Entry Points to Build Independence: Reaching Your Writers

As a little girl, my curiosity often allowed me to enter worlds created in my imagination. I distinctly remember being in that phase of childhood where reality blurs into the portals of imaginative play and mystery. I was the keeper of caterpillars and raiser of tadpoles. I squinted through lenses and entered microscopic worlds of algae and pond water organisms. I snuck up on birds and chased them with my untranslatable calls. I was immersed in nature, the grass, the dead tree bark, roots, and sand. It was my place to explore, imagine, and listen. It was a path to stories, ideas, and possibilities. For me, it was a place to both be seen and hidden. It was my entry point to risk-taking and wonder.

Entry points come in various forms, and we all need them from time to time. For learners, these openings become important when the complexities of learning feel too big to navigate. In writing workshop, sometimes what feels like a small nudge from us can feel like an insurmountable climb for a writer. In Engaging Children (2018), Ellin Oliver Keene says:

“Children will develop a sense of agency and independence–and engage in learning–if given time and proper scaffolding. We need to model the problem-solving behaviors we hope they will use” (49).

Many aspects of writing can be challenging work. Modeling tools that allow writers to enter these challenges are key to creating scaffolds that can later fall away. As we ease in and out of guided support, writers are able to sit within what Lev Vygotsky refers to as their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in his work from the late seventies. Melanie Meehan references these same ideas in her book Every Child Can Write (Corwin Publishers) and visually explains it in this image below from page 56.

Modeling tools that allow writers to enter challenging work are how we can begin to add entry points to our toolkit within student conferring conversations and small group work. Below I have offered some potential tools, how these can be entry points for our writers, as well as an example.

Developing a Progression of Understanding

Often our intentions with feedback start with a goal in mind. We attempt to show or tell writers where they can lift their writing to new levels. However, our feedback can sometimes be too vague. This is where a progression can be helpful. Recently, I had a conversation with Melanie about establishing good convention habits with my writers. She shared with me a progression of understanding that demonstrates to students a step by step guide to full use of a skill. Sharing this with my students allowed them to see where they were on the progression and what they were ready to do next. 

This image is now something I can reference with almost any conventional rule in writing. I can easily modify the statement I associate with this image and help support students to identify where they are on the path as well as what to do to reach their goals. 

For instance:

   

Within a whole class conversation, I shared a different type of progression using a chart. I broke apart a paragraph within an essay to show how I elaborated. This showed my writers how I could have explained my reason in a simplified way or with more development. This helped my writers determine how they, too, could grow and develop their essays to support their opinions with stronger reasons. A day later, I expanded my examples with a different reason, right on the same chart, showing how we can grow areas of our essay from one step to another. 

How is this an entry point?

When writers can see the subtle shifts in lifted writing, they can see how revision within their own writing can lift the level in manageable ways–one step at a time.

Personalized Checklists

Using existing checklists can be a great starting point when beginning to determine the language, visuals, and next steps for writers. However, taking checklists a step further toward intentional and targeted progress can mean creating a checklist that matches the writer more precisely. 

This could be created ahead of time or in real-time. I often will create a checklist in front of a student within a conferring conversation, but then in a later meeting, encourage the writer to develop or re-create the checklist. Also, this reinforces what is on the checklist for the writer and begins to rely less on the teacher.

How is this an entry point?

Checklists allow students to focus on particular areas of their writing. In addition, in Every Child Can Write, Melanie touches on the growth mindset work of Carol Dweck when she references the use of checklists:

“…it’s beneficial to include three columns: yes, starting to, and not yet. This language keeps the doors of possibilities open, as well as makes a negative answer feel less defeating” (72).

Whenever we can keep checklists open to possibilities with words like almost or working on it, we create openings for resilience and goal-setting to grow. A checklist enables the writer to zoom in on one area in particular and check for progress. 

Below is a chart I made during a small group lesson. I wanted students to take ownership of their own goals, so I modeled how to take what they knew about checklists and make their own.

 

Below is a student example of a personalized checklist made with independence.

 

Identifying Personal Progress

Students are continually encountering challenges. They can often begin to feel that what they do may never be good enough or that they haven’t made any progress. When I sense a student is getting stuck because they are defeated, I often use this time to pull out samples from a previous unit or from months earlier. Together we are able to name areas they have grown, to see change, and see what the next step will be in making further progress. 

How is this an entry point?

Helping students see and identify areas of reached progress can create momentum to take on new challenges. 

Each sample shows more development. The last example is only one-third of an essay, while the first two samples show almost complete essays. Building on what she already knew, growing it slowly, and then looking back to see how transition phrases helped her to say more was a concrete way to show her growth across a unit. This motivated her to do even more development and increased her momentum to make gains as a writer.

Goal Setting and Strategy Tracking

As students work to achieve success with newly set goals, tracking how often they use particular strategies can be helpful. This creates a visual representation for writers to see how often they are using a strategy. It also encourages and reminds the use of the strategy. 

How is this an entry point?

Depending on the strategy used, having a place to check off the use of a strategy can be what gets a writer started off on the right foot.

Here is an example of a goal/strategy tracker and a writing process tracking sheet that I have used with students to help them enter areas of the process that they hope to improve.

As a little girl, I found myself immersed in nature–seeking entry points for skills that would last a lifetime. For my students, immersing them in the world of writing tools, strategies, and goal setting helps them see the openings that exist in the writing lives they are beginning to lead. Using those strategies intentionally within their own work, in addition to my nudges, allows them to seek their own entry points. Their own special place to be both seen and hidden.

 

See the giveaway information below!

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Every Child Can Write by Melanie  Meehan. Thanks to Corwin Publishers for donating a copy 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  Every Child Can Write, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, November 17th, at 6:00 p.m. EST. I will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. Their name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, November 20th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I 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, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – EVERY CHILD CAN WRITE  within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.