demonstration · writing workshop

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.

13 thoughts on “Watch and Notice

  1. “You just have to breathe and write at the same time.” I LOVE THIS! The pure simplicity of it! Even I can do that!
    Thank you, Dana! What a wonderful reminder, and bit of encouragement.


  2. Sometimes as teachers, we feel the need to be the model of perfection, but that is not true. We need to be the model of what is real. Thank you for this wonderful reminder.


  3. Do as I do, not as I say! Good for you. We ask our students to plunge in regardless of their skills and/anxieties; yet we hesitate when it’s our turn. I am a big believer in “feel the fear; then do it anyway!” How else will we stretch and grow. And, yes, sometimes it’s not pretty…but don’t students need to see that, too?


  4. What better way to understand what it is we are asking of our students than to hold the same pen? I find I get the best writing after I do a demo or shared writing.

    I hadn’t thought of talking through my decisions on tone in my writing. I am pondering this for tomorrow’s non-fiction writing demo lesson. I am wondering what choices of tone I have in non-fiction.


  5. One big take away for me was giving kids the explicit instructions to watch and notice what you do as you write. That seems like something I should have known to say, but honestly never have! I often write in front of my students and that tweak will make them more focused as I write! Thank you!!


  6. There is something very powerful about being the living, breathing writer in the classroom!

    You made me smile when you said you regretted not having any jottings for your demo writing. I almost always have a cheat sheet next to me for my demo writing. I’m not copying anything verbatim, but I have some lean notes on the side to help guide me through my demo. (Otherwise, I start sweating and no one needs to see me sweat!)


  7. I think it is impossible for us to tell students to “write like this” if we don’t write with them. When they see the process at work in front of them, it becomes less scary for everyone, teacher and students. There’s something to be said for just doing it.


  8. Love this post. I was always so fearful of writing in front of my students. And now you (and Katie Wood Ray) have given me the key: “You just have to breathe and write at the same time.” Thanks for the reminder to set students up with a purpose.


  9. I think it is the confidence piece that holds teachers back sometimes. But the more we write the more we understand the process for ourselves, and as with anything, when we understand better, we feel more comfortable sharing.


  10. Writing makes you vulnerable and if we expect students to be vulnerable, we should model how that looks, sounds, and feels. Loved waking up to this piece this morning!


  11. I think this exact point is what holds teachers back from becoming teachers of writing and teachers of writers. Fear. I may not be a ‘writer’, but I am the best writer in the room. Thanks for the piece this morning.


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