The Amazing Cure for Students Who Won’t Write
When people ask me what to do when kids won’t write during writing workshop, I worry that they are hoping for a magic cure. The one amazing minilesson or conference that will get kids writing. Believe me, I wish I could say Abracadabra! and POOF! Everyone writes!
Unfortunately, my answer isn’t usually what people want to hear, but it’s the truth. Assuming you’ve already done everything humanly possible to set up an inviting, safe, inspirational classroom environment, that you’ve partnered the student strategically with others, you’ve provided all sorts of resources, materials, space, strategies… The truth is, you can’t solve this problem without doing more work. You have to do work to get to the bottom of the problem. Otherwise, this will happen again and again and again for the student. This year, and next year, and possibly every year until somebody somewhere figures out why the student has so much trouble getting started.
So, instead of a list of sure-fire strategies for getting ideas, I provide a list of ways to get to know a student better.
1) Talk with her. And not in a formal, conference-y kind of way. Have real conversations with the student, maybe even not during writing workshop (gasp!). (And it will probably need to be conversations, plural, not just one). Ask her about her home, her family, the people she lives with, her friends. Talk with her about the school day. “Wasn’t that funny when…” “Remember that time…” The more you actually talk to a student (and not just to get ideas for writing), to get to know her as a person, the more you will begin to understand her.
2) Observe the student. From up-close and afar. During writing workshop, take a moment to watch the child at work (or as the case may be, perhaps you’ll be observing him when he’s not-at-work). Don’t jump to conclusions. Watch for a minute or two, not just a few seconds, and take some notes to name exactly what you see happening, resisting judgement. Look all around the student. Does he have everything he could possibly need for writing tools and materials. Does he seem physically comfortable, in his chair, table/desk, too close/too far away from peers? Is there anything you could do to make things easier? Is he part of the group, or is he (by choice or otherwise) separated? Is there somebody (an aide, or another student) who is doing too much work for the student–helping him too much? Observe the student outside of writing workshop–are there similar patterns of behavior? When does the student seem more motivated or spring to life? When does he seem withdrawn? What can you do for him?
By the way — I mean literally go to the lunch room, recess, other classes and watch the student. Don’t just assume!
3) Take a good hard look at all your assessment data. Does this student struggle with spelling? I mean specifically–what spelling patterns does this student still have trouble with? Does this student struggle with letter formation or handwriting?What about high frequency words, how are we doing with those? Now think about when was the last time you made it explicitly clear to this student that it was okay to use the best spelling she could–or to even start by drawing pictures to plan out her writing? Look at your running records –what level reader is this student? Does her writing approximately match the level she reads at? Can the student retell a story she’s just read– if no, then it’s probably difficult to retell a real life story without some scaffolding and support as well! If a student is truly not writing during writing workshop, I would suggest searching high and low for reasons why, so that efforts are targeted as closely as possible to the exact things the student needs help with.
4) Talk with people at home (and past teachers too). A five-minute phone call home can reveal a world of information about why a child isn’t writing during writing time. When possible, communication with caregivers and parents can be the difference between a total turn around and a whole school year of anxiety for you and the student. Sometimes it’s a matter of consequences (ex: no writing during school means no television so there’s time to write at home instead). Other times, you might be able to build a home-school connection that helps kids remember stories that happen at home so that they are ready to write about them when they come to school the next day. Maybe there are photographs, objects, collections, interests, or topics that folks at home can support the student with to make writing as successful as possible.
So, this probably isn’t what you wanted to hear; it’s not the amazing cure and it’s not magic. But, with a little work and a lot of thoughtful study, you just might get those kids writing after all.