4 Ways to Empower Young Writers
This post is by Britt Shirk, Ninth Grade Humanities Teacher at High Tech High Chula Vista.
September 1, 2016
Journal #1: Dear Writing
We have always known each other. You were always there but we never really talked. That is, until 1st grade. That's when we were pushed and forced to know each other. My 1st grade teacher believed we had a strong relationship and pushed me harder. She challenged me to spend more time with you. That's where our friendship began. After that school year, our relationship only strengthened. As years flew by we faced difficult times as I learned more about your rules. Most of my classmates complained about you, but I didn't. I accepted your challenges and took them head-on. At the end of the day we were best friends. As I entered middle school you became a great source of happiness as I began to spend more time with you for fun. However, now we're distant. I haven't spent time with you in months and our relationship is now...odd. I hope we become close friends again.
This journal entry was composed by one of my ninth graders. My class reads Michael Jordan's retirement letter to basketball to see writing that "speaks" candidly to an inanimate object in the form of a love letter. I switch the object of basketball to writing and they compose an honest letter expressing their relationship to writing. Students often respond, "Does it have to be a love letter because I think I want to write a breakup letter!" The authentic response to write about struggles is what I hope they will tap into so they can share their fears and have a relic to look back on to realize their growth.
After coding their responses, I found that 21 percent of my students love writing, 35 percent hate it, and 44 percent admitted that they first enjoyed writing but now feel a dislike towards it. How can we help students navigate the highs and lows of developing their voice as writers? What can we do to help empower students as confident and capable writers? Or more importantly, how do we turn the breakup letters into makeup letters?
In order to tackle these questions, I asked my students to identify what would make them more confident writers. The chart below captures their responses.
Their desires to improve in these areas led me to create the acronym VOICE: Vocabulary Development, Opportunities for Writing, Investigation of Various Styles, and Community Writing to Empower Young Writers. The next sections offer activities from this model to help students become better practitioners of writing.
Vocabulary Development: 20 Words a Week
Each week students investigate 20 words. Every day, five new words are written on the board in sentences containing context clues. Students decode the meanings, create paragraphs, and have class discussions about the words.
- Have students work in pairs to promote conversation around the words, rather than learning in isolation.
- Encourage students to use words in classroom conversation instead of flashcards. Flashcards tend to promote memorization rather than application.
- Challenge students to use the words in their writing. Even if they flounder, they gain more experience with using words thoughtfully.
- Give topics for paragraphs and choose one word as a starting point.
Opportunities/Increased Frequency to Write: Reading Journals
While reading a class novel, students write journal responses after each chapter to connect, as well as mirror the style of the writer. For example, my students write a journal entry after every vignette from The House on Mango Street. There are 44 in total and we read about three a day.
- Read the novel first and construct prompts based on themes (family struggles, social justice, gender, love, etc.) to introduce each chapter and get them excited about the topic.
- Give time to write in class. Carving out practice time helps build their ability to tackle a prompt and gives every student the same opportunity to practice, discuss, refine and receive support in a team of learners.
- If students struggle with a prompt, encourage them to respond directly to a character's actions in the chapter.
- Have students reread their responses immediately to reinforce the skill of self-editing.
Investigation of Various Styles: Golden Nugget Collaborative Piece
More opportunities to write leads to more opportunities to share, which allows students to see different styles of writing within their learning community. The Golden Nugget Collaborative Piece consists of student work being passed through three to five peer writers. Peers read and highlight what they believe is the "Golden Nugget" or most powerful sentence of the writing. Once the pieces have gone through circulation, the writers choose their "Golden Nugget" from the ones their peers identified and rewrite on an index card. Collect the cards and compile the sentences into one collaborative writing piece.
- Give students critical friends to give quick feedback before papers are circulated.
- Have students pass work down a line, rather than in a table group. This allows them to "let go" and focus on their peer's work.
- Each peer writer highlights in a different color. The colors visualize that style in writing is subjective and open for interpretation.
- Give students time to debrief in order for each writer to hear why their peers chose the sentences they did.
Community Writing: Peer Writing Groups
Peer Writing Groups consist of five or six students who work together on writing by building on one another's work and revising. The teacher also writes alongside the groups, rather than acting as facilitator. Groups meet weekly for an hour to complete activities from a prompt packet.
- Rearrange the classroom. I separate tables, put down giant rugs, play music, and even allow them to drink tea while they write! Transforming the space helps them transform into writers.
- Form groups randomly. The more random the group the more likely all students are to rise and "write up."
- Teacher sits with a different group each week as a "guest" writer.
- Read work aloud so students hear where they can improve structure and punctuation.
Empowered Writers: Feedback
I gathered substantial evidence while developing my VOICE curriculum, but the most powerful anecdotes were student responses from an exit card. I asked my students to explain how they felt they were growing as writers, compiled and coded their responses, and found five emerging themes: greater use of literary devices, increased ability to write more openly, use of more powerful language, the ability to write more fluidly and finally an improvement of writing to the prompt. These responses were promising but it wasn't until I asked them to reread their letters to writing and write new ones on the last day of class that these themes came full circle. To see more of their responses, visit my Empowering Young Writers website.