Writing Because You Want To: Nurturing Independence From the Start
When you think of your student writers, what is on your wish list for them? What do you hope they will learn? Do? Believe?
In all things, the more you practice something intentionally, the better you get. Teachers often assign writing homework to students with this theory in mind (i.e., students need more practice and more time spent on writing so we can work towards accomplishing that wish list). Homework often seems like the answer.
Different children and different perceptions about homework
Homework is not too popular in my house. Last school year, my son Alex was in second grade and my daughter Megan was in Kindergarten. Neither child received a ton of homework but they did have daily work to do. It was a chore to get them to sit and complete their worksheets, or write spelling words 3x each (Alex), or color sight words (Megan). When homework time was over, they were free to pick activities of their choosing.
Alex would often choose active play, like football or soccer, or screen time (Roblox, Youtube videos, etc.) Megan would often choose writing. She would write letters to her Christmas Elves to keep them informed and up-to-date on her life since they went back to the North Pole. She wrote books. She made lists. She made signs to warn others (A “CAUTION” sign was created to put on a rickety bleacher where she got a splinter). Like adult writers in the real world, Megan had purposes for her writing, audiences she was writing toward and freedom to create what was in her heart and on her mind.
To Megan, writing is play. It’s fun and purposeful and she does it when she wants, not when anyone asks her to do it. Alex doesn’t see writing in that way. So what is a teacher to do for both the eager and reluctant writers in our classrooms? Should homework be assigned to ensure that students are writing more at home and getting closer to becoming the writers we wish for them to be?
The research about homework
I’m not only Alex and Megan’s mom; I am a teacher with over 17 years of experience. I’ve written about my journey from assigning homework and punishing students for not completing it to not mandating homework anymore for my third grade students. To sum up my revised thinking around homework, research does not support the idea that homework improves student achievement in the elementary school. That research supports my own observations from seeing what students accomplish when I assign homework and when I don’t. Also, I believe homework promotes inequality. All kids have the same access to tools and assistance while at school, but when you send children home, do they all have the same tools available? Do they have access to an adult who can sit with them and help them complete the homework? Blaming a child for not completing work at home when we have no idea what that child goes home to feels wrong to me. I didn’t always feel that way, but as we’ve shared in our social justice series, when you know better, you do better.
Alternatives to Homework
My dilemma, then, as a teacher is: I know students need to practice writing more to be better but I don’t believe in mandating they write at home and grading it as an assignment. So what are some possible solutions?
- Classroom Writing Makerspace: Angela Stockman has written books on creating writing makerspaces (Make Writing and Hacking the Writing Workshop) and allowing students more hands-on options to tinker and create during writing time. One year, my schedule allowed for one period a week where I could create this writing makerspace apart from writing workshop time. Students had access to paper, markers, writing utensils, chrome books and each other. There was such JOY in this time of day. Students collaborated on fictions books together both digitally and on paper. Students created plays with puppets. One student created a series with more than 20 books in it. I found this time of day spilled over to work at home. Students who had shown reluctance in writing workshop were not working on their own comic books at home and then bringing the work into the classroom. Showing students that writing can take so many different forms and giving them total freedom to pick not only the topic but the genre and materials allowed for so much engagement. One period a week can be hard to swing when your curriculum is so full, but I believe this made a real difference in my students believing they are writers and enjoying the writing process. This was when I saw the most carry-over from school to home and students working on writing projects at home.
- Home Learning Opportunities: Since I stopped mandating homework, I’ve created monthly home learning opportunity charts and shared them with students and their families. Each menu includes some writing options students could try during the month, as well as other ideas to connect learning across the subject areas. There is no external award for students completing these home learning opportunities and it is an optional choice for a student.
- Writing Backpack: I haven’t tried this, but think it could be a way to encourage writing at home! The teacher could prepare one or two (or more!) backpacks that students take turns borrowing. The backpack could include many different writing tools and types of paper, some mentor texts, class list of names or other spelling tools. Perhaps students keep the backpack for a few days or possibly the whole week (or take it home over a weekend). When the student returns the backpack, he or she can share the writing created. Maybe there could be a spot in the classroom to display the home writing or a picture of the student holding his/her creation.
- Blogging: My third grade students use Kidblog to engage in authentic and purposeful writing of their choosing. Their blogs are available to them all year long, including evenings and weekends. Access to technology could be an issue for some students but they could utilize the public library to write on their blog whenever possible.
- Home Writing Nook: Thanks to my co-author Kelsey Corter for suggesting this idea! You don’t need a ton of room or elaborate supplies. Kelsey says, “I’ve had families with very little space make a writing nook under a table or an upside down box as a writing center.” A place with some writing utensils and paper encourage a writer to keep on writing after the school day ends.
In Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write, Fletcher states, “Play in writing is not just a nice idea- it’s essential. Often it’s the ingredient that closes the deal with the reader. But when it comes to playful writing, the current writing scene (dominated by programmatic instruction, with a heavy reliance on rubrics, anchor texts, and Common Core State Standards) is a gigantic buzz kill.” (page 30) He later writes, “…kids can rediscover the power of writing that is:
-infused with choice, humor and voice
-reflective of the quirkiness of childhood (39)”
Mandating specific writing assignments for homework can make writing feel like drudgery and take the purpose and audience away from the writer’s choosing. It can also promote inequity as all students do not have the same access to complete homework. Making writing feel playful and purposeful, inviting students to keep creating when the school day ends, and celebrating the writing they bring in to share are some ways to encourage the frequent practice of writing. This moves us closer to developing independent writers who use writing to learn, communicate, reflect and make change.
- This giveaway is for a copy of No More “I’m Done!” and No More “How Long Does It Have to Be?” by Jennifer Jacobson. Thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy of each of these books — one book for a primary educator and one book for a secondary educator. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
- For a chance to win this copy of No More “I’m Done!” or No More “How Long Does It Have to Be?”, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, August 11th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. BE SURE TO WRITE DOWN THE GRADE LEVEL OR GRADE BAND YOU TEACH SO WE CAN PUT YOU IN THE RUNNING FOR THE BOOK THAT MATCHES THE GRADE BAND YOU TEACH. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, August 11th.
- Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
- If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – NO MORE BOOKS within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.