It’s a Wrap! Three Take-Aways from Writer’s Workshop

Students turned in their final portfolios on Friday, and just like that, the semester is nearly over.

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A 7th-grader assembles his final Writer’s Workshop portfolio.

On Friday, my seventh- and eighth-graders turned in their final Writer’s Workshop portfolios. In early November, students began choosing eight writing projects from a list of twelve. The list offered a range of projects ranging from poetry to arguments to narratives to informational works. The focus of WW was the writing process. The procedure required that they complete three drafts and share their work with their peers and me for feedback and revision suggestions.

Click here to read my post from three weeks ago that outlines how WW works in my classroom.

By the way, I didn’t include a list of the various writing projects in that earlier post. Here are two photos of the final portfolio rubric I used this year, which lists the projects students could choose from.

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7th-Grade Final Portfolio Rubric | Instructions and word count requirements for each project were provided on a separate sheet.
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8th-grade Final Portfolio Rubric | Instructions and word count requirements for each project were provided on a separate sheet.

It might appear that the grading was intensive and time-consuming. However, since I had already seen the students’ second drafts and provided feedback on those, my main task in assessment was confirming that students followed the writing process for each project. Students turned in a two-pocket folder with their eight projects enclosed. For each project,  I looked for their first draft, their first draft responder sheet, their second draft (the draft I provided feedback on), and finally on top of the stack, their third and final draft. I did make sure that significant changes were made at each stage of revision. Points were deducted if they didn’t make any changes from draft to draft. In addition, I gave a “quality of writing  & presentation” grade and then also circled a holistic rating for their work (see arrow on the final portfolio rubric in the photo below).

In case you’re wondering, yes, we do use a lot of paper (and ink) in my classroom. Students composed mostly on their Chromebooks, but then I also required that every project is printed. I know many students share their Google Docs with each other for revision and editing purposes, but I still require that students turn in hard copies of all drafts. Here’s my post that explains my loyalty to having students submit paper copies, rather than just dropping a file into Google Classroom.

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One student’s final portfolio

Overall, WW was a great experience this year. As I graded rubrics this weekend, I came upon three main take-aways. Here they are:

  1. Require that students choose an equal number of each genre. While the variety offered in the project list usually guarantees that students will write across genres, I did notice that some students were heavy on poetry, which makes sense. Free-verse poetry (which I encourage over rhyme) seems to have (to students, anyway) fewer rules and punctuation usage can be looser. However, I would prefer that students get more practice in essay writing. Next year, I’ll make sure to enforce “genre equality!”
  2. Schedule a progress grade mid-way through the workshop schedule. I did this informally by checking with students during conferencing to ensure they were on-task throughout the six weeks, but assigning a formal grade that required the completion of four projects at the three-week point may have helped some of the students with budgeting their time.
  3. Continue the responder sheet grade. This year, I added a responder sheet grade. I asked each student to show me a responder sheet that they filled out for another student. If they followed the directions on the responder sheet, which were to choose four to six questions and answer them in writing on the back of the sheet, they would receive full points. If they answered only two questions, then half points. If they only made a few editing marks on the draft, or provided minimal answers (as in “I think it’s great!” with no suggestions for improvement), they would earn fewer points. Including this grade in the workshop this year made students more accountable for providing constructive feedback. I need to make sure I continue with this practice.

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It’s been a good semester and I’m looking forward to January. After Christmas break, seventh-graders will begin reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer followed by an analysis of the film, The Conspirator; eighth-graders will continue work on their human rights dissertation and also begin reading Frederick Douglass’ narrative. My sixth-graders? They’ll be continuing their mastery of the beloved five-paragraph essay, the champion of academic writing. More on that in a later post!


Thanks for reading! Feel free to click like and leave a comment with your own Writer’s Workshop experiences. 

 

Outlines have a time and place; a personal essay isn’t one of them.

One of my students is learning that “Discovery is the thing.”

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This book contains nuggets of writing wisdom that make great mini-lessons in my Writer’s Workshop sessions. Another one to be discussed in another post: the importance of being specific.

Last week, I wrote about Writer’s Workshop and how I am really enjoying it this fall in my middle school language arts classes. I have a few books that I pull ideas from to use for mini-lessons before the kids transition to working on their writing projects.

One of those books is Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories. It’s a book I ordered a year or so ago for ideas on memoir and biographical writing. I have found several eye-opening sections in the book that I have shared with my students. One of these points we’ve discussed is the value of digression in writing. To digress, Roorbach recommends writing without a plan, of allowing your writing to reveal your thinking on a topic.

In class, we read this excerpt:

“Part of what’s in your head is going to be stories, and when you start telling stories from your life, your life itself becomes evidence. The personal essayist examines the evidence until it’s plain to both reader and writer just what’s evident. Abandon the outline, all ye who enter here! Discovery is the thing. Too firm a plan, and you miss the digression that takes you where you didn’t know you wanted to go.”

Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach with Kristen Keckler, PhD; Ch. 1

Kids usually breathe a sigh of relief when they find out they don’t have to use an outline. And when we read this in class, I clarify that there are indeed times when an outline will help them. For example, outlines are useful when their writing is an assemblage of pertinent facts and details that need organizing or when they’re having trouble getting started.

However, for some types of writing, outlines may actually hinder the thought process that writing spurs. That’s what Roorbach is getting at. Following an outline may constrain a writer’s thinking and inadvertently cause her to shut down her analysis of a life situation or recollection of a life event.

One of the projects on our Writer’s Workshop assignment list is a memoir or personal narrative essay. I have one student in particular (I’ll call her Camille) who I can tell is learning how the act of writing is helping her to define and refine her thinking and stance on a very controversial topic.

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To observe Camille intentionally and willingly struggle through her draft means she is growing as a writer, thinker, and learner.

She’s been working on her essay for a few days now, and I can tell as she works alone at a table in the back of the room, she is muddling through her ideas. She is starting and stopping, backing up again, and then restarting a sputtering paragraph to finally blaze through it as she clarifies and discovers how she feels on her topic.

She told me on Friday at the end of class, “It’s so hard to write about this because I have to think about every possible perspective and there are so many ways to look at it.” It’s obvious that Camille is learning that “writing is thinking.”

For me, this is one of the most difficult things about writing: giving myself the time to discover my own thinking. Most of the time, I want to get the piece done. I don’t want to spend the time lost in thought and unsure of how I feel. I want to say what I know and move on.

Those hours of mental wandering used to feel like torture to me (and still do, at times), but I’m learning to accept that this is writing. I must allow myself to not know where a piece is going and to just write, knowing that clarity in some measure will result… eventually.

Seeing Camille learn this writing truth and find that “discovery is the thing” is a huge personal accomplishment for me as a writing teacher. To observe Camille intentionally and willingly struggle through her draft means she is growing as a writer, thinker, and learner. Understanding that “writing is thinking” will serve her well as she continues into high school and beyond.


Thanks for reading! There are other similar viewpoints to Roorbach’s on outlines and other forms of prewriting. I’ll discuss another teacher/author’s ideas on this topic in an upcoming post. Click like if you found this interesting and follow me to get that upcoming post. 

The Candy Memoir: A Sweet Assignment

This candy-themed essay is a great intro to the genre of memoir

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I made this image using Canva.com and included it on my Instagram account, @elabraveandtrue.

My second writing project with sixth-graders (after the Sometimes Poem) is memoir writing. We dip our toes into memoir writing by documenting memories that involve candy. If kids can’t think of anything or don’t really like candy, they can write about a favorite food instead.

Memoir is usually a new genre for sixth-graders, so we first learn what a memoir is. To do that, I start with what they know… a story about something that’s happened to them. It can be a happy time or a sad time, but it just has to be a true story. This is called the personal narrative, and this year, when I asked who could tell me what a personal narrative is, several hands shot up. That’s an awesome sign! I so appreciate the teachers these kids had in their elementary years. They have established such a firm foundation to build on!

After discussing the features of a personal narrative, I passed out a memoir to everyone. This one was called “Whatchmacallits and Me” and had been written by Hunter, a former student who is now in high school. Several of the kids knew this student and were curious to see his writing.

I turned on my document camera, and asked kids to draw a line on their copy of the memoir. This line was just above the last paragraph, which contained a reflection or observation written by the student about the memory. I then asked the kids to crease the paper on the line, folding the last paragraph under the sheet of paper. I made a point to call the part they were now looking at a personal narrative.

I read aloud the narrative from the beginning to the line that we had drawn. As I finished reading, I told them, “That was the personal narrative.” Then we briefly discussed the strongest moment in the narrative, the weakest moment, and other things we noticed.

Then I asked the kids to unfold their paper After everyone had unfolded their paper, I announced, “Presto! Abracadabra! Just like magic, Hunter’s narrative has turned into a memoir!” By folding down the final paragraph, which contained the reflection, we revealed the memoir. I explained it this way so they could see that a memoir contains everything that a narrative does, but that it also includes a moment of reflection.

I also show a Powerpoint slide that shows the differences between the personal narrative and the memoir. I leave this up on the Smartboard for the duration of class. See below for these lists:

Here are the features of a personal narrative, as listed in my Powerpoint:

  • A story based on a memory or experience
  • Uses 1st-person point-of-view (I, me, we, us, our…)
  • Has an interesting lead that “hooks” the reader
  • Has a beginning, middle, and end
  • Uses sensory language (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, texture)

Here are the features of a memoir, as listed in my Powerpoint:

  • A story based on a memory or experience
  • Uses 1st-person point-of-view (I, me, we, us, our…)
  • Has an interesting lead that “hooks” the reader
  • Has a beginning, middle and end
  • Uses sensory language (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, texture)
  • BUT ALSO: Has a reflection… a “lesson learned”, a realization, or an explanation of why the memory is important to you
  • BUT ALSO: May contain exaggeration, and made-up details, if necessary.

We repeated this same procedure for another former student’s memoir about chocolate-covered graham crackers. For good measure, we did this one more time with an essay titled “Ice Cream” from the book, Candy and Me: A Love Story by Hilary Liftin. I searched on Amazon.com for it and its current edition’s title is Candy and Me: A Girl’s Tale of Life, Love, and Sugar.

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Liftin’s book contains several (around 30-40) memoir essays about specific candies. I especially like the chapters on Bottle Caps, Ice Cream, Tootsie Rolls, the Bubble Burger, Sugar, Candy Corn, and Conversation Hearts. (There are a few essays with passages not suitable for middle school, so plan ahead for that.) However, this book provides enough texts to share with students to help them get ideas for their own.

Following all of these read-alouds, we did quite a bit of sharing. We talked about our favorite candy, why we like it so much, and then we tried to narrow our ideas to a specific memory with that candy.

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Memories with our favorite candy don’t have to be life-changing to make a good memoir; if sitting around the campfire eating s’mores just reminds one of being happy, then that’s a special enough memory for the assignment. It’s okay for the reflection to simply acknowledge that a s’more reminds you of good times.

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This is the table of contents from the Liftin book, Candy and Me. It’s full of fun chapters.

At this point,  I had students get out a sheet of notebook paper and asked them to do some free-writing about their favorite candy. Getting thoughts down about their candy was the main objective. They could start by simply describing their candy… flavors, texture, appearance, or what the

Many started bringing me short paragraphs about how great their candy was and that was okay. However, at this time, I asked them to record a memory with the candy. It could be as basic as just riding home from the grocery story in the back seat of the car, slowly peeling back the wrapper and inhaling the white chocolate aroma of a Zero bar. This usually prompted students to get a little more down on paper.

Sixth-graders love to write a few lines and then come up to you and ask, “Is this good?” They really want to do well.

As a usual practice, I like for kids to do their initial writing by hand on paper. When they have filled up the front of a sheet of paper, I allow them to get out a laptop and type it up, making any changes they need to as they go. One page of writing is a lot to a sixth-grader, so I offer to give them ideas if they get stuck and can’t fill up the page.

Probably the best thing about these candy memoirs is they allow me to talk with each student individually and get to know them a little better. It’s fun to find out that we like the same candy, for example. Sometimes we find out that someone’s favorite is someone else’s least favorite.

It is difficult for some kids to add reflective moments into their narratives. Many will simply not add them until I prompt them with a phrase such as, “Looking back on it now, …” or “Eating Skittles showed me that…”

The candy memoir is an entry point into the genre of memoir. In fact, we follow up this sweet assignment by writing a memoir that isn’t based on candy, but on a memory of a special moment from their young lives. As we get into this part of the unit, I’ll fill you in on those details.


Thanks for reading! Check back with me next week for a continuation of this post. I’ll write about the next step… venturing out into writing a memoir about a special or memorable moment.