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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Summer PD: Five Fundamentals for Creating a Positive Writing Atmosphere

Writers write. They never say they're "going to write." They write here, there, and everywhere. Professional writers usually stick to a schedule. But most writers write when they can, when life doesn't get in the way. Some write on napkins at the local diner or on a receipt using the steering wheel as a desk.

I'm writing part of this blog on my dining room table at 6:45 am, dressed and ready for school; my three-year-old is snoring on the couch in the living room and I'm trying to delay cleaning up the cat puke. That's my usual atmosphere when school is in session. No coffee shop, no fancy den, no oak desk with the dull glow of lamplight, just fifteen minutes to pound the keys.

I've been writing for quite some time so drafting most of my blogs in the shadow of the morning routine is no biggy. However, junior writers need more of an atmosphere to concentrate on the art of writing.

TIME + SPACE + CHOICE = REAL WRITING
---Barry Lane

1. Set a Time to Write and Stick to It!

Real writing needs real time. Hemingway once said, "Writing is long periods of thinking and short periods of writing." While I don't have the luxury of a regular writing time, our students absolutely need one.

Barry Lane, in his book But How Do You Teach Writing?, calls for a "regular and predictable writing time, which allows students to rehearse what they are going to write about in their heads, hours before it's time to write." Kids need that "heads up" when it comes to writing. Plus, it helps them focus on the events, thoughts, and curiosities in their life about which they can write. This is what Pulitzer Prize winner Don Murray calls "writing before writing."

In plain clothes, "writing before writing" is daydreaming. I spent most of my elementary school days daydreaming about what kind of battle I would create with my Star Wars figures when I got home. Playing with action figures is undoubtedly responsible for my ability to write today. I was writing every day of my life, just not on paper. Just imagine if I had the freedom and the time to write it down. Where would I be today? No matter how you slice it, writing is hard and kids need daily, uninterrupted time to mess up, scribble out, slash ideas, and find gold without the question of ". . . when will I get another chance?"

2. Writers in Spaaaaaace (Announced like "Pigs in Space")

I allow my students to write anywhere in the room their little heart fancies -- on their desk, under their desk, at a free desk/table, on the rug, lying down on the rug, in the corner, on a chair with a clipboard, next to the fish tank -- wherever! However, the key word in this whole paragraph is "write." Wherever they end up, they need to write. If not, students begin to lose mobility privileges. It's important to set precedent early in the year: "You have the freedom to move only if you intend to use your space efficiently." Oh, and I always allow my students to take off their footwear. We release heat from out heads and our feet. It's just a comfort thing (though maybe smelly).

3. Choose Your Tools Wisely

I present my students with a smorgasbord of writing tools in order for them to find comfort, which will promote writing confidence. And we all know what happens when a writer is confident: ***Poof! Super Duper Pow***!

I offer pens, erasable pens, pencils, mechanical pencils -- I honestly don't care what a student chooses as his writing weapon. I'll let a student write in blood if it makes him/her feel comfortable enough to take the risk. At least four different types of lined paper, a journal, blank paper, and a computer are on the menu. However, students do need to prove themselves worthy of using such tools. After observing some drafting, I will encourage (and sometimes require) certain students to use certain tools. It really depends on their fine motor skills and how efficient they are with certain types of lines and/or computers.

Note: Regardless of the tool they use, I heavily discourage students from erasing during the drafting process. We often chant in the beginning of the year, "No braking for erasing! No braking for erasing!" Erasing causes a burp in the thought process. Just keep going, man.

4. Modeling: Set Pure Tone

Jeffrey Wilhelm, professor of English education at Boise State University and the director of the Boise State Writing Project, believes that teachers need to write in order to teach writing. In his interview for the book, Teaching the Neglected "R", he clearly states that it's important for teachers to do the writing assignments they give students and then ask, "Would I do the work I'm asking my students to do?"

I spend a great deal of in-class modeling by writing in my journal or on my computer. This technique is a double-edged sword. It shows that I (teacher) value writing and it controls the sounds volume in the room.

If the idea of a writing workshop is new to your students they will feel a bit weird with the freedoms they just received and will probably . . .

a) talk
b) look for friends to sit next to and talk
c) hide in a corner and . . . you guessed it, talk.

My response? "Excuse me, but I can't concentrate when you're talking." Never fails. If you do this persistently and consistently, it will diffuse the talkers long enough for them to realize that, "Hey, this writing thing isn't so bad," and they'll stop talking because they'll be engaged in the writing process.

5. Embody the Writer's Attitude

I learned to write in my room, not in school. It's not a terrible way to hone your craft, but I often think how my writing life would be different if I had a mentor, a teacher, or a fellow writer as a child (other than my mom). Different, I presume.

My thoughts on how I became a writer resonate with Donald Murray's reflection on his life: "All the qualities that made me weird in my family, in school, on the street corner, the qualities that I usually tried to hide and was often ashamed of, were what made me the writer I am." I want you to remember that, brothers and sisters, the next time you just don't get a student.

I let the reins loose in the name of creative freedom and in the spirit of the education I wish I received. My ideas might not be right for you, but there's one point on which I guarantee we will agree. We both desire to inspire each and every student in our classrooms. We want them to come to the page with confidence, a feeling of ownership, and an attitude that blinks in neon lights: I can do this.

We both want them to want to write, right? What are some of your techniques to foster a writing atmosphere?

Summer Reading on Writing

On Writing Stephen King

But How Do You Teach Writing? Barry Lane

Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, and Poem Donald Murray

Teaching the Neglected "R" Thomas Newkirk and Richard Kent

    Comments (17)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

    SDIAZ7's picture
    SDIAZ7
    K-6 ESL Elementary Teacher from Guayama, Puerto Rico

    Education It is like hiking up a mountain, one that probably is not so easy to climb, but one which we will always manage to conquer.

    E Luci Dahl's picture
    E Luci Dahl
    2nd Grade Teacher, St. Petersburg, Florida

    Your post gave me specific, easy to implement ideas for improving my teaching of writing. I think # 4 is my favorite; I know that one and have used it, but I keep forgetting it in the rush to conference with my writers!

    Luria Learning's picture
    Luria Learning
    3rd Grade Teacher and Founder of Luria Learning

    Thank you for your comments. Number 4 has made a big difference for me and helped me feel less stressed in the classroom. It can be overwhelming, thinking about all of the students you want to conference with.

    I used to go straight from modeling to conferencing with students. Before long, students would be talking, I would feel stressed and writing time was not productive for anyone.

    Then I started using the quiet 10. After I model, I put on some music and we all write quietly. The students write for a full 10 minutes, and then can conference. I made sure to write for some of that time, modeling how quietly they should be working.

    You would be amazed by the difference this makes. The students are suddenly writing more. They are engaged. They are excited about writing. You feel less stressed and overwhelmed. This one change has made such a big difference.

    Here is a video of one of my writing videos I use with my students to teach them to write interesting sentences: http://luria-learning.blogspot.com/2011/04/soba-sentences.html

    Sacha
    www.luria-learning.blogspot.com

    Kelsey Kempter's picture
    Kelsey Kempter
    Fourth Grade Teacher

    I am really hoping to develop my writing teaching this year and support students in finding their love of writing. This post is very helpful in helping me to visualize where I am going. I anticipate having the "quiet 10" as mentioned and making sure students can move around the room and really develop their ideas. How do you support the different types of writing that students are expected to master? Do they get to choose their topics but stay within the genre required?

    Gaston's picture

    This entry is great especially since I will be team teaching in a 4th grade classroom this year. In Florida we have the FCAT Writes were students need a 4, 5, or 6 in order to be considered passing. I can definitely relate to Pt. 3 because as a Math person I never erase I just scratch out my work and keep going. Like writing I feel that erasing affects my thought process for that particular math problem. In my quest to help my classroom partner with our students' writing ability I am going to implement a math journal. Most math journals consist of math problems students do every morning. However, this math journal is going to have students reflect on the days teaching, what they learned that day,, and what can be done to improve the lesson or help them better understand the task at hand. I also thought Pt. 4 was great because even I am a victim of making noise when students are working in groups or in an individual setting. By showing students that the assignment is important to your real life context they will soon follow suit. Overall I think we as educators have to show our students that there is no such thing as bad writing and that there isn't a specific time or place to begin writing. This entry has definitely helped my confidence with 4th grade writing this upcoming school year.

    Larren's picture

    I love these ideas. They will be easy to immediately implement into my classroom. I can't wait to share the ideas with my fellow teachers.

    Shanda's picture

    These are great ideas! I really like the idea of being able to write anywhere in the classroom. This gives the kids freedom to move around and get more comfortable as they great. I also love the idea of using anything to write. I have always pushed students to use their pencils and don't be afraid to make mistakes but as I read your post I realize that it isn't about what their writing with but that they are actually actively engaged in the writing process.

    Jessica's picture

    As a first-year teacher, I found this article to be insightful and relevant to my profession. Although I consider myself to have great writing skills, I often worry about how I will effectiveely teach writing to my Kindergarten students. Writing seemed to come easy to me as a young student; therefore, it is difficult for me to relate to struggling writers. Writing is a complex subject, and I often wonder where to begin in teaching it. In reading this article, I found exactly where I must begin with my class. I must begin with creating a positive environment that is conducive to writing. I anticipate having struggling writers. In order to help them overcome this, I must provide them with a positive writing environment. Your article has allowed me to gain insight into how I will create this type of environment. First, I must decide on a schedule for writing. My students must know when writing workshop will begin in our classroom. Next, I must allow my students opportunities to spread out and write throughout the classroom. However, it is important that I teach them my expectations for this opportunity as my students are young and new to the school environment. Then, I must inform my students about all of the tools that are available for them to use in their writing. Finally, I must inspire and motivate my students to write through modeling and embodying the attitude of a writer. As a result of reading this article, I have gained wonderful insights into how to establish a positive writing environment at the beginning of the school year. Thank you!

    Erin's picture

    I am currently a student teacher doing the first part of my internship in a fourth grade classroom. I was so excited about seeing the writing activities in the classroom based off of the theory and ideas that were talked about in my university classes. I have thus far been mildly disappointed in what I've seen. We have a writing IL that comes in every other week, and she's wonderful with the students, but on the week she isn't there, writing is mildly neglected. When the class is working on writing, it's very stern and regimented. I think that it's reflected in the student's writing because they are writing very short, unimaginative work. I love the ideas that you've put forward here and I see myself running my own class like this when I get to that point! I found this post to be encouraging and re-excited me about writing in the classroom!

    Jennifer's picture

    My goal for the past two years of teaching is to improve my teaching of writing and because I have been so focused on improving my writing, I was drawn to this blog. Last year in my grade level team we worked on dividing up our writing students by the writing skills they needed to work on, and focused on those skills to help improve students' writing. This really helped our students gain confidence. They were working on skills that everyone else in their class was working on. Some of the low writers in my class became the leaders due to this new found confidence.
    I agree with the points you made on how to structure writing time in the classroom. We always have a set writing time each day and I allow my students to work where they would like to, as long as they are writing. I also agree with you that a lot of modeling is mandatory for successful writing growth. I rarely have my students do an assignment that I have not modeled previously. In my classroom we have our writing block, and a time during our Language Arts centers for free writing. I have found that my students love this free writing. Almost everyone is engaged in the process, and producing quality work. What more could I ask for? I think the key to this engagement is treating my students as "real writers." I have tried to have an assortment of writing tools available, but I often find they have gone missing. I'm not sure what the key is to keeping them available for all students to use. Thanks for the great insights. I look forward to reading more.

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