Who do you picture when you hear the term advanced writer?
Do you see the child who loves to write, the one who would write all day long if that were an option? The writer who is constantly seeking feedback and looking for opportunities to hone their craft?
Perhaps you imagine the overachiever determined to reach the far right of any rubric put in front of them. “What do I have to do to earn a [insert level or grade here]?” Or perhaps you imagine this writer’s parents. . .
The writer I picture is the one who is wise to both the writers above and secretly says, “No thank you.” This is the writer with strong skills who is content to replicate what is comfortable and easy for them. This writer doesn’t want to do what is perceived to be more work, and so they hang out under the radar of safely proficient.
I worry most about this writer, because this writer is not growing.
When I’m unit planning, this is the writer I have in mind. Because if I plan for advanced writers with the challenge-avoider in mind, my extensions will still attract writers one and two above. However, if I plan with the more traditional advanced writers in mind, my strategies will most likely flop with writer number three. Writer number three is on to those tricks already, and they’re savvy at steering clear.
My strategy for meeting the needs of advanced writers: personalization. Strategic, pre-planned opportunities, set like a vision trap to capture the imagination of each writer. Once caught, these writers can be reeled in to a level of complexity they had no idea they were ready (and willing) to try.
This fall in particular, when many teachers likely have a disproportionately high number of writers with high needs as a result of remote learning, I’m thinking a great deal about the advanced writers who are ready to move and who deserve targeted instruction designed to challenge them to do just that.
My first step is to gather a go-to set of mentor texts that illustrate the level of sophistication my advanced writers are ready to explore.
I tend to pick up texts I love and then spend time figuring out why I love them. Let’s try this with an example. I’m intentionally not specifying a grade level for the purpose of this post. While I do need to have an understanding of how narrative writing skills grow at, above, and below my grade level across the progression, I don’t want to limit my writers by only considering the descriptors listed on whichever progression or rubric my school/district has adopted. If I’m genuinely entering in with an inquiry stance, I need space to ask big questions and potentially notice beyond “grade level.” Remember, I’m seeking imagination bait.
I’ve selected Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson’s Last Stop on Market Street for this exercise, because it’s a narrative mentor text I would use at any grade level, K-6+. Here are some initial noticings and questions I have as I study this amazing book:
- How does Matt de la Peña use descriptive language to create a vivid, city setting for this story? What are some of the things he describes? How? Why these things? (And for primary writers, how does Christian Robinson do the same in the illustrations?)
- How is weather imagery used across the story to establish the setting? To illustrate a change in CJ by the end of the book?
- This story has a lot of characters—many more than most narratives of this length might have. Why do you think de la Peña has included so many characters? Why might they be necessary? What does each one do for the story? How does de la Peña make them all so distinct using so few words?
- How does Matt de la Peña use dialogue (specifically, a pattern of dialogue) between CJ and his grandmother to plant seeds across the book? How do these seeds set the reader up for the ending?
- What do you like about CJ and his grandmother? How does de la Peña make them both such endearing characters?
- Where in the story do you notice CJ beginning to change as a character? What does de la Peña do as a writer that signals the reader to the shift? What causes him to change?
- This narrative is interesting in that it is a small(ish) moment, and yet the characters move geographically from one place to another. This is unusual. . . How does de la Peña make this work?
- Which moment do you think is the most important in the book? What does Matt de la Peña do as a writer that lets you know this moment is important? What might you try in your own story to draw your reader’s attention to the most important moment? (Similarly, what does Robinson do in the illustrations at this key moment?)
- All across Last Stop on Market Street, the reader sees the setting through CJ’s eyes. How does what he notices change over the course of the story? How does this connect to the ending?
- What do you think de la Peña and Robinson want you as the reader to feel/understand at the end of the story? What do they do as the writer and illustrator to communicate this to the reader?
There’s a reason that I jot these noticings down as questions rather than as a list of specific craft moves. My goal is to use the text to wonder alongside a writer rather than directly offering suggestions that might be perceived as “extra work.” I want to be able to plant a seed, offer a compelling question that hooks the writer, and then walk away.
With this strategy, I’m also modeling the type of thinking that a reader does with any compelling text; I want both readers and writers to notice and ask these kinds of questions as literate humans, making meaning of their own creativity and the creativity of others.
Here’s where the personalization comes in. As I confer with writers, I need to be ready to pull in a mentor text based on what the writer is doing, is almost doing, or is not yet doing. And while I might be able to predict some possibilities in advance, I try to stay open to the place(s) in the story where the writer will be inspired to stretch. I do a lot of listening, and I’m authentic about homing in on a part of the writing that fascinates me as a reader (and a writer). Once I’ve done my research, I’m ready to pull the right mentor text into the conversation.
Side by side with a writer, the teacher language might sound like:
At this point, I leave the text with the writer and walk away. If the writer is really going to dig in and study what the mentor author is doing, they will need it.
Because we know kids are nosy and listen in on each other’s conferences (and because we know it’s powerful to “let” them), this particular seed will now be planted with more than one writer. Over time, writers will recognize that I am not making the exact same suggestions to (or using the exact same mentor texts with) every writer. For that savvy, safely proficient writer, this is key. When a possibility feels authentically just-for-them—so specific to the work they are doing as a writer right in that moment—they are more likely to invest in taking it on.
In my experience, this personalized approach is more effective at motivating writers to stretch outside their comfort zone than referring to the next highest descriptor on a rubric. While it might (definitely) be true that I have these descriptors in mind as I’m gathering my mentor texts, the “imagination bait” strategy gives every writer the opportunity to feel seen and understood as a writer. And a writer who feels seen and understood is more likely to take a risk, leading to tremendous growth over time.
- 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.)
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Reader, writer, and instructional coach. Always thinking. Collaborating to innovate the learning experience for students and educators.