For the last couple of years, we have connected with Fran Haley, a K-12 ELA educator and literacy coach at a Title I school in North Carolina, via Twitter and some in-person conversations at PD we have facilitated in Wake County. She has a wise soul and her insightful perspective prompts us to think more deeply and act more intentionally. As a child, Fran imagined herself as characters in the books she read. Then she discovered the power of writing. She continues to study the craft of writing and to stretch herself with various genres, experimenting with voice and perspective. Nothing delights her more than seeing students get excited about writing. We are honored to share some of her enthusiasm with you through this guest post, the first in a two-part series.
“Every moment is a teachable moment as well as a writable one.” –Fran Haley
When it comes to teaching writing, teachers know the three Ms: minilessons, mentor texts, and modeling. A fourth M, however, is a little more problematic: motivation. Despite the teacher’s careful selection of high-interest, quality texts and the deeply important think-aloud, there’s that student who just does not want to write.
So much for Common Core Writing Anchor Standard 5: “Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting …” because, darn it, that student doesn’t want to write at all, let alone develop or strengthen any writing. Forget the rest of it. We pull everything out of our toolbox and none of it sparks that student.
But CCR Writing Anchor Standard 5 doesn’t end with developing and strengthening; the final phrase is “or trying a new approach.” This “new approach” surely means students rewrite pieces from different perspectives or take different stances, but might it subtly hint at an opportunity for those of us who teach writing? Different things work for different teachers; the dynamic of each classroom, the ebb and flow between teacher and students, is never the same twice. For me, as a teacher and literacy coach, collaborative writing was the “new approach,” which reached even the hardest-to-reach student with that fourth M and brought student writing to life.
Perhaps it was mostly because I love writing; I tell that to students up front. Passion, we all know, tends to be contagious. Perhaps it was because the fifth-graders took my carefully selected mentor texts into small groups for a few minutes, where they read to each other and discussed what they noticed about the form and the author’s approach, as I listened in. Perhaps it was because I let the class vote on the topic of the paper from several topics I hoped might work. Most of all, I believe that the collaborative writing of my memoir—my own memory, my own thinking, shaped by their input—was the hook which pulled every last one of them. The students became part of the process; the process became synergistic.
Collaborative writing closely resembles shared writing, except that students take on more of an advisory role; the goal isn’t to complete a model piece quickly but to have students contributing during the whole messy process of good writing. Once the topic was agreed upon, I started writing under a document camera. The students helped create an appropriate beginning. They began to ask critical questions, from characterizing my family members in the memoir to whether or not “that comma” was appropriately placed, and why. The students asked me to define some of my word choices; once or twice they even recommended better ones. We even debated artistic or stylistic choices.
The students saw things I didn’t (Are we not always a bit myopic with our own work?) and made spontaneous suggestions which improved the narrative. They watched, nodding approval, when a sudden inspiration sent me back to the previous paragraph to insert a thought (I was, after all thinking aloud). The students actually caught “holes”–gaps in the logical flow–that I had to go back and fill!
Together we completed our first draft, and when the final period was placed, the students applauded. All of them. The memory was mine, but we all owned the work.
Afterward, when it was time for “you do,” the students generated numerous ideas for their own memoirs, and that student who hadn’t ever wanted to write was the most excited. His memoir about telling the truth after an unwise choice ended up being one of the most moving.
Yes, there was still planning, revising, editing, and rewriting to do, on our collaborative draft and on their individual ones, with much, much conferring, but the difference was that all the students wanted their work to be powerful, to impact their readers.
And they did.