Read and Shut Up
The title of this post might be the shortest lesson plan ever written by a traditional teacher (“Test Friday,” he could add if he felt talkative). New and improved teachers, at least those familiar with the writing process, may recognize these directions as steps one and two of how to share your paper in a workshop setting. The idea is that after reading the piece out loud, an author has to step out of the way and listen to his group’s response in order to understand what is actually coming across to the reader. This is sometimes very different than what the author himself intended to convey.
Today’s sermon is not about writing workshop per se, however. It’s about how I introduced writing workshop to my students using a powerful but simple pedagogical method that can be employed by virtually any teacher of any subject.
Writing to learn a la Donald Murray is one of the most powerful ways I know to individualize instruction, and can be done in almost any subject or grade level. One example of WTL is asking a question, and then letting each student respond for a few minutes in writing before discussing with the class. This works because every learner is engaged, rather than simply the kid who raises his hand all the time to blurt out answers. Note that this writing is not collected or graded for correctness; the point is to use short bursts of it to facilitate thinking and promote meaningful class discussion.
Here’s an example of how I used writing to learn today in my ninth grade English class as I was introducing the procedures for writer’s workshop. Again, I think you could do this if you were studying the causes of the Russian Revolution, the process of mitosis, or how to do long division.
“Will everyone please open their writer’s notebook to a clean page? Put today’s date in the upper right hand corner. The title of this entry is “Writer’s Workshop.” I’m a little anal about formatting entries, but only because I’ve found it useful to be organized enough to find things later. It’s like a definition for jazz (not sure where I stole this from): complete freedom within rigid structure.
“Each of us either has some experience with writer’s workshop… or not. If you’ve done it before, write about how it works, what the rules are, or a time you did it. If you haven’t done it before, write what you think it is, what you want to know about it, or other questions.” Experts, in-betweeners, and non-experts all have something to say.
Unlike a full on free write, which can go for twenty minutes once kids get their writing legs, this one was five minutes long. I wrote, too. In fact, since I taught English 9 three times today, I had three five-minute long writing sessions in which to reflect, refine, and critique the lesson itself. Writing with students models the behavior, sending the message that this is important shared work. Leveraging the writing time to plan and polish makes me a more effective and engaged teacher. I would be hard pressed to find the time or energy to do that outside of class.
After we wrote, we talked as a class. As we went, I made a chart on the board with do’s and don’ts for authors (the ones reading their paper) and readers (the other members of the group). While kids said different things in each period, in general the most important ideas made it up on the board. You can read on at the end of this post to see the list we made in third period (which happens to still be up on the white board as I write).
After we made our list together, the class did another quick write: “Based on our discussion and what you see on this chart, add to the entry you started earlier. You can copy the chart or just write about the part you felt was most important.” Once again, silence descended as kids pushed their thinking a little further.
Upon completion of this exercise, the workshop launched itself. As I walked around, dropping in and out of conversations, I could hear students attempting to offer feed back using I-statements and correcting one another based on our agreed upon do’s and don’ts. Checking in at each table, I recorded a revision goal for each author.
At the end of the workshop, I asked students to write down four more “things to look for as you revise” at the end of their journal entry, which were actually “oh yeah” thoughts that came to me as I walked around the room or through my own quick writes. In a way, I was revising the lesson even as I taught it. I’ve included these four questions after the student-generated lists of do’s and don’ts.
Read your piece out loud and proud…
Then shut up—excuse me-- listen hard (to the group’s responses).
Give the reader what they need.
Take notes during and after to help with revision.
Don’t explain what your paper was supposed to say. It should speak for itself.
Don’t stop reading in the middle, even if you catch a mistake.
Don’t feel like you need to take every suggestion. It’s your paper, after all.
Be kind. Writing honestly means taking a risk.
Be constructive. You can help them improve without hurting their feelings.
Be specific and respond as a reader: I liked the line where… I want to know more about… I was confused when…
Don’t interrupt the author, or be disrespectful.
Don’t “red pen” first or only. Help with grammar but first address ideas and flow.
Don’t say “you should…” Say how you felt as a reader, and leave it to the author to figure out what he should do to reach you.
Don’t “fix” it. That’s the author’s job.
Don’t give (too many) verbal doggie biscuits. “That was really good” doesn’t make me a better writer.
Four more questions for revision
Where is the tension? Stories usually build up to a problem or conflict, forcing the reader to read on.
Where can you slow down and expand? Good writers don’t always go at the same speed. At a key moment, they tend to slow down and provide greater detail, often with sensory imagery.
Have you written for the lay reader? Using too many technical terms about a subject like football or a video game can lose some readers. Write for an audience ranging from kids at your table to me or other adults in the building.
Does this personal story shed light on a larger issue? Connecting your narrative to human nature or society in some way can make a paper more interesting. And isn’t that what this is really all about?