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Meet Writers Where They Are: Making Learning Relevant and Personal

I have a couple of kiddos who are worrying me as writers. Can we find time to talk? 

More than ever, this sort of message has been showing up in my inbox. Maybe it’s because I’m not in schools this year, so the organic conversations about kids and writing aren’t happening in hallways. But maybe it’s also because more students than ever before have gaps in their writing from several months of missed instruction and practice. 

One of the students is Max. Max’s teacher reported that he could not stay on task on his own without her helping him every step of the way.

“What can he do?” I asked. “On his own?”

She was pretty sure Max could draw pictures and write a line or two about each one across three pages. With that in mind, we developed a menu of choices for him, beginning at a level that was, in our assessment, lower than he could do. This menu offered Max some personal power in the process since the choice and the level of challenge could be his. The chart below illustrates his choices:

Initially, he chose the second option, and did that for a day. Within a few days, he was accomplishing the fourth bullet, asking what else he could do. This was a huge amount of growth, given that when given third-grade tasks and instruction, he did nothing unless an adult was at his elbow. Students might look helpless if the work is too hard, but they can be more independent when they are working at a level that is just right for them. Learners need a sense of accomplishment and competence in order to take risks, and this child had been missing that component of learning. Once he had it, he wanted to do more. And he wanted to do it on his own! 

Celebrating What Writers Can Do 

I’ve been trying to generalize some of the ideas I have about writing that could transfer across grades and students. First I ask what those writers can do. Not with someone sitting beside them. What can they do on their own? Whenever I can get teachers to start with an asset-based approach, the conversation shifts, sometimes a little, sometimes more than a little. 

Sometimes this part of the conversation leans on writing standards and learning progressions. For the writing standards, I have copied the K-6 CCSS for the three main genres of writing, and I share these with the teacher, focusing the conversation on where they think the learner is currently functioning. 

These documents provide a general sense of where a writer may be, but only insofar as the specific genre. They don’t take revision, grammar, conventions, and writing mindsets into account, but they encourage teachers to recognize what their writers can do. Sometimes it’s easy to get so caught up in the grade-level expectations and the curriculum that’s always been followed that what students can’t do overshadows what they can. 

Also, I use the Writing Progressions created by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and published in Writing Pathways (Heinemann, 2013). These progressions provide a more precise picture of a writer’s strengths and growth opportunities since these progressions isolate structure, development, and conventions, as well as components within those. 

For younger students, I love the Kindergarten Observation List Beth Moore created. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that emerging writers depend on representational drawings and talk in order to write. This list is not just for Kindergartners, but also for students in higher grades when it’s important to identify what they can do as writers.  This chart reminds me of the foundational skills that develop alongside storytelling, drawing, scribbling, coloring, talking about books, dramatizing…Leading up to this post, Beth reminded me of these skills; these foundational skills and early literacy behaviors develop and grow without prerequisite behaviors, and they can serve as perfect material for celebrating what students, even the youngest ones, can do on their own. 

Recognizing the Complexity of Writing

Even when students are working within their ability, writing still requires behavioral mindsets, stamina, and even physical strength. In addition to talking about what a writer can do, we also talk about what these writers do. Sharpen pencils? Get a drink? Go to the bathroom? Erase? During some conversations with teachers, I bring up the idea of engagement inventories. Here is a writing engagement inventory I created, inspired by Jen Serravallo, and easily tweaked to whatever behaviors you’d like to add or eliminate. I also like to know what a writer’s relationship with writing is. Yesterday, I had a conversation with a fourth-grader who couldn’t remember anything she’d ever written in her life. I want students to be attached to some of their work. I don’t expect them to recite previous pieces, but I do want them to remember that speech about why chewing gum should be allowed or that information piece about the ski lodge… This questionnaire is helpful for getting at some of how writers feel about the process– and so is asking them!

Involving and Empowering Students in the Process

I have no doubt that one of the reasons Max was able to make growth was because he began to understand what the expectations were and he was able to pick his pathway. Students should also be involved in the assessment process because their understanding of what they should know and be able to do has a strong impact on their learning (Hattie, 2011). Last winter, while working in a fourth-grade classroom during an information writing unit, I created this Information Writing Self-Assessment Tool. The teacher and I had students fill it out, thereby reviewing the expectations and success criteria and setting goals for themselves. 

After doing that, we explained that an entry point for students who felt like they needed to grow their information writing skills would be a topic they already knew a lot about. From there, we gave them other choices, as well, and invited them to sign up on a chart. Their choices are included in the chart below:

Much like Max, the students could decide what they were ready for, work through that project, and then move on to the next level if they felt ready. By the end of the unit, everyone had written a piece that involved a text set and note-taking, which was our goal as teachers. 

Maya Angelou reminds me that when I know better, I can do better. The more I know about how, where, and why a student is functioning, the better I can teach that student. It’s really frustrating to be asked to do something that is really hard. And it’s also really frustrating to be taught skills that are really out of reach. (The reallys are intentional here!) Once learning levels are identified, then the next task is to shift those tasks and instructional moves. Students like Max want to learn, but they might need different entry points and pathways into the process, and it’s my job to help find them. 

GIVEAWAY INFO:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of ONE of the following books (winner’s choice): A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Workshop Essentials: Time, Choice, Response by Katherine Bomer and Corinne Arens, Every Kid a Writer: Strategies That Get Every Kid Writing by Kelly Boswell, or Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing by Ralph Fletcher. Thanks to Heinemann for donating one of these to the winner of this giveaway. (You must have a U.S.A. mailing address — Sorry, no FPOs — to win a print copy of the book of your choosing. If you have an international mailing address, then you will receive an electronic copy.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of one of these books, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, November 8th at 6:00 p.m. EST. Marina Rodriguez 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 9th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Marina can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you.  (NOTE: Your email address will not be published online if you leave it in the email field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Marina will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – MEET WRITERS. Please respond to her email with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Melanie Meehan View All

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.

26 thoughts on “Meet Writers Where They Are: Making Learning Relevant and Personal Leave a comment

  1. I love the idea of giving students a writing questionnaire to understand their preferences, weaknesses, and feelings about writing. I do this in reading all of the time. I can’t wait to try it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this post and your blog! I am a math specialist turned 5th grade remote teacher and your posts have given me a lot of great ideas for supporting my students remotely!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Needed this.reminder to start from an asset-based approach. Really like the idea of showing the progression and giving students the choice to enter where the think they are and work to where they want to be. Room for everyone here! Thanks for sharing.

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  4. I love this article- and the entry points. It always gets my brain going for my high school kiddos. I sometimes feel it is tricky in high school beacause the CCSS clearly progress K-6 and then especially in 9-12 it becomes such subtle changes that are hard to differentiatie the meaning of the adjectives.

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  5. Giving students choice is so important to increase engagement. This post shows how you can give students choice that is practical and standards based. Love the examples.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Giving an informational on-demand tomorrow. I will be intentional about mining for what a writer can do and modeling specific ways to grow as writers. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This week I wrote a note to myself titled “Writing HELP” and jotted a couple students names on it. Thank you for reminding me to focus on their assets first! I appreciate the resources provided. You blog is one of my must-read go-to’s. It has greatly helped me improve as a writing teacher. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for this post! We can always use reminders to work from the chil,s know and to support the writers independence! I would love one of the books to support my teaching! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for this post! I love the student self assessment tool – how it is so specific to help students be an active part of their learning, where they easily understand and can self assess where they are and what they can already do. So many of my students are at a loss to know/explain what they struggle with or what we want/“expect” from them. This chart also helps teachers have more to work with than just telling kids “add more details.”

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  10. Thank you for this post! There is so much pressure on teachers to “cover curriculum” and sometimes the students are left out of the conversation. Doesn’t do anyone any good to cover something if students aren’t taking it in. Meet kids where they are and move forward! More than ever, we should have our eye on growth and next steps.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Meanie- Another valuable post! So many great tools for helping writers! Do you have a narrative self assessment tool?? If not, I could try to do one!! Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you for this. We will soon be starting an informational unit with 4th graders virtually. I could see creating the choices chart easily in jamboard as a jumping off point.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Melanie, this is such a valuable post. I am teaching a group of fifth graders this year that seem to be all over the place in their writing abilities. It helps to have a method to address this that is practical and standards based. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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