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April 1, 2018

Giving Students the Right Kind of Writing Practice

Our unit in writing a narrative lets students "spiral" back to skills learned earlier, giving them much-needed writing practice and confidence.

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Instructional Strategies
Curriculum

Does the following scenario sound familiar?

The school year starts, and teachers open up the district's pacing guide, turn to the first quarter, and see that it is time to teach the narrative essay. They then spend weeks teaching kids to write one narrative essay. When that unit is over, they flip forward in the pacing guide and find that it's now time to teach the argument essay. They then spend weeks helping students to write one argument essay. And so on. All year, each teacher faithfully follows the pacing guide, and when the end of the school year arrives, students have written one essay in each of the genres typical of student writing assignments.

We reject this approach.

After 66 combined years in the classroom (Kelly teaching high school in California and Penny in New Hampshire), we know this: If a student only writes "big" essays, she is not getting enough practice to improve significantly. This pathway doesn't provide enough practice for writers—especially in districts where the pacing guide calls for teaching only four essays a year (a different genre in each quarter or, worse, one literary essay after another). Writing four major essays simply doesn't offer enough time immersed in the art of crafting words and sentences. Improvement in writing is grounded in practice, in getting words on the page—lots of them. There are no shortcuts. A "four big essays approach" stifles young writers. Worse, it ensures they will never become excellent writers.

But What

Conversely, as consultants who have worked across the United States, we have been in schools where students are getting lots of practice, writing an essay each month. However, in many of these classrooms, students practice the same form (the five-paragraph formula essay) repeatedly, which robs them of the ability to develop their own voice and agency as writers. It denies them the crucial experience of organizing their thinking. Repeating the same task may make them more fluent writers, but it will not make them better writers. Young writers don't just need practice; they need the right kind of practice.

So what kind of practice do students need? One way to answer this question is to consider how students might learn to write a good short story. The two of us put our heads together recently and designed a narrative unit based on Jerome Bruner's cognitive learning theory, in which he called for a "spiral" curriculum. 1 (A spiral curriculum is a course of study in which students will revisit the same topics or skills, with each encounter increasing in complexity and reinforcing what has been previously learned.) We then each taught this unit to our high school English students, moving through the unit at the same time (though on opposite ends of the United States). Our students did some reading and writing "together" as they progressed, sharing their thinking via both Google Docs and Flipgrid. 2

Bruner believed that students benefit from revisiting a task several times, having the opportunity to wrestle with increasing complexity with each new visit to the task. We don't learn something complex like writing a good story all at once; we learn incrementally. We learn when we scaffold new learning upon old learning. So if our students were going to learn to write excellent stories, we reasoned, they would need to take several laps through the genre—laps that build in an increasingly sophisticated progression of skills.

Multiple Laps Through a Genre

The two of us shaped the unit so students would create a series of texts that require a progression of skills. We think of this process as taking laps around a track, and each time one circles around, the complexity of the task increases. Completing multiple laps in a genre or discourse not only ensures that our students' writing volume will significantly increase, it also leads them to deeper understanding and increased confidence in their ability to craft complex texts.

Figure 1 shows the laps our students took through a nine-week study of narrative writing we developed. Our young writers got repeated practice with skills we know are essential for writing sophisticated narratives.


Figure 1. Structure of Our 9-Week Narrative Writing Unit

Giving Students the Right Kind of Writing Practice - table

Lap One: Swimming in Short Memoirs

Lap Two: Crafting One Scene

Lap Three: Crafting Several Scenes to Tell a Story

Lap Four: Using Multiple Narrators to Craft a Story

Make reading a daily habit.Read like a writer. Increase the volume of your reading—you'll see elements of effective story writing in everything you read.Read like a writer. Notice and imitate effective writing craft.Read like a writer. Analyze how authors craft different points of view.
You have a story to tell that no one can tell but you. Craft your narrator's voice.Show a moment in time (scene) through the use of sensory details (see, taste, hear, feel, smell) to help readers imagine and live inside the experiences of those in this setting.Craft several effective scenes to develop a story around an idea, a place, or a quality (like courage).Develop a voice for each narrator who contributes to your story through word choice, sentence structure, and tone.
Generate a lot of story possibilities in notebooks.Balance showing and telling to establish the pace of the scene and to show readers what matters.Organize scenes to create momentum and to best develop the purpose for readers. Use flashbacks and flash-forwards effectively.Recognize your power as a writer to change thinking. Tune your voice to persuade, to explain, and to tell with passion from different points of view.
Explode a moment by zooming in on details. Slow down time.Use dialogue to reveal characters both in what is said and what is not said and through the words of other characters.Create effective transitions to link scenes and bring cohesion to the story.Choose the genre (letter, email, poem, Snapchat, scene narration, etc.) that would best represent this character's point of view and voice at this place in the narrative.
Use all your senses to describe people, places, and events.Use word choice to create a believable, consistent voice for the narrator of the scene.Engage readers with a dynamic lead.Experiment with literary devices to develop your ideas, your setting, and your characters.
Polish your writing for an audience by proofreading line by line.Create an effective ending to reflect on why the story is told or why it matters.Use different points of view to deepen thinking about the ideas in your story.
Craft word choice to create the tone of the piece and to develop the narrator's voice.Organize scenes to create momentum in the plot, smoothly transitioning between narrators and events.
Use major and minor characters to interpret or elaborate on the big idea(s) or theme of your story.Conclude with a new understanding of the big idea.
Proofread, edit, and polish as you write.Read your writing aloud. Hear how it works and fine-tune it. Recognize errors in sentence structure and eliminate them.

Source: Excerpt from 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. Copyright © 2018 by James Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. Published by Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH. Reprinted by permission of the Publisher. All Rights Reserved.

Notice first that we anchor our teaching of writing in a high volume of reading. As Frank Smith famously said:

All the nuts and bolts of writing—including spelling, punctuation, and grammar, but more importantly the subtle style and structure of written discourse, the appropriate organization of sentences and paragraphs, and the appropriate selection of words and tones of voice—are learned through reading. The point deserves emphasis. You learn to read by reading and you learn to write by reading (p. 118). 3

Students must read many stories while they study story. We are certain that unless all teachers increase the volume of students' reading, we will never see the gains we seek in our students' writing.

Also note that on the progression of skills, we identify the kinds of texts students will write in each lap and also project how much time they'll need to complete each lap. At the beginning of the unit, we give students a "road map" plan for the laps they will take and the skills they will be asked to demonstrate with each piece of writing. We connect the critical habits characteristic of all writing with the skills of the specific genre we are studying. The skills detailed in the unit plan are a lot to take in at once, but we believe students are empowered when they understand that learning to write well in any genre involves mastering a progression of skills.

Let's take a look at each lap we have students complete in writing a narrative, including how many days we spend on each lap.

Lap One: Swimming in Short Memoirs (One Week)

In this first lap, we use poetry to invite students to write each day in their notebooks. We begin by reading Billy Collins's poem "On Turning Ten" to elicit memories of birthdays and childhood. Both of us, as we begin this week, open our own notebooks and model jotting notes about how Collins's words remind us of our own friendships, family memories, or favorite places. We list a few ideas and begin drafting out the story of one, writing in front of our students as they write in their notebooks. This few minutes of daily practice in finding ideas and writing about them increases the volume of ungraded writing practice, a key component in building student confidence. Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) daily is essential, regardless of the genre we're teaching.

Our willingness to model our thinking as we draft in front of our students also helps them to understand the messiness of re-reading and revising. Writing teachers must write. Their first responsibility is to show learners that writing is interesting, possible, and worthwhile. For this to occur, teachers must regularly model their own writing process.

After several days of practice, we start small by asking students to select one idea and write a 100-word memoir that focuses on two skills: using sensory details and choosing strong verbs to evoke images.

For instance, Kelly's student Cassandra wrote:

It was already seven o'clock and the annual party had just started. My face was painted sugar-skull white. The backyard was purely lit with twinkling white lights hanging across the patio and swirling around the maple trees. The tables were filled with sweet Day-of-the-Dead treats: pan dulce, pan de muerto, tamales, champurrados, and buñuelos. An altar stood alone in the center of the party. Pictures of our past loved ones were displayed. Sugar skulls, tissue paper flowers and marigolds or flor de muerto scattered the tables. Instead of grieving their deaths, we spend our evening celebrating our loved ones.

Lap Two: Crafting One Scene (One Week)

A scene is a moment in time. It most often includes three elements: the use of specific, sensory detail to slow down action; the use of dialogue to develop characters and situations; and the use of a strong narrator voice. Our students don't write an entire story during this week; they write one moment in a story. We model this by having them study numerous mentor texts, and when it's time to draft, we support students by writing and thinking alongside them.

A scene can be as short as half a page of writing, which allows us to narrow the focus of our teaching in studying mentor texts and working or conferencing with individual students. Here's how Penny's student Sara began her scene:

The car ride was nauseating, trees stood tall around the road leading us to a long secluded driveway, everything seems still, the grass long but unmoving, the rocks simply existing, the signs lining the gray tar screaming "Correctional Facility" in bold, black letters, reminding me where I am and why, and as the building comes into view, I am still, still as the grey blocks before me, still as the few parked cars in the large lot, I feel sick again, the sight of towering metal fences protected by layers and layers of sharp barbed wire making me dizzy. Looking to the heavy doors at the top of what seems to be countless concrete stairs, I become alive, I start moving, hoping my brother is in there doing the same thing.

In a conference, Penny celebrated Sara's use of clear images and a strong narrator's voice. She recognized that this student was testing sentence boundaries by imitating an intentional run-on sentence from a mentor text in order to flood the reader with images.

When asked about dialogue, Sara noted, "I didn't include it because there was nothing left to say." Reflecting on this student-teacher exchange reminded both of us why conferences matter. When we listen to students, we understand what they know and how they are working to craft meaning, both in images and with punctuation. We want our students to understand that punctuation decisions move beyond correctness and often influence a reader's engagement with the text.

Lap Three: Crafting Several Scenes to Tell a Story (Three Weeks)

Next, we ask students to create a series of scenes that tell a story. We begin by studying the shape of stories. In doing so, we analyze a series of skills that build on what students learned in the first two laps. We have students notice how a scene can either slow down time or build momentum, and we note how dialogue reveals character through what is said—or not said. As we point out in mini-lessons or conferences, writers use detail to direct the reader's focus. Careful word choice affects the narrator's voice.

Lastly, we focus on how writers create compelling endings. We study how expert writers craft their stories. Studying an anchor text like Stephen King's "The Man in the Black Suit" helps our students emulate the moves good writers make.

We don't give our students formulas for organizing their stories. Throughout the teaching of this unit, we generally personalize our teaching through individual conferences to help students plan and shape their drafts. Sometimes, we reteach necessary skills to certain students.

For example, consider how Penny subtly helped Sara keep going and creating. Sara was serious about developing this story of her brother's incarceration. At one point, she asked Penny, "Will you read this? I don't know where to go next." Both of us, as we shared Sara's developing work and consulted about it, could feel what it cost her to write this from-life story. Each detail of her recent visit to prison breathed tension. This was Sara's story, and we expected her to make decisions about her own work.

Penny responded by saying: "How brave of you to write this. Your next move depends on the story you want to tell. You could flash back to scenes of the two of you growing up. Or you could shift the focus to you and how his incarceration has impacted your first years in high school. You decide." After this interchange, Sara began puzzling over her plan in her notebook.

Educators guide students toward independence when they focus their teaching on the deliberate progression of skills, coupled with an expectation that students will make their own decisions about the organization of their writing. Sara became a stronger writer as she applied what she learned about scene writing in lap two to her complex story of a sibling relationship now strained by distance. We could see her becoming ready to take on that challenge.

Lap Four: Using Multiple Narrators to Craft a Story (Three Weeks)

This fourth lap allows teachers to differentiate instruction. At this point in our unit, some of our students still struggled with crafting several effective scenes to tell a story. These students repeated lap three to gain the additional practice necessary to write effective stories. Our more advanced writers moved on to writing stories told through the lens of multiple narrators—a level of complexity they never would have attempted in a classroom where students only write one narrative essay before moving on to the next genre.

Why Narrative?

We start our year teaching narrative because students have stories to tell and we value these stories. When students' voices are heard, they more readily engage in the hard work. This is not task-oriented writing, where students dutifully answer a mandated prompt. We seek their individual voices and come to know them as they write several stories in this unit. Students build confidence as writers because they have the opportunity to revisit and to practice the same skills over time.

The unit described here focuses on moves in narrative writing that anchor all modes of writing: using specificity of information or detail; establishing a credible voice; and organizing ideas with purpose. We've found that students are more likely to acquire these skills in a classroom where the teacher is writing, where the teacher is conferring, and where teacher and student together closely study mentor texts.

The approach we advocate here is decidedly different than simply taking students through one lap of writing in a given genre, one genre at a time. We have found that this spiral approach to teaching writing is much more likely to lead our students to mastery. And there is an added bonus: It also leads our students to rediscover the joys of writing. It teaches them that writing is interesting, possible, and worthwhile.

Author's note: All student names are pseudonyms.

End Notes

1 Bruner, J. S. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

2 Bruner, J. S. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

3 Smith, F. (2006). Reading without nonsense, 4th ed. New York: Teachers College Press.


Penny Kittle teaches freshman composition at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. She is the author of many books on reading and writing, including Write Beside Them and Book Love (Heinemann, 2008 and 2012) and president of the Book Love Foundation.

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