back to school · independent writing · management · writing workshop

Okay, But What Would You Do?


Okay, friends, colleagues, what would you do?

Joshua is a fifth grader. His mom is a teacher in your building who you’ve been friends with for years. It’s three weeks into the school year and Joshua has done nada so far during writing workshop. His mom, your friend and colleague, warned you that this has happened pretty much every year in the past and has given you her blessing to do whatever you need to do. Okay. But what do you do?

Ariel is a third grader. On the first day of writing workshop you invited your class to write about true stories from their own lives. You promised them that no story was too small, that their lives were worth writing about. You promised them that these first stories would go on display, to celebrate all that they already know as writers. “You already know so much! Show me your best writing!” you said to them. You took home their first stories and read them, and when you got to Ariel’s you discovered that she wrote a vivid and powerful story about how her parents fight all the time and she just wishes they would get divorced. You remember the shy smile she gave you when she passed her story to you. You ask your teacher friends what they would do and their responses are all over the map–consult with the guidance counselor, get her a private journal, encourage her to write more, call the child’s parents, display the writing so she can be proud and strong, no actually don’t display it, they say. But what would you do?

Ella is a second grader. Right now the only thing, and I mean the ONLY thing she wants to do during writing workshop is draw. She draws and draws and draws, and if you suggest that she begin to write some words, she nods, she responds well, she says, “Sure!” Then she draws and draws some more. On Day 3 of Drawing (with a capital D), you take extreme measures, deciding to forbid drawing for now, saying to her, “Okay, Ella, only writing during writing time. No more drawing. Start writing. Now.” She starts drawing as soon as you walk away. You ask her teacher from last year if this happened and her old teacher seems surprised and tells you that in her class, Ella wrote volumes. Huh. Interesting. What do you do?

Alex is a fourth grader who absolutely REFUSES to let ANYONE except for you see his work. You’re already thinking ahead about the publishing party you’ve got planned for the end of the unit. Alex has made it very clear that he doesn’t want to have his work displayed or shared in any way. What’s the plan for Alex? What would you do?

These are my conundrums for the week from various classrooms I work in and experiences I’ve had. I have my own ideas about what to do. But I want to know what what you would all do. Leave a comment and share your suggestions, please!

PS Feel free to share your own “What Would You Do’s” as well!

8 thoughts on “Okay, But What Would You Do?

  1. Such a great string. Real classroom issues. No suggestions, just reflection. I think sometimes children get to an interest level that surpasses their skills, like spelling and the stop rather than going from a ‘good’ writer to a ‘bad’ writer. I also love the question re IEPs. Wouldn’t learning to revise or edit be better than to produce a sentence more than a pervious term? I each situation we have to make decisions that we know may impact our next 10 months and potentially their whole lives. Be careful out there but be risk takers too. Happy New Year from Gander, NL.


  2. Give kids a sense of audience – who they are addressing with their writing. As a high school teacher one of the barriers to writing I have faced is that students come to writing as if it were a private correspondence between just the two of us. This may be great for a journal writer, but school is about communication and we need to help kid accomplish that. Have Alex pick one of his classmates to write for.

    Ella might benefit from a cruise through “Drawing Your Own Conclusions” by Mary Claggett. If drawing is her new passion, help her combine it with the written word. Drawing words into her art. Introduce her to the style of calligraphy used in Arabic writing where the words of the story becomes their own illustration. It works in English, too.

    I wonder if Joshua might benefit from Claggett as well, starting off with words as illustration, charting his message to his audience, picking an audience and figuring out the best way to reach them, choosing his own mode of communication. I suppose that, in the end, is what we really need to bear in mind: we are teaching communicators to hone those skills. My son would write wonderful rough drafts that would be pared down to nothing during the first edit. Handwriting was his problem. I negotiated using a computer for his writing process (16 years ago). Now he handwrites his drafts, but moves the next draft to his laptop. I think the (painfully) slow and sloppy handwriting is good for the thought process, but bad for honing. This may be Joshua’s issue as well. He knows revision is coming and can’t bear it.

    As for Ariel, first confirm that it is, indeed, a true story. Talk about motivation (is she getting back at her parents for something) and the need for news reporters to get permission of their subjects before publishing. Share it with her parents, since by offering it up to be put on display she is (apparently) willing to do that anyway. What do memoir writers do with living subjects?


  3. just a quick suggestion on the one who does not want his writing shared. Share the book “love that dog” by Sharon Creech. Perhaps the child can relate to the boy in the book, and may come around eventually.


  4. I love this post for its honesty and real issues. My thoughts:
    Alex, gr. 4. I would probably let him sit this one out. But I would talk to the class or maybe just Alex about writers’ partners/groups in the real world. Their benefits, adults who may feel like he does, but how they come to like these groups/opportunities. Then maybe ask Alex if there is one classmate who could attend a group with you, the teacher, and him to celebrate his piece. Maybe even a lunch time meeting if that would help, If he says no, tell him you hope he will consider that idea for the next piece. I would tell him I understand how hard it can be to share and ask him why he doesn’t want to. I would also point out a favorite text/author and ask Alex how we could enjoy his/her work if they had never shared. I would be gentle, but still try to get Alex to move a bit. In the end, though, sometimes, you just need to let it be. Or say by X month, he has to agree to share with at least one other person so that he can begin to see what it is like to share. These are tricky kids and I think, the internal thinking is probably varied enough that there is no easy answer. I hate to have kids “box themselves into a corner” and dig in to maintain their stated stance. On the other hand, time for kids is so different from adults that if the teacher appears to “forget about it” the kids may just naturally join in.

    For Ella, the drawer, gr. 2. I would give her a drawing notebook. I would let her take that home or to recess if allowed or let her draw when I read aloud. I would talk about it as an idea book. I would also give her a writing notebook. Then I would get a timer and tell her that she has the 2- 3 minutes to either look back at her drawings or draw to get ready to write, but in a brief time. I would talk to her about last year’s teacher’s report and ask her what is going on. One thing that is hard, is to move a kid off the “no writing” spot. Some just dig in for control’s sake. This one is interesting in that you don’t know why she is doing the drawing. Perhaps testing you to see what you will do if she does not comply. Next I would have her dictate into a recorder what a story sounds like based on her ideas/drawing. And I would inform her that the next day she has to write this down and it is non-negotiable. See how she reacts. Maybe last year’s teacher let them write with partners? If she continues to draw and not write, perhaps she needs someone to sit with her for a few days to get her going.

    Ariel, 3rd grader, personal story. I would talk to Ariel about her story and its vividness and how you understand this is a trying time and situation for her family. You might ask her if she wants to display this story or if she would prefer to keep it just between you and her. You might ask her how she thinks her parents would react if she shared personal family information in class so early in the year. If she insists on sharing the story, then you still have the problem. If she agrees that maybe it is one she could just share with a few chosen classmates or teachers, you have honored her work, but in a different way. You could also ask her to write a second story that you both would feel comfortable displaying. If she agrees not to display the story, but doesn’t write a new one, you might have her help you with the display or ask her to color in a label for it, etc. Another thought is to gather the class and talk about different kinds of writing, like your personal ideas in a diary/journal etc. and how sometimes there are stories that we share just with the teacher and others with the class. I find that being honest with kids, carefully, helps solve the issue, but it is a tricky one.

    For Lisa and the child who felt he couldn’t write his piece (gr. 2). Maybe you could get an older student (one of your former students?) to talk to this child about how they grew as a writer? Ask the class to brainstorm ideas about what to do when they feel stuck. You seem to have a handle on it. I don’t know you or your school, but would your student have been able to go into other rooms to check on those who are having trouble writing? Was he accompanied? I think that maybe it was hard for a new 2nd grader to discern this on a walk about the school. But, again, I don’t know your situation.

    Joshua, gr. 5, non-productive writer. Does he like to draw? What are some favorite mentor-texts? Does he know how to even find a topic? Can he simply “free-write” as in stream of consciousness? I know that sometimes non-productive 5th grader writers I worked with could do more if there were a different constraint. IE time…..produce a paragraph in X minutes. Power Writing. Do you know this exercise? Forced choice among 2 topics: blue vs umbrella for example, with a 2 -3 min. time to write as much as you can on the topic. I found that going back to writing exercises different from the class unit and helping the child just get started they might see that their inner thoughts would begin to flow. I would spend more time with this kid early in the year to cross the hurdle. I would also see if I could schedule some after school time, not as a punishment, but a way in, to help the kid learn to want to write. A writers’ group maybe? I would also try to get the kid to talk about the problem and what can be done. Is it a “can’t or won’t ” issue. These are tricky for sure.

    Great place to share and maybe offer insights and help to teachers who are facing these challenges. I offer my quick ideas in hopes of helping.


  5. It is such a relief to read these scenarios. I’m thinking, “Yea, it isn’t just us…” I too have seen some version of each of the above scenarios in classrooms where I work. For us, the biggest challenge seems to be stamina. And I have some ideas from TCRWP June institute about how to support kids and teachers this year with increasing volume and stamina.

    So- with Ella, has anyone asked her to tell them the story of her drawing? Would redirecting her drawing to a labeled map of a place she knows well, or a heart map help to unlock some ideas? Would it work to share picture books with her and show her how the words and pictures work together to make a story?

    My first attempt with Joshua (and it might fail miserably) is to try to help him begin to see himself as a writer and to value writing. I would try to convey my enthusiasm. I would also try to get to know more about him and see if there was something about him/his life that could inspire a story. I think I would also start by setting small goals.

    I’m still thinking about Ariel. She has great writerly instincts… to write out what is important to her and on her mind right now. She also has incredible trust and whatever you do next, you don’t want to break that trust…


  6. I was the child that did not want anyone to see my writing. It was so far from what I thought it should be, and I have received enough blood red papers to know that I was not up to par. I was fine verbally. I would share what I had written that way. With me holding the paper. I might have been more willing if I trusted my community, but I did not. The main thing I would need to know is why Alex will not share his writing. Then you can help him build trust that the community will support and celebrate his work, and help him grow as a writer.

    I would treat Joshua like any other student. What would I do with any reluctant writer? I would set small goals with him, lots of oral story telling, and then I believe in accountability. He needs to know I am not going to allow him to do nothing, but I will help him along the way. Sometimes it takes a little tough love.

    Writing is therapeutic. I would allow Ariel to write what she feels she needs to write. I would talk with her about how she would feel to put this writing on display. In the end, we would not think twice if she was writing about the death of a loved one or a number of other emotional issues. This is one that needs to be handled with care, and I do feel I would find additional ways for her to work through her feelings. Then she may not feel the need to put them on display.

    Can’t wait to hear what others say. These are issues we all face. Thanks for bringing them to table.


  7. I think I’ve had almost all of the scenarios at one time or another. 🙂 Kids are quirky. The girl who is writing about fighting is learning a powerful lesson about working through feelings by writing. I’d conference with her about the writing, and separately about the content. I would not display it. Alex, who doesn’t want things displayed: I’d respect that. Chances are he will change his mind after the publishing party & will want to participate next time. Ella: Well, I think I’d address that in a conference too. I’d even write in her book “No drawing, writing only.” so that I could come back to that in a subsequent conference and remind her of this little rule. That might need to be her goal for a few days. And she might need the teacher to show her how to use the drawing to inspire the writing.

    I had a child freak out yesterday when I asked the class to do their first bit of writing (grade 2, day 2 of school). I sent him on a walk around the room so he could see that other kids were having some trouble too, not just him. He came back from the walk and I asked him what he saw. “Nothing.” I asked if he had noticed that other kids were struggling too, that they hadn’t started either. He didn’t notice. He was convinced that he’s the only one who finds it hard. Sometimes kids just need to know they aren’t alone in their struggle. (My opinion) That’s where I will start with him. I’ll be finding a strategy group for him!

    I’d love to know, at some point, what sorts of things people put in IEPs for students who have writing disabilities. Everyone always wants to put a volume qualification (…will write 5 sentences per day…) and I’m always looking for something better, something that focuses on quality not quantity.


  8. This won’t be short term useful, but my son who is very bright and verbal began NOT writing in third grade, though had begun to avoid writing tasks earlier than that and many teachers dismissed this as willfulness. Writing was hard for him and his writing was riddled with spelling errors-sometimes the same word spelled three diff ways on a page. His old school simply looked at his writing as a behavior problem.

    He began writing again in fourth grade, new setting (new school) I had suggested he truly needed some explicit skill instruction around words/ phonics/ roots and origins. They gave him that, and now he writes volumes, ( non fiction is still hard though- the organization and ‘handling’ rewriting of the info over several steps discourages him.


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