit to. That will be my next goal. Thanks.

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  11. Tara, Thank you so much for this post. Like you, I always feel like I’m not paying enough attention to my writers who seem to have it all under control. This year, I have one girl who stands out among a group of writers who are struggling with some of the most basic needs. I’m going to tuck this post away to come back to again and again. Thanks!

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