Here’s my thinking
If students are to become great writers they have to understand how great writers write. We spend a lot of time asking students to put writing together, but we rarely ask them to take writing apart so they can see what how it became the great writing that it is. During our writing PLC I challenged a group of teachers to take the plunge with me and discuss our findings.
We decided to take it apart
We chose a news article from newsela, an amazing site that provides you with the most up to date news articles, and allows you to choose the lexile level at which you would like to read the article. We chose an article on Syrian refugees and literally cut it into parts. We separated the headings, subheadings, paragraphs and pictures, in an attempt to look at what this author did that made his article powerful.
We began by looked at the first thing that jumped out to most of us. Teachers commented on what we could learn from the title and subtitles. We also discussed the impact of pictures on our understanding of the text. But then it got really good! Some teachers started discussing how the article, while appearing to be an informational article, used many subtle (and some not so subtle) techniques to assist the reader in forming a very specific opinion. That sparked a discussion about word choice which had us cutting out all of words used that were subliminally creating a specific image in the reader’s mind. This sparked more discussion! Teachers cut out different sentence types and examined how many of each type were used. We ended up with piles and piles of words, paragraphs, sentence types and pictures! This was an article taken apart, and apart, and apart.
It went so well that I decided to do the same exercise with a small group of students I was working with. The conversations were amazing! Students were able to see different writing strategies more clearly and discuss the impact of the author choosing these writing techniques. They were excited and wanted to apply some of the things they learned from this author into their own writing.
Sometimes you have to take writing apart to really understand how carefully it is put together. Let students get messy with the writing they way we allow children to get messy with finger paint. Let them tear the writing apart, analyze it, learn from it and finally apply what they learned to their own writing.
It was eight thirty in the morning and I was sitting in a classroom next to Felicia, conferencing with her about her writing. Felicia is a promising young middle school student and budding writer, who fully intends to write a book before she finishes high school. She was working on a story that she just couldn’t get right and was almost in tears over it. “It’s not right!” she said. “What do you mean?I replied, shocked at how passionate she was. What is it that you want to see in your writing that you are not seeing?” With tears in her eyes she tried to find the right words to express how she felt, and what she wanted her paper to sound like. I watched her struggle for words and then blurt out ” I’m suppose to be a writer you know. Writers don’t write like this.”
I’ve had many student conferences over the years, and I must say this was the first time I encountered a student who I was having a hard time encouraging. She was so hard on herself and didn’t want to be encouraged or comforted by me. Our time together ended that day with me feeling like a complete failure because it seemed as if though she was on the verge of giving up. It bothered me so much that I went home and continued to replay our conversation over and over in my head.
I thought about myself as a writer and what worked for me. Felicia loved science and like many middle school students she also loved You Tube. The light bulb went off in my head and I immediately began scouring You Tube for the right fit. The right author to convince Felicia in a way that I could not, that writing was a process. A creative process.
I chose a video in which Rebecca Skloot discusses writing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
I was so excited that I had found what I believed to be the golden ticket for Felicia!
When I met with Felicia again we watched the video and discussed the real life of a writer. The way in which writers create, edit and rewrite.
W e looked up other videos and interviews in which writers talked about their writing craft. Their process for creating, revising, and in some cases scraping entire projects in favor of a new approach. In the end Felicia felt better about her work. I smiled as I watched her take notes from the videos, discussed with me what she thought and decide what advice from the authors she could apply to her own writing.
My conferences with Felicia were so rewarding for me because I realized the importance of letting the students hear from the writers themselves. Let them hear their favorite authors talk about their process, struggles, fears and triumphs. Let students hear from writers who write and publish some of the very novels and manuscripts they love. The buy in from students is incredible!