Watch and Notice

“Thank you so much,” the classroom teacher told me after my demonstration lesson.  “I’m no good at writing like that.”

Demonstration writing is a powerful, but often underused instructional tool.  Many teachers shy away from demonstration writing because of a lack of confidence.  One of my favorite quotes comes from Katie Wood Ray in her book What You Know by Heart: How to Develop Curriculum for Your Writing Workshop (Heinemann, 2002).  Ray writes:

There’s no pressure for us to do it well because Cynthia Rylant and Gary Paulsen can do it well. We just have to do it and breathe at the same time.  We need to be alive in the room with our students as we write.  Our students need to see in us what we’re hoping for in them, and no other writer can do that for them because we’re the only ones breathing in the room with them (p. 5).

Before you do any demonstration writing, set your students up with a purpose.  I usually say something like, “I am going to write in front of you for the next three to five minutes. I will share my thinking along the way.  Your job is to watch and notice what I do as a writer. When I’m finished, you will share your noticings with a partner.  Be thinking to yourself, what is she doing as a writer?”

During my last demonstration lesson, the students noticed:

  • I thought about the tone of my piece before I started writing.
  • I stopped several times to think of “the perfect word.”
  • I chose not to do any prewriting on paper.  I just jumped in and started writing.  (I actually regretted this decision later.)
  • When I wasn’t sure how to spell a word, I tried it two ways in the margin of my page.
  • It was very messy.  I crossed out a bunch of stuff after I had written it.

There is so much there to explore further: tone, word choice, prewriting, spelling, revision.  We could chart these noticings and return to them in future minilessons.

“You’re welcome,” I told the classroom teacher.  “But you don’t have to be good at it. Your writing is not meant to be an exemplar or a model of perfection.  It is just meant to show some of the possibilities.”

You just have to breathe and write at the same time.