This year, Bastrop Independent School District has contracted the Heart of Texas Writing Project to train the district’s K-12 English Language Arts teachers in the teaching of Writing Workshop. Writing Workshop classroom teachers use a project-based approach to writing that is rooted in student autonomy and authenticity.
The scope of this year’s work in Bastrop included week-long intensive institutes for K-12 teachers over the summer as well as on-site coaching sessions during the year which entail model lessons, planning times, and support with implementation. It has been incredible to see Bastrop’s teachers and students respond to this professional development. Teachers have reported so many positive observations including students’ enthusiasm about writing, self-motivation to improve their writing, and publication for broad audiences.
The more I have talked to teachers about audience, the more I have become adamant that it is not just unfortunate but, honestly, unacceptable for the teacher to be the primary audience for students’ writing. As I have worked in Bastrop, this message is one that I have seen make a visible and immediate impact on teachers’ practices. Students and teachers have begun to organize and host all kinds of publishing opportunities for students. In my last post, I promised to share examples of how other teachers have taught units of study that cover curriculum and raise students’ voices.
This summer, I met Meggie Smiley, 3rd grade teacher at Lost Pines Elementary School. She participated in the week-long mini institute that I led in Bastrop to give teachers a basis for the components and pedagogy of writing workshop. Twenty-one teachers participated in my session while other Heart of Texas Writing Project Teacher Consultants ran sessions for, collectively, almost 200 more Bastrop K-12 ELA teachers. Meggie was one of the many teachers who was quickly processing our conversations and mentally preparing to revise her practices for the upcoming school year. One day, as a group, we discussed the common question of whether or not to post on bulletin boards student work that contains mistakes. As important as the long-winded ‘answer’ we came up with together (the blogger at this link sums it up!) is where this question led our conversation.
We began to talk about so many different ways–in addition to bulletin boards–to publish student work. We talked about big celebrations and small, elaborate and simple, in-process as well as culminating work. The primary conclusion of this discussion was the agreement that students need to:
- start publishing early in the year
- continue to publish often
- publish for broader audiences than solely the teacher
Meggie Smiley heard those messages and ran with them.
Start Publishing Early
In September, Mrs. Smiley’s Back to School Night doubled as a publishing party. As pictured in the slideshow below, on each desk sat a student’s published piece of writing and space for parents to provide positive feedback. In addition, Mrs. Smiley and her students created a photo backdrop collage of students’ favorite authors’ names (including their own names, of course!) and About the Authors centerpieces.
In this first publishing party, Meggie took advantage of a date when she knew she already had a captive audience. She didn’t let the September date intimidate her. There were no excuses of “Oh, I haven’t had time to teach them anything yet” or “We don’t have time to make all the edits.” Meggie’s readiness to have her students publish early in the school year sent the message to students and parents that students have important things to say and there are people who are waiting to hear them. There is an urgency and a purpose to our writing, Meggie was telling her students.
As you can see in the photos, Mrs. Smiley’s class publication celebration was complete with cookies, centerpieces and even a signature cake. An appealing set up and snacks help the gathering feel celebratory and special, but when we look deeper, beyond the initial awe that Meggie’s stellar event-planning talent inspires, we see that the source of the true magic is in the sharing of student writing and the response students get, early in the year, from an audience who is hanging onto their every word.
Now that Mrs. Smiley and her class had gotten a taste of the excitement of publishing, Meggie looked at her unit plans and noticed the next opportunity for publication–poetry. Her poetry unit began on October 10th. Students read many examples of all kinds of poetry. They studied the craft of their favorite poets and used their favorite poems as inspiration to write their own poems on topics of their own choosing. With Halloween approaching, it would have been easy for Mrs. Smiley to have encouraged students to stick to a holiday theme, which is a common prompt in many elementary classrooms. But Writing Workshop teachers know that students do their best writing, their most authentic and motivated writing, when they choose their own topics, topics they care a lot about.
Students wrote poems about topics as broad as family and as specific as stripes, as close as Christmas and as far away as Colorado. They paid attention to the world around them and let the environment, the times, and the people they love inspire their work.
Once the poetry unit was underway, Mrs. Smiley considered students’ families’ schedules and chose a publication date that she thought would be convenient for most students. On October 18th, two weeks before the publishing party, students wrote and delivered invitations to their parents.
The invitations informed parents that on the 1st of November, Mrs. Smiley’s 3rd grade class would be hosting a Poetry Publication Party at Gracie’s, a restaurant well-known by many Bastrop locals. One of Meggie’s student’s grandmother owns the restaurant and so it was the perfect spot to take their writing outside the school’s walls.
Again, attendees enjoyed reading “About the Authors”, rich snacks, and a celebratory vibe. This time, instead of a gallery-walk style with written feedback, the publication experience was to watch young poets take the stage, hear them read their poetry, and react with smiles, chuckles, nods, and applause. Poetry, as poetry should, projected out to an audience listening to poets whose words roused emotions.
After the celebration, once the nerves had subsided but while the excitement still lingered, Mrs. Smiley’s 3rd grade poets wrote reflections. They wrote about the experience of writing, preparing, and presenting their poetry for an audience. Students’ reflections exhibited such themes as increased identity as authors, enthusiasm to engage in revision, and pride in making their poetry public. Click here to read what, specifically, Mrs. Smiley’s 3rd graders had to say.
Broad Audiences for Students’ Writing
The most recent publication party that Mrs. Smiley’s 3rd graders took part in was not their own. This time, they got to be the audience, the readers, for the writing of Melissa Wright’s 1st graders at Lost Pines.
In the same fashion as in Mrs. Smiley’s unit of study on poetry, Mrs. Wright’s first graders had engaged in a unit of study on fairy tales. They read fairy tales in class, paid attention to the components, and wrote original fairy tales of their own. Mrs. Wright shared that once she had worked with Mrs. Smiley to set the date for publication her students were “very excited and eager to get their writing done”. Writing for broader audiences than those of the teacher and immediate classroom peers often has this “deadline” effect on students. There are people who will coming to read our writing!? We need to get ready!!
On the day of the fairy tale publication party, the first graders had the option to, in addition to the gallery walk, share their fairy tales by reading them in front of both classes. Mrs. Wright was surprised at how many of her students volunteered. Even a shy student who she would not have guessed would have been interested, stood up and read aloud in front of both classes.
Again, students enjoyed snacks and a gallery walk around desks and chairs from piece to piece as Mrs. Smiley’s students provided the feedback. The 3rd graders, knowing how it feels to publish for an audience, read carefully with awe and excitement. It was their turn to look at other students’ writing with appreciation, interest, and the knowledge of the work and effort that went into each letter, each drawing, and each “once upon a time” in the 1st graders’ original fairy tales.
Mrs. Smiley’s 3rd graders wrote their words of praise and encouragement on bright-colored notes while the 3rd and 1st graders mingled, enjoyed cookies, and patted the backs of other young authors for a piece well done.
Mrs. Wright shared that after the publication party she began to see her students do more writing. Not just at writing time, but across the curriculum, on little pieces of paper or on other pieces of their school work. When students publish for audiences who show appreciation for their words and ideas, they begin to identify as writers. Mrs. Wrights first graders see themselves and writers and writers write!
When I think about what Mrs. Smiley, Mrs. Wright and their 3rd and 1st graders have accomplished in less than 4 months of classes, I am inspired. These Lost Pines Elementary students are published authors. They have experienced the nerves of not knowing how their audience will respond. They have battled the challenge of projecting their voices to be heard. They have worked diligently with energy and love for the craft. Now that they know what it feels like to be heard, to make an impact, they are armed with the powerful skills they need to walk into the world and let their ideas, their interests, their presence, be known.