Thinking Big About Writing
The writing work in our building is transforming, and it is exciting to be a part of the change, to witness the impact on kids as we make our workshops increasingly authentic and compelling.
We are constantly reflecting on what’s working—what’s leading to measurable shifts in how we plan for writing (and how kids experience writing)—as well as where we might be getting stuck: places there is genuine motivation to transform the task, and yet, our best intentions are still missing the mark in some significant way.
Comparing and contrasting the work of teams—as a team member and coach—I find myself circling back to a series of questions:
- Is the form of writing real world enough?
- Is the audience authentic enough?
- Have we invested enough time in the ideating stage of planning?
- Is the thinking and writing work complex enough?
- Are there enough opportunities for writers to spiral through the new thinking and writing work over the course of the unit?
I can trace the map of our transformation in this line of questioning—not a red eye cross-continental flight, but a summer road trip of innovation. Looking back at units of study across grade levels, I can find examples of where we have upped our writing game as a direct result of one or more of these questions.
1. Is the form real world enough?
This one can be tricky, because what feels “real world” to us as adults isn’t always aligned to how kids experience the world. For example, asking kids as a final product to create a book is pretty typical—kids read books in the real world; the process of making books is authentic and can be super engaging. I am 100% with Katie Wood Ray in her assertion to our youngest writers that, “We are people who make books.”
And. . . it does feel like sometimes we default to books as published product; books become the ceiling of our imagination.
As we challenge ourselves to think bigger, we might up the ante by creating digital books, or by adding a digital component to a paper book (e.g. QR codes inside that link to audio or video created by kids to supplement the book), similar to what we might see in our own professional books—even Katie’s most recent books!
We might challenge kids to create books that look more like the ones they love to read. Think Steve Jenkins for informational picture book texts. . . he’s a master of organizing nonfiction in creative ways. Consider mentor texts that mix forms and genres. . . .
The informational texts that kids gravitate toward are complex, with authors making intentional decisions about genre, form, text structures, and text features, making them much more engaging to read and to write. It’s definitely messier to create a book that incorporates a hybrid structure, but it’s also more real world. There’s more space for young writers to make decisions and to notice the effects of those decisions on their reader.
Bypassing books entirely (if we dare), there are endless possibilities of real world writing. As a school we’ve explored podcasting, blogging, TED Talks, video Op/Docs, and more. I’ll expand on some of these as we continue moving through the five questions. We’ve found that opening ourselves up to the many ways kids read the world has led to dramatic increases in engagement.
2. Is the audience authentic enough?
All workshops (hopefully) include opportunities for writers to share their work in a variety of ways, reaching beyond teacher and family as the sole audiences. Writers share with each other in writing communities or even across classrooms, with grade-level or off grade-level peers. Classrooms and schools organize sharing celebrations, where guests come in and writers showcase or present their work. Other communities share their writing digitally through websites, newsletters, and social media. All of these examples are positive and motivating for our young writers.
A subtle shift I’ve noticed in some of our recent units has been moving from AN audience to a more intentionally relevant audience. For example, in the past our fifth graders shared their informational Reading/Writing inquiry projects with third graders as their grand finale. And while most of the third graders listened politely as the fifth graders taught them all about the topic they had been (to varying degrees of passionately) investigating, it kept falling a bit flat. The third graders didn’t always have the background knowledge to completely understand, and the fifth graders didn’t see this particular end goal as reason enough to invest weeks in the inquiry.
This year, the team tried something different. First, they brought science standards into the informational Reading and Writing standards that had been integrated previously. With a driving question to connect the inquiry projects (How can we, as scientists, interpret the connections and impact between humans and the environment?), it was possible for kids to discover entirely new audiences.
As kids researched and wrote about their own more targeted driving questions connected to the class question, they demonstrated a need to teach and to advocate for change. The audience for their proposed solutions suddenly extended far beyond the classroom and school. Writers began thinking bigger; they began to envision the community or potentially even global impact of their research and writing work.
As you might imagine, this has been incredibly motivating. We are seeing a deeper level of research, thinking, and investment from kids. As we move into the final bend of this unit, students will be sharing their projects with their self-selected, more relevant audience(s), rather than teachers deciding on a single, shared audience.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that choosing another grade level as an audience can’t be authentic; it really depends on what the purpose of the writing is. What I’m reflecting on is how sharing with another grade level sometimes becomes the default, a routine, rather than a thoughtful decision based on the purpose and goals of the writing. When this happens, kids are less inclined to interpret sharing with another class as an authentic audience.
3. Have we invested enough time in the ideating stage of planning?
The power of collaboration is in the thinking together. In my experience planning with teams, the magic happens when we let ourselves get comfortable not knowing yet. Not deciding yet. We put ideas on the table. We ask questions. We add on to the thinking of others. We imagine and we test drive ideas. Many ideas go nowhere, and that’s okay.
This can feel muddy, and not everyone has a high tolerance for ambiguity. It’s understandable that teachers might feel pressured by limited time to jump right in with the first decent idea and begin planning the nuts and bolts. All too often, though, this keeps us mired in safety.
Thinking outside the box takes some warming up, some stretching of the boundaries of our comfort zones. Experiencing the power of a little productive struggle—as well as the resulting aha moment—is worth the time when it generates worthy learning experiences for kids.
The fourth grade teachers at my school embraced the unknown when they designed a unit last spring, transforming a literary essay unit into one in which kids wrote and created video Op/Docs (Opinion Documentaries).
The team knew they wanted writers to create something that looked different from the standard five paragraph essay. . . but they didn’t know exactly what that might be. They were clear about the thinking work they needed students to do in order to be successful writing literary essays, and they had already integrated the standards and learning targets for this writing unit with a Historical Fiction reading unit. They just needed a concrete vision for where the thinking work of literary analysis/literary essay lives out in the real world. . . .
A half day planning session led down an unlikely rabbit hole about the documentary “Free Solo” and then to a New York Times video Op/Doc called “What if he Falls?” We recognized immediately that these “texts” would captivate our writers. This led to unpacking the thinking work it would take to create an Op/Doc and comparing it with the thinking work of crafting a literary essay. The thinking work was so aligned, in fact, that we were able to use our Lucy Calkins Writing rubric and our Reading learning progressions to guide/give feedback and to assess student work throughout the unit and on final projects.
We would never have arrived at the place we did without the time we took to ideate and explore. It was incredibly messy. . . and it is hands down one of the most powerful planning experiences I have ever had.
If you’re curious about the details of this project (and its impact on kids), I share more here, on my personal blog.
4. Is the thinking and writing work complex enough?
In the fourth grade Op/Doc example, the driver was a sense that the form of five paragraph literary essay was limiting; students were not choosing and developing ideas that were big enough, which meant students didn’t care enough to write well about them. If we wanted kids to engage in this thinking work deeply over time, they needed to feel compelled to develop and share their thinking. They needed texts and tasks worthy of all that talking and writing.
Once we landed on the video Op/Doc form, it opened up everyone’s thinking. We were able to use our video mentor texts to scaffold a parallel process: naming the critical choices that characters made in the historical fiction books kids were reading, imagining which choices (as well as potential consequences of those choices) were big enough to warrant being featured in an Op/Doc. What kind of work might kids have to do to understand these complex characters, historical settings, and multiple perspectives, so that they would be willing and able to take a stance on those choices (and back it up with evidence)?
The thinking work was so complex, it required us to try it out ourselves, using their read aloud text, Number the Stars. This helped us to anticipate what would certainly be challenging for kids, as well how we might explicitly connect the skills kids would need by the end product to the daily work of book clubs, reader’s/writer’s notebooks, and planning/drafting literary essays that incorporated text evidence.
We know it’s best practice to write alongside students, making sure we have tried ourselves any writing work we ask students to do. In this example, it was an excellent data point to recognize that we absolutely had to do it ourselves in order to even begin to figure out how to try this work with kids! Enough complexity? Check!
5. Are there enough opportunities for writers to spiral through the new thinking and writing work over the course of the unit?
This final question is critical, because we don’t want the thinking and writing work to get lost in a shiny end product that might not truly demonstrate what writers have learned. I think sometimes we get fixated on the final product too early, perhaps feeling pressure for that product to turn out a certain way. As a result, we spend an excessive amount of our workshop on the publishing, rather than investing the time young writers need in workshop to approximate, iterate, and eventually master the new skills.
With workshop time to practice, get feedback, apply new learning, try it with a different piece, and so on, writers have ample opportunity to become more proficient. When the time comes to apply their learning to whatever final product has been chosen, they’re ready! In fact, they’re chomping at the bit to demonstrate what they have learned in a novel way.
This brings to mind my third grade colleagues, who this fall transformed the end product of their personal narrative unit from more traditional written narratives into podcasts that they shared with our community. The stories writers told in these podcasts revealed something at the heart of each child—connecting to their Civics unit about what and how we share about ourselves connects to the heart of the classroom community. The Writing unit was integrated with their Reading unit, in which kids explored ways that readers read to uncover what’s at the heart of characters.
In order to be ready for the podcast phase, kids wrote many narratives. They had frequent opportunities to mine for ideas, to flash draft, to use mentor texts, to give and receive feedback, to set goals, to revise with teaching points of minilessons and conferring in mind. As they were engaged in this writing work, students were also analyzing the fiction they were reading, noticing the strategies that authors use to craft characters with the complexity of real people, and trying these strategies out for themselves in their own writing.
By the time kids were ready to choose one of their narratives to polish and perform on their podcasts (in groups of four), they had been immersed in opportunities to grow as narrative readers and writers (and members of communities who care about each others’ stories). Did the fact that they would be making podcasts increase their motivation to set goals, work hard, and produce high quality writing? Yes, absolutely.
And. . . the teachers were intentional about the layers of learning that led up to this final project. Kids were ready for it because of the way learning built across the unit. They didn’t need to spend weeks on the “polished” narrative, because when it came time to polish, they had multiple narratives that reflected their growth as writers.
A Final Thought
The process of writing to clarify my own thinking is authentic for me. Crafting this blog post has helped me to better understand the coaching moves I might incorporate into future work with teams as we think big about writing. Much like writers immersed in a transformed task, I am genuinely wrestling with something challenging I am motivated to get better at doing. By setting aside time to reflect and share, I’m beginning to notice and name what’s working, so that I can try out and become increasingly strategic in my planning and coaching.
I invite you to layer one or more of these five questions into your own planning for writing workshop and see what happens.