“It’s a practice,” is a common refrain from the instructor in my yoga class. That being said, if my mat is anywhere close to a certain yoga rockstar, I admit it–I find myself glancing over to check out her poses. She gets into positions that I’m sure would cripple me. I would fall on my nose if I tried some of her balance poses. If I watch her too much or too long, I’m tempted to quit yoga. On the other hand, if I pay attention to other participants who are closer to my own practice–maybe a little ahead–I find myself trying harder. Yep, I can lift my leg a little higher. Okay, I can stand on my hands if my knees are bent just a little bit more.
In a few days, Beth will share an amazing post about ways to incorporate mentor texts into our writing instruction, but sometimes when students struggle with writing and we show them examples of great–even published—writing, that product can feel as far out of reach as my toes in a yoga class–especially when my hamstrings are tight. Rather than seeing close to perfect writing, it’s less overwhelming for them to see examples that are closer to their current functioning level. That’s where strategic writing samples come into play.
Strategic Writing Samples: pieces of teacher-created writing that are intentionally created to illustrate a teaching point or provide opportunities for students to try out specific skills.
We can create strategic writing samples for any genre and for any skill within the genre. We just have to sit down and write more like the students whom we are teaching. Kelsey has written a post about creating toolkits for workshop units that will be published this week, and strategic texts are another great addition to a unit-based toolkit!
It helps me to think about a series of steps when I am creating a strategic writing piece:
Step 1: Identify the specific skill that I want to address in the students’ writing. There are predictable problems that occur within genres so I try to create strategic texts to address the issues that come up repeatedly.
Step 2: Write a piece that mirrors the predictable problem. I can use that piece to show students not perfect writing, but instead how to get out of a troublesome spot.
Step 3: Provide options for revision of the demonstrated problem.
The options I have created that I am sharing in this post offer repertoire, choice, and elements of play. All three of these are powerful in terms of student engagement and raising the level of thinking.
Predictable problem: Over and over again, I see students learn about similes and word choices and then overuse them.
The first thing I did was I wrote a beginning that is sort of like the ones I see. I tried to make the issues fairly obvious with the overdone simile “quick as a cheetah” and “scampering kids.” For my own edification, I made a sticky note of the issues in the piece, as well as some of the choices for resolving them.
Then, I wrote three other pages of options, tagging each one with the technique I used to make it a stronger piece of writing.
I can use these options in many different ways–with whole-group lessons, small groups, individuals… I can also leave the sticky note on the example or take it off. If I take it off, I can first ask students to name the technique or I can ask them to try out creating a text that illustrates the technique. I could present all three possible revisions and challenge students to rank them in the order of strength, an activity that inspires some high-level thinking, for sure! The more flexible the tool, the more options we have, and the more learning opportunities we’ll find.
Predictable problem: A common tendency of information writers is to create lists of information. For example, Janey, a fourth-grader, wrote about her town’s mall. She created a section about stores, and her writing went something like this:
There are lots of stores. There is Abercrombie, the Gap, Macy’s, Sweet Tooth, Foot Locker, the Sunglass Hut, Sephora, and more.
When I looked over her shoulder, she was in the process of googling the mall’s directory so she could continue the list. I actually see a lot of this sort of writing, so I created a strategic text about pizza, and then a list of steps that can help for breaking that sort of a list into multiple sentences.
There are lots of types of pizzas. There is plain cheese, pepperoni, mushroom, sausage, Hawaiian, meatball, and many more.
I can use this piece to teach students like Janey some strategies for breaking up lists. For example, we can break the list into more than one sentence and say more about the item.
There are lots of types of pizzas. Plain cheese is probably the most popular, while pepperoni is probably a close second. Mushroom is my brother’s favorite, but I don’t like it at all.
Janey, like many other students who I’ve shown this chart since she inspired me to make it, was able to use this sequence of steps within her own writing.
Predictable problem: One of the common issues I see young opinion writers struggle with has to do with the differences between re-tells and opinions. Our second-grade opinion writing unit has students writing about books and characters. So often, students write a lot, but it is mostly telling what the story is about and not what they students think about it.
Another way to create strategic writing pieces and incorporate an element of play as well as choice is to create “lift-a-flap” pages. The page I’m sharing addresses the issue I’ve described with some playful options.
Students can decide on choice 1, 2, or 3, and then see not only the techniques which I’ve written on the back of the cards, but also the example of how it would look.
The flaps in my chartbook offer the students a feeling of play, as well as choice and multiple solutions. An additional benefit of the flaps has to do with creating brave writers. Bravery is important to writers, and if I can establish for them that there’s not a single right answer, then they are more apt to take risks and more able to learn and grow.
Final thoughts about yoga
Realistically, I know I won’t ever be the one to place my forehead on the ground when I’m sitting with my legs straight and to the sides. I am comfortable enough with my own strengths and limitations that I can admire people who can without feeling badly about my own tighter tendons. That being said, I recognize I try harder when there’s a glimmer of possibility as opposed to an absolute no way. Strategic texts are a tool that help to create those glimmers of possibilities in writers’ minds where the thought process may have been an absolute no way.
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I am the Writing and Social Studies Coordinator in Simsbury, CT, and I love what I do. I get to write and inspire others to write! Additionally, I am the mom to four fabulous daughters and the wife of a great husband.