English as an Additional Language · writer identity · writing process · writing workshop

Getting to Know the Writers in Your Classroom- Part 1: Academic and Linguistic Domains

My daughter Clare loves to get me hooked on Netflix shows. (Confession: it’s not too hard to do!) The latest one I’ve watched because of Clare’s recommendation is Firefly Lane, and, as a writer, I’ve loved the gradual reveal of the characters. As events unfold, viewers learn about the past, the motivations, and the secrets of the characters, and it’s easier for me to understand their decisions and behavior as I’ve gotten to know them.

Just as I have learned about the characters of Firefly Lane, teachers are challenged with learning about the students in their classrooms at this time of year. Who students are and what their past experiences have been impact them as writers, and those impacts should have implications on instruction. Therefore, it’s worth the time and energy to have systems and structures for learning about students as writers in your classroom.

In our book, The Responsive Writing Teacher, Kelsey Sorum and I present four domains for getting to know writers: academic, linguistic, cultural, and social-emotional. Indicators for collecting information about each domain are found in the chart below:

Academic responsiveness is probably the domain with which most teachers identify since knowing where students are performing and what they know is important for establishing baselines and instructional plans. Academic responsiveness encompasses the strengths and growth opportunities for students, and it also encompasses writing identities. I’ve loved getting to know students by asking them about their timelines as writers.

When I first ask about timelines as writers, blank stares often greet me, so be ready to cue writers with questions such as:

  • What pieces do you remember writing and feeling proud of?
  • When do you remember first feeling like you could communicate an idea?
  • Have you ever felt frustrated or like giving up as a writer?

It’s also fascinating to ask writers what they feel are strengths and growth opportunities. As with timelines, they frequently need some ideas to get started, but less so.

Despite some of the models that are out there, writing is not a linear process, and even the same writer does not necessarily spend the same amount of time within a specific part of the process for all pieces. For example, I have envisioned this post in my head for a while, so I am jumping right into the drafting phase, and I won’t spend too much time planning or revising. In contrast, there have been other writing pieces that have required extensive time and energy spent on planning. While Kelsey designed this visual to represent my writing process, it’s not always the same every time, even though there are parts that are consistent.

That being said, the more that students are able to recognize the elements of the writing process and their own tendencies within them, the more they enter the community of writers– and that’s a great thing.

Getting to know students linguistically involves collecting information about language(s) families speak at home, as well as processing skills and vocabulary development. If you have students who are learning English as an additional language, the following chart may be useful to consider where they are in terms of language acquisition since there are predictable stages:

As you work to understand expressive and receptive language, you might want to think about students in terms of what and how they demonstrate understanding of, as well as how they are able to express themselves. The indicators around both types of language have dramatic impacts on writing development since verbal expression is a precursor to so much of the writing students do.

Getting to know students is a critical part of the instruction you’ll provide over the course of the year. While there’s no magic method to knowing and understanding students, especially as they both reveal things slowly and change over time, systems and structures for nudging me to think about students’ processes have led to insights and consequently, more responsive instruction. Next week, I’ll share additional resources for building understanding and knowledge around students’ cultural and social-emotional identities.

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