Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.
Time and Routine
Time is a rare commodity in the classroom, but allotting regular time for writing is key to supporting the practice. It's important to teach students particular writing strategies, and students need time to practice and hone these new skills. An hour in the school day is a good amount of time for writing, and this doesn't have to come out of time designated for language arts. Students should understand that writing is an important skill that crosses disciplines, and that there are strategies specific to writing about science that may not be used when writing about history or literature. Writing should be given time and attention in all subject areas.
It's also important to establish a routine for the writing portion of class. Students should know where the writing materials are, what's expected of them during this time, and the procedures for getting opinions from writing partners or consulting the teacher. If visitors enter the room, assign students the duty to explain the routines to the visitors. This will cement the routine and give students a sense of ownership in it.
Writing to Learn
One key way to create an environment that supports writing is to show students how valuable a skill writing can be. Students who don't publish need to feel that writing is worth the effort, and that's where writing to learn activities can be useful. These short writing exercises help students focus their thoughts to better understand a lesson or to better understand their own thinking. For example, students might be asked to write all the living things they can name in two minutes. These lists could then be categorized in a way that helps students prepare to learn classification. Similarly, students asked to summarize the best ideas in a class discussion would have to think critically about what they heard, and after writing they would be better equipped to make their own contributions.
For early elementary grades a teacher may be enough, but as children grow they need an outside audience for their writing. Writing for a real audience gives it value and purpose. Audience could be as simple as an email exchange with a different teacher or administrator or classroom volunteer. It could be a post on the class blog or school website, or it could be a creative piece sent to a writing buddy from another school. Older students benefit from having younger writing partners, because they have to be the experts and know enough to teach the younger writer. The younger partner also wins by having a meaningful audience.
Writing is a process that requires failure for growth. Students don't experience that unless they feel free to make mistakes. Putting less emphasis on grades and more importance on revision helps students understand the real work of writers. A portfolio approach goes hand-in-hand with this strategy, allowing students to choose pieces from their body of work that showcase what they have learned. Pair this with student-led conferences to empower students to take ownership of their own work and learning experiences.
Choice not only gives students more of a feeling of autonomy, it also keeps the task of writing fresh. Students shouldn't choose everything they write in your class, but they should have some degree of choice in nearly every piece.
Making choices can be more than picking topics. Some writers work best on keyboards, while others need pencils and paper. Provide a variety of writing tools, from analog to digital, to allow your students to experiment to find what works best for them. It will also give them the variety that writers sometimes need to gain inspiration.
The Writer's Notebook
The writer's notebook can bring together all of the above strategies. These should be stored in the classroom so getting the notebooks out becomes part of the writing routine. The notebooks can also be a good place for writing to learn activities, for students to take note of writing strategies they've been taught, and they can house finished pieces and the drafts that will become part of a writing portfolio. Notebooks also allow students the chance to express their individuality. If teachers create an aura of importance and reverence around the notebook, students will pick up on that. They're also a tool that real writers use on a daily basis, so students can model their own writing process after the habits of professionals.
Creating a classroom environment that supports writing involves a multifaceted approach, but some key components are time, routine, audience, choice, and strategies - all of which can be folded into the writer's notebook.
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