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Teaching Writing in Middle School: Notes from the Saturday Reunion #TCRWP

Photo by Adrienne Chasteen Snow @snowadrienne

By the time I arrived at Cornelius Minor’s TCRWP workshop, State-of-the-Art Workshop Teaching of Writing in Middle School, harnessing Methods Specifically Described in the New Units of Study, I had been up since the crack of dawn, and had already spent several hours racing from one great workshop to the next trying to learn as much as I could.  But, Cornelius can power a small neighborhood of schools with his energy alone, and I was soon focused and engaged once again.  Here is what I learned:

As teachers, we are experts at the content but not necessarily in the method of delivery – some questions for us to consider:

  • are we “working smart” with our mini lessons and strategy sessions to make the most of  the 7 minute attention span segments of our middle school students?
  • do we give our students opportunities to rehearse their writing through sharing their ideas orally first?
  • do we practice partnership talk early in the school year so that our students know how this works?
  • do we model what partnership talk sounds like so that it is targeted and effective?

Cornelius demonstrated how to move a partner talk along through a discussion of  Reg E. Gaines’ poem,  “Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans.”  We were assigned specific jot down notes/turn and talk tasks with our partners as he read the poem, and it was so interesting to see how we were, in fact, practicing our pre- writing through these interpretative thinking exercises.

Looking through my two column notes (my thinking and my partner’s thinking), I realized that I had collected enough material to begin a flash draft – exactly the kind of work I hope to accomplish in my writing workshop.  In this early writing exercise, a teacher’s goal would be to first provide students what to write about (the analysis of the shared text) to practice growing ideas, and then teach writing moves.

Next, Cornelius shared four methods of instructional delivery  for our writing toolbox:

  • pure demonstration – naming and seeing
  • inquiry – see and tell
  • example and explanation – going deeper to see the why
  • creating opportunities for guided practice

and encouraged us to think of how we might make choices about when to use any or all of these to re-teach particular writing moves.

Finally, we used a short video clip to explore  an effective way to teach our students how to make a claim using the following process:

  • Topic
  • Create an idea about the topic
  • Say the  idea in the form of a sentence that feels true

These rapid fire practice sessions are designed to immerse our kids in deliberate practice, not immediate mastery.  The more they can “have a go” at this type of highly engaging practice, the more fluent they become in the process of framing claims, and clarifying their pre writing thinking.  This type of rehearsal sets our students up for success in their writing.

Cornelius wrapped things up by reminding us that the flash drafts we have our students write should be “the best thing that you’ve written today”  because “the best draft leads you to outgrow yourself when you revisit to revise and expand.”  This really resonated with me; so often, that first draft is so quickly done that revising it becomes a daunting task – where to even begin?  I was reminded of conferring with one of my students over just such a draft the day before.  After looking it over, this student closed his writing folder in frustration and said, “I don’t even know what that was all about, Mrs. Smith, can I just flash draft again?”  The flash draft should be a jumping off point for better writing moves, not frustration!

Forty five minutes flew by at the speed of lightning – another fabulous session at the Saturday Reunion. Thank you, Mr. Minor!


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.

15 thoughts on “Teaching Writing in Middle School: Notes from the Saturday Reunion #TCRWP Leave a comment

  1. Thanks for sharing this! I have a few questions… Is that 7 minute attention span a researched, scientific thing? (It certainly seems true!) How did the t-chart work, did you and your partner take notes on the SAME sheet of paper, or did you take notes on your partner’s oral responses?
    Was the video you watched a video of students doing this work, or a video of some content that you were responding to as writers to create your claim? Is this something we could access? Thanks!


    • The t chart was filled out by both of us at the same time, but we were listening for different things and then we shared. The video was a clip from a TV series about high school – any clip would work, because what we were listening for were ideas to stake a claim: for example, mine was – popular kids can choose their lunch tables. The main thing is to do this quickly – view, name a topic, form an idea, put the idea into a sentence (the claim). The more practice kids have, the better they get at forming that claim.


  2. I really wonder how many teachers don’t encompass the work of pre-writing thinking? This is a good, succinct post about it, Tara. I’m envious that you got to work with Cornelius Minor! Thank you!


  3. Thank you for your clear and precise sharing! I’d love to read more posts about each session. I couldn’t go this year. Reading your posts makes me feel like I didn’t total miss out!


  4. The ONLY bad thing about the Sat Reunion is too many great workshops and you can only attend one per hour. But thanks to your blog post, I can still learn from Cornelius (and Maggie through your last post), who I wanted to hear but…
    If time permits, I’d love to hear more about his prompts with the Air Jordon piece. Thanks for this post!!


    • So true, Sally! We listened for: strong character or weak? self esteem is an issue/violence is an issue? symbolic details: sneakers vs. guns. Hope that helps. It got us thinking about the many issues in the poem, and layering our thinking.


    • Yes, it takes some doing. I think innovative teaching is always messy at first – and then we manage to settle into a groove. I’ve also come to accept that sometimes oral rehearsal just goes nowhere and then it’s time to regroup…and try again!


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