I was in a workshop recently with a skilled teacher who was modeling her writing for students. To open the lesson, she reconnected with part of a familiar mentor text that illustrated the learning target. Then the teacher shared two models she had pre-planned and carefully selected. One was a video clip she had found online, and the other was a live model of her own writing. Using the document camera to project her writing, she added several sentences to a work in progress that demonstrated the learning target.
All three models clearly illustrated the skill she wanted students to try in their own writing that day, showing the specific technique in context and in action.
And yet. . . something important was missing. As she released students to write, I realized: The what was super clear, but the how? Not so much.
It is essential for young writers to see models of the kind of writing they are being asked to do. This helps them to develop a vision for their work, to understand in a concrete way what it is they are trying to accomplish. Kudos to this teacher for her precision around providing models for writers.
However, the power of modeling—modeling the verb—is the opportunity to make not just the product visible—model, the noun—but the thinking of the writer visible as well. Without modeling the thinking, it is still a bit of a mystery how a writer gets from point A to point B—no matter how clear that point B might be.
When a proficient writer writes in front of students in this way—creating a model without modeling the thinking—the apparent ease with which the writing happens on the page can be misleading. I sometimes wonder about the self talk that happens as young writers watch this process. How many are thinking, “I can’t do that,” or “Why is it so easy for her?” or “How does he know how to do that?” I wonder how many young writers are internalizing the misconception that being a “good writer” means that the words just flow onto the page without any difficulty (or thought)?
As proficient writers, we make many decisions in the crafting of each sentence, paragraph, and piece. Writing is complex work. The best writers are the ones who are tenacious enough to engage with and power through the hard parts. Over and over again. Modeling—by writing while thinking aloud—is our opportunity to let kids in on this truth.
I know, for example, that the teacher from the opening minilesson spent time in advance of the lesson pre-planning what she would write in front of kids. She didn’t just get up there and wing it, because she understands that writing requires thought and revision. She had an authentic audience for her writing, and she wanted to craft the best possible passage to illustrate the technique. However, from the point of view of the kids, she sat down, pulled out a marker, and expertly cranked out several sentences that met the goal of the learning target—perfect in one go.
I suspect that her intent was efficiency. This is a teacher who values big blocks of time daily for writers to write, so that they have opportunities to grow (hooray!). She keeps those minilessons mini. She wants and expects kids to take the learning from those minilessons and apply it to their own work (awesome!). However, without that extra insight into HOW she applies that learning to her model—without an opportunity to eavesdrop on her inner monologue—students will be (inadvertently) less prepared to be successful with their own attempts during work time.
Here’s what I encouraged this teacher to think about after the lesson:
- What is the thinking work you had to do as a writer to pre-plan what you would write in front of kids today? (Because I know she did lots!)
- What would it look and sound like to make that thinking work visible to kids?
- What kind(s) of questions might you ask yourself aloud to surface this thinking as you are writing in front of kids?
- Where in the modeling would it make sense to stop and think aloud about the decisions you need to make as a writer?
And, big picture: How will it help young writers to see a proficient writer engage in challenging thinking work in front of them? To see an adult writer wrestle with a decision, to try more than once, and to seek feedback? What a relief it must be when students discover that it is actually unrealistic to expect themselves to craft perfect text right out of the gate!
Now I have no doubt that this teacher has taken this feedback and has already upped her modeling game with more explicit think alouds (because she’s a reflective go-getter).
I celebrate the fact that she is working so hard to provide clear models of writing for her students. Her level of intentionality means that writers in her workshop already have a vision for the kind of writing she is asking them to try. By writing alongside her students, she is demonstrating that she is a writer as well. Her next step is to plan for regularly unpacking the thinking work she is already doing to make it visible to kids. And because of the kind of learner she is, I’m confident that she is ready for it.
If we want young writers to be able to think for themselves and to persevere through the challenges of writing, it’s essential that we provide modeling for what it looks and sounds like when writers do that. It’s essential to be transparent about both the product and the process.
Reader, writer, and instructional coach. Always thinking. Collaborating to innovate the learning experience for students and educators.