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Response: Celebrating our Students' Good Writing

(Note: This is the first post in a multi-part series on teaching writing)

Katie Ciresi asked:

What advice can you give to help teachers be more effective in helping students become better writers?

This series is a companion to last year's five posts on Helping Our Students Become Better Readers.

I'm "kicking off" with guest responses from three educators: Mary Tedrow, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. Look for many more in the coming three weeks.

Response From Mary Tedrow

Mary Tedrow, NBCT, has taught high school English for 24 years in Winchester, VA. She is a charter member of the Teacher Leaders Network and a Co-Director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project at George Mason University. Her blog is called Walking To School:

"Write what you know." Though often repeated advice, truly understanding this simple truth can shift classroom routines.

After observing that even 'poor' writers write better when choosing a topic they really know--for example, a dramatic bicycle crash vividly described by an otherwise reluctant student--my philosophy changed from "It's my job to assign writing" to "It's my job to help students discover what they know before they write, and celebrate good writing." Suddenly, every classroom activity is fodder for an opportunity to "write what you know."

Students, like athletes, need lots of practice to improve. Frequent, authentic writing about content-related observations, questions, or experiences provide low-risk opportunities where students "see what they know." Daily writing is rehearsal before asking students to lay it on the line in formal, graded papers. Many teachers assign writing, skipping over the needed practice, and are disappointed when students fail to rise to expectations.

Incorporating writing opportunities into classroom routines also provides think-time and a chance to develop a written voice. And, when used to advance classroom work, the writing need not be collected, graded, or read by the classroom teacher.

Here are a few ways to incorporate writing and give students much needed practice:

• Throw away pre-printed notes and lecture for 5-9 minutes. Stop and ask students to record the highlights. Then, pair students to read the writing to each other. After sharing, students can adjust notes to add information gleaned from the partner. Share-out to correct misconceptions and review once again.

• Before a discussion, ask a provocative question and have students write their answer. Students will be prepared to contribute after having had time to think, and will have a record of their initial thoughts. Reluctant speakers will silently compare the ideas they hear with the ones recorded. Provide a few minutes after discussion for students to write about what was gained from listening.

• After an assigned reading, ask students to bring only written questions to class. Center a lecture or discussion around the questions.

Daily, informal writings can be collected in a notebook. Later, review the writings for potential research inquiries or as starting points for formal papers. Allowing students to choose an area of interest heightens their willingness to do the hard work of research and editing for a clean, final draft.

If you must account for informal writings, regularly "audit" the notebooks. Students flag or reproduce entries that meet objectives and you need only consider those. Ask students to: "Find an entry where you learned something new. What did you learn?" "Which of your entries surprised you? Why?" "Find an entry of high quality. What makes this a high-quality entry?"

Answering these questions is yet another authentic writing experience where the student is the 'expert' on the answers: his own experience in your classroom.

Response From Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey

Douglas Fisher is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Nancy Frey is a professor in the School of Teacher Education, at San Diego State University. Both are teacher-leaders at Health Sciences High and Middle College, and have authored books on several topics, including literacy, RtI, and formative assessments. You can visit their website:

As the new school year begins, we're all given to making resolutions that will improve our practice. The 2012-13 school year is especially important, particularly if you work in one of the states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts. In many places, including our home state of California, this is our "sandbox year." This is the year where we experiment with methods that we will fully put into practice when the new standards are implemented in 2013-14. We'll make sure they read more informational text, and engage in deep discussions that lead to the kind of critical thinking needed for argumentation. Most of all, we'll make sure they write more. But improving writing is more than simply causing it; we've got to teach it. But how? Here are our resolutions for improving writing abilities of our school students this year:

1. We let them witness our writing. Our credibility suffers when we simply assign. After all, if it's so important, why don't we do it in front of them? They need to see that planning what we'll say, struggling for the right word, re-reading and editing, and even dealing with the comments of editors is a natural part of the process.

2. Writing happens every day. Stamina is built through daily practice, whether it is physical or mental. Writers need daily application in order to build the kind of stamina they need for extended writing. It's dangerous to assume that the occasional 45-minute writing session is equal to shorter daily practice. The secret is to have lots of short writing episodes (less than 10 minutes) distributed throughout the period or class, rather than a single long session every week or two. Our daily goal in our 90-minute high school class is 500 words. At the end of every week, that's 2500 words.

3. Writing fluency matters. How many times have we set a purpose for writing, only to have some students left staring at a blank page or screen? When asked, they tell us, "I'm thinking." We use a brief timed writing exercise daily called Power Writing (Fearn & Farnan, 2001; Fisher & Frey, 2007) to build writing fluency. Students write for three one-minute rounds using a minimal prompt ("Choose butterfly or egg to use in your writing") then count the words, circle their errors, and graph their best effort for the day in their writer's notebook. This allows them, and us, to gauge their progress over time--a great motivator.

4. Keep a writer's notebook. All this writing needs to go somewhere. Each student has a notebook that never leaves the room. Each entry is dated, and students log their quickwrites, generative sentences, and Power Writing in one place. These become the fodder for further lessons in grammar, sentence combining, word choice, and extended writing. For instance, a lesson in generative sentences using discipline-specific vocabulary doesn't need to stop there. We can ask them to choose one of those sentences to form the topic sentence of a paragraph. A quickwrite can turn into a longer, more polished piece. And the writer never needs to confront the blank page.

Of course, students do more extended writing, especially research papers and persuasive writing. But their ability to slog through the difficult work of polished writing must necessarily occur outside of the classroom. Marathoners do sprints as part of their race preparation, and writers must engage in daily short writing in order to have the skills and stamina for writing outside of the classroom. Like you, our resolve to make sure this happens every day is made all the more urgent by the coming challenge of the core standards. But one thing is certain--they won't become better writers unless we actively commit to making sure they have the opportunity to do so.

Fearn, L., & Farnan, N. (2001). Interactions: Teaching writing and the language arts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2007). Scaffolding writing instruction: A gradual release model. New York: Scholastic.

Thanks to Mary, Doug and Nancy for contributing their responses.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I'll be including them in a future post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of seven published by published by Jossey-Bass.

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And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here.

Look for Part Two in this series next week....

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