War Eagle Writers in the Research Sandbox, Part 2: Crafting Learner Ready Instruction, Scaffolding Writing, and What We Learned Together

In my previous post; I outlined the work we did to:

  • brainstorm topics
  • narrow our topics
  • conduct pre-search
  • use that pre-search to finalize a topic choice
  • generate questions about our topic using the question lenses chart
  • finalize our research questions and complete an investigation plan/research contract

In this post, I’ll explain how we targeted these skills with our research/inquiry mini-project:

  • Adding sources to your bibliography in EasyBib.
  • Taking notes with the notecards in your EasyBib notebook on your two research questions in EasyBib.
  • Writing a strong introduction to your essay (the three sentence method).
  • Writing body paragraphs with the Schaffer two chunk method that helps you use your research/evidence to answer your research question with concrete details and commentary.
  • Showing where your information for your concrete details came from using parenthetical references in the body of your paper and using EasyBib to correctly generate your parenthetical references.
  • Using paraphrased and directly quoted information correctly as concrete details.
  • Using appropriate transition words in your paragraphs.
  • Writing a strong conclusion using our template provided to you.

Once students had their top two topic choices finalized, these questions served as our lens for moving into more formal and strategic research with our research questions serving as our compass.

Using EasyBib to Add Resources To Answer Our Research Questions and Take Meaningful Digital Notes

With the help of our school’s subscription to EasyBib, students could easily add sources to a working bibliography and begin taking digital notes with the digital notebook tool.  Most of my students had not used our subscription, so my previous experience as a librarian and extensive use of EasyBib helped me immerse the students into the platform and provide them resources and instruction on how to use EasyBib.

Once they got started, most were pleasantly surprised by how simple it is to use EasyBib and became enthusiastic users.  EasyBib also reduced my paper flow since students shared their projects with me electronically, and I could easily monitor and assess their progress with their bibliographies and digital notes.  We devoted about a week of class time to researching and taking notes; this in-class work time was important because students could ask for help with their research or EasyBib in person as needed.  I also gave students video tutorials so that if they needed assistance after hours or wanted to self-help themselves with EasyBib, then they could access the help videos.

Our target goal was to find at least four viable sources and to complete 10 digital notes.  Because students could share their projects with me electronically , I could easily and quickly check their work and provide feedback with the comments tools available for both the bibliography and the digital notebook.

Differentiating for Learners with Checklists and Instruction on Demand

Once I had checked a student’s work, given him/her feedback, and rechecked any research work that needed revising, he or she then received a learning pathways checklist to help him or her move through our next series of learning tasks.  I devised this checklist to help students have a path to instruction on demand since I widely varying ability levels in each class and wanted to have a way for students to work through the learning tasks at a personalized pace.

The first task for students was to do a self-assessment of his/her work in EasyBib using the reflection tool below:

Students were then ready to move through the mini-lessons and resources to help them begin writing their draft. Here is our writing plan for both grades 7 and 8:

Though I am not a fan of “essay formulas”, I have learned through experience this past year that most of my writers needed an “anchor” to help them compose their academic writing.  Our writing plan is a blend of structures from a fellow teacher and the Jane Schaffer “two chunk” paragraph writing method.  I felt the Schaffer “two chunk” paragraph writing structure would give my students a way of organizing their research into their essay and help them develop their ideas with evidence and their own analysis of the information.   This writing plan was introduced in one of three “instruction on demand” videos I created with my personal Screecastomatic account and inserted into our Canvas learning platform for both my 7th and 8th grade writing courses.  I no longer have access to my Canvas courses and do not have a saved screenshot of how the resources were embedded in that platform, but the resources are also crossposted to my LibGuides project page here:

Most students accessed the videos through Canvas simply because that was our space where they lived as learners, but I wanted to have a backup available through LibGuides.  In addition to the instructional videos on demand, I did provide students hard copies of each instructional handout—I learned quickly last fall that most of my students needed a hard copy of any handout because that fits their current learning style.

Once students reviewed our writing plan handout (posted earlier in this post) and watched Video 1, he/she was ready to craft the introduction.  I do not have permission to publish the introduction template, but it mirrored a structure we had used for earlier essays, so students were familiar with crafting the following elements for the introduction:

  • an effective hook (we had three primary strategies for composing the hook)
  • an additional sentence or sentences to further explain the information presented in the hook
  • our thesis statement

Once students drafted the introduction, I checked the work in class and then helped students set up their essay document in Google Docs.  Once students had typed the polished introduction, he/she was ready to the next step:  writing the body paragraphs.  Students received this handout, and I reviewed it with them before turning them loose to watch the custom tutorial video that explained the Schaffer Two Chunk paragraph writing method.  This example is one I wrote as I wanted to model for students the writing I was asking them to do.

Once students had finished watching Video 2, they received the third and final help handout to prep them for the third video from EasyBib.

As you can see, there is a good deal of frontloading between writing the introduction and writing the two body paragraphs, but I wanted the students to have a solid foundation before they attempted to compose the body paragraphs.  Once students finished the third video, I provided each one a copy of the composing checklist to support the students as they began drafting.

Once students were cleared to begin drafting, students moved forward by:

  • Composing the first body paragraph using the Schaffer Two Chunk method.  Students did all drafting directly in Google Docs and once the paragraph draft was completed, the draft could be shared with me for virtual feedback.  Many students also took the approach of composing the topic sentence and first “chunk” and then sharing the work with me to make sure they were on the right track before writing the second chunk of the first body paragraph.  These approaches made it possible to engage in meaningful formative assessment with students and to identify any areas that needed help or reteaching either with 1:1 instruction, additional resources shared through the Google Doc, and/or redirecting the students back to Videos 2 and 3 and the supporting help/model writing documents.
  • Once the first body paragraph was cleared, students could then compose the second body paragraph.  We repeated the same process and approaches for body paragraph 1.
  • Last but not least, students crafted their conclusions.  I do not have permission to publish the text structure template for the conclusion, but it was one we had used earlier in the year along with our transition words to help us compose a strong concluding paragraph.

Once students had finished revising and editing their work with my assistance and that of peers if they desired, we used Kidblog to publish our papers.  I love Kidblog because students can publish their work easily and Kidblog has Google Drive integration making it easy to publish writing created in Google Docs.   If you are working with younger students where privacy is a concern, Kidblog is the perfect solution to address that need.  One piece of advice to consider that I’ve learned in the last few days:  when I registered for Kidblog, I used my district email and signed up with the “register with Google” option that tied my Kidblog account directly to my work Google account.  Unfortunately, my access to my work email and portal were cut off earlier this week because I’m leaving the school district, but I didn’t anticipate it would be shut off before my current contract expired.  If you need access to student work after the fact, you may want to register with a personal email account instead of your work account.

Reflections:  Successes and Stumbling Blocks (Glows and Grows)

Successes/Glows/Celebrations

  • Students gained tremendous confidence and experience in selecting sources, evaluating information, and taking meaningful notes in EasyBib.
  • Students were able to work at their own pace and access instruction on demand.
  • Checklists helped students stay on track and practice new writing skills.
  • Google Docs and our “learning pathway” approach helped amplify the possibilities for real-time formative assessment and feedback at the learner point of need.
  • Students investigated meaningful questions that could not be easily answered with simple facts; students generated deeper level research questions to go beyond regurgitating facts.  The Schaffer Two Chunk writing method also pushed students to incorporate their own analysis or interpretation of the information they used as their concrete details.
  • The model text I crafted and supporting instructional video for the Schaffer method seemed to be helpful to most students.
  • Students were interested and invested in their topics they self-selected.
  • Students saw the connections between their notes and the body paragraphs they composed.
  • Though not every student completed the entire paper, they still had rich learning experiences they grew their research and writing skills.  Those who did finish expressed tremendous pride in their work.
  •  I felt fairly comfortable with the flexible/rolling deadlines and timeline I established with the research and drafting pieces of the project.  Because each class had such varying groups of learners, I felt the way I designed this part of the unit and the “instruction on demand” helped me better differentiate for everyone.

Stumbling Blocks/Grows/Regrets

  • Many students did not complete the entire paper because we simply ran out of time.  I didn’t anticipate losing some of the instructional time I did due to end of year activities and the Connections teachers being used for end of year specials the last three days of the school year (I had no instructional time with my students the final week).  I didn’t realize this would happen until it was too late though I don’t know we could have started the research project any earlier than we did due to the state testing.  I now wish I had integrated the research work with our informational writing in January and February.
  • Because I realized (too late) not every student would finish the paper in spite of his/her best efforts, I had to calibrate and rethink how I would fairly assign a final or summative grade (each piece of the project counted as a formative grade).    This challenge only added to my growing discomfort and angst over assigning grades.  {Readings that are adding to my internal conflict about grades and grading are here and here.  I also recommend this post as well.} I desperately  wanted to reward and recognize process and progress for all students, not just those who finished all the pieces of our project.
  • A 40 minute instructional block of time felt awfully insufficient all year, but it felt especially short with this particular unit of writing; even students would comment they wished our class was longer.
  • Not all students had an opportunity to publish their work (even if incomplete) on our project blog because again, we simply ran out of time.
  • Because I didn’t realize when my actual last day of instruction was with the students (the end  of the year is markedly different in middle school from high school), very few students had an opportunity to engage in any self-assessment of their project (grade 7 and grade 8 or their reflections on their work over the last year.   Even though school has been out nearly two weeks, I still feel rather sick about this glaring hole in our final unit.
  • Even though I tried to build in what I felt was ample time for all pieces of the project, I misjudged what students needed by about a week.  Gauging how much time was sufficient for my students in all three grades I taught (6, 7, and 8) was an ongoing challenge for me all year.
  • Though I’ll be teaching 11th and 12th Language Arts classes in another district next year, I want to introduce research skills in small doses earlier in the academic year.

Even with the challenges I have outlined, I am still happy with the outcomes of the project because the students had meaningful learning experiences that emphasized depth and process.  They also picked incredibly interesting topics including:

  • Fragile X syndrome
  • Exoplanets
  • Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963
  • 2017 Nissan GT-R
  • Chattahoochee River Water Wars
  • Effectiveness of Adidas Adiprene
  • Assorted endangered animals (causes, issues, solutions)
  • German Shepherds as superior police dogs
  • Best treatments for breast cancer
  • Medical therapies for depression
  • How to get a job at ESPN
  • How to safely enjoy off-roading activities
  • Advances in forensic science
  • Syria/chemical weapons used on children
  • Bermuda Triangle
  • Climate change
  • Concussions and soccer
  • Photography
  • Lowrider culture
  • Career research on becoming an Army Ranger

I was impressed by the breadth of topics my 7th and 8th graders chose!

How This Writing Project Will Inform My Work as a Teacher Moving Forward

I also felt that of all the research projects I’ve done with the students, this is the one where I had the most day to day hands on involvement because I was able to give so much formative assessment and feedback on demand with every student.  The day to day work, conferencing, and examination of work together (as well as feedback provided after hours in advance of a face to face conversation the next day) really helped me to know my students as learners and the work they were doing.  Though I did not quite get the point that Rebekah O’Dell did after her first year trying a gradeless classroom, the intense focus on feedback and regular interaction fueled our work even though we were all fighting the end of the year weariness that comes even in the best of circumstances.   I found myself feeling a bit bereft and not wanting the year to end because these experiences made me realize there was so much still left for my students and I to learn together.  Even as I write this statement, I feel tears welling up in my eyes and though I’m looking forward to my adventures at my new school, I feel sadness that I will not have more time with my War Eagle writers again.

Though I know it is not possible for me to enact a gradeless classroom next year, I do want to be more intentional about these kinds of rich, regular interactions and the emphasis on feedback because I’ve had a taste of what is possible and the shift that can happen for both teachers and students.  As Rebekah O’Dell shared in her post,

“Changing the way I graded changed everything in my classroom.

Many of my hopes for this project were realized — as I gave up bits of my control, students found their voice in the classroom and in their writing. Students became risk-takers in all the best ways. They accounted for their mess-ups and  for their enormous victories. They learned to tell me what they needed.

But something even more significant happened.  Somehow, as a result of removing grades on individual assignments, I developed the deepest relationships I have ever had with students. Changing the grades didn’t just change the classroom atmosphere or the students’ work ethic or my paper load. Somehow, changing the grades changed our hearts— theirs and mine. More than ever before, I knew them and they truly knew me.

In a career of experimentation, this particular change — this heart change — has been the most profound.

The biggest reward for me was this: relationships, which led to community. My classroom finally felt the way I’ve always wanted it to feel. I walked into class daily with the freedom to be the teacher I always want to be.”

Isn’t that what we all want for ourselves and our students?  I am thankful for this last year that has given me glimpses of what could be for me and my students; I am forever thankful for my War Eagle Writers at Chestatee Academy and my principal, Jennifer Kogod, who gave me freedom to try and innovate in our writing studio.  I am thankful for the growth spurt I had this past year as a teacher and want to continue on this path in 2017-18 as I keep growing into the teacher I want to be.

War Eagle Writers in the Research Sandbox, Part 1: Selecting and Narrowing a Topic, Presearch, Evaluating Information, and Generating Research Questions

 Please note that some handouts may not appear in their original format if you do not have certain fonts installed.  If you would like to know the fonts for a particular document, please contact me. Thank you!

The research based writing unit for my 7th and 8th writing classes was one I would have preferred to have introduced earlier in the school year; however, I felt obligated to sequence and emphasize our units of study of informational and argumentative writing  in January, February, and March since they are a major part of the writing assessment on the state Milestones End of Grades test for all of my student students in grades 6, 7, and 8.

In this first post of two, I’ll outline how I introduced these skills to students:

  • Brainstorming a topic.
  • Narrowing topic choices by learning more about it through presearch.
  • Generating different kinds of questions (10) for the same topic.
  • Narrowing and selecting your top three choices for your research questions from your list of 10 (top 2 choices with the 3rd as your alternate).
  • Understanding and using the CRAAP test to evaluate the quality and relevance of any information source.
  • Using scholarly sources from GALILEO like SIRS Discoverer and Britannica as well as NewsELA.
  • Tips for searching and using Google.

Though I knew we would not start the research unit of study until after our district spring break, we did not truly begin our research unit in earnest until after we finished the state Milestones testing.  Because of the way the tests had to be scheduled and because my classes are in the school’s “Connections” rotation as an academic elective, I did not see each class daily until testing ended; consequently, this scheduling pushed back our true start date.

Getting Started:  Brainstorming, Refining, and Selecting a Topic

However, I used this time during testing to give students a starting point with opportunities to think about research and  brainstorm possible topics of interest.  We did a Writer’s Notebook entry about prior research experiences to help me have a better idea of what they already knew and might want to know about research skills.

We also used this modified schedule time to brainstorm possible research topics of interest.  I kept things simple for both 7th and 8th graders by providing them this easy “Top 10” possible topics.   Some students had no problems generating ten topics while others struggled to come up even 2-3 ideas.  I encouraged students to discuss topic ideas, and I tried to conference 1:1 with students who were having difficulty to give them some questions to prompt or nudge their thinking.

Next, I asked students to select their topic 3 topic choices and to complete the following handout:

Here is a sample of student work (used with appropriate permissions):

The CRAAP Test and Presearch

Before introducing the presearch phase of our project, we spent about four days learning about the CRAAP test. After introducing the CRAAP test with a video and the checklist, we spent about three days doing small group, paired, and individual practice using the CRAAP test.  Students had opportunities to evaluate different resources and then share why they evaluated the assigned resource as they did.  I used our district Canvas platform to push out resources for evaluation to students:

Our culminating activity was the CRAAP Test Rumble, something I’ve done as a librarian in the past, but this year, I mixed it up and incorporated the “musical chairs” activity into it.  I set up 20 resources on a single research topic and question that I reviewed with the students along with the procedures for the activity.  I played music and once the music stopped, students had to stop at the nearest seat and evaluate the source.  With the four classes, I was able to do about three rounds of evaluation though one class was able to do four.

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Though I had worked incredibly hard to plan the activity in this format, I didn’t feel the students were as enthusiastic about it as my high school students were.  I don’t know if this activity is better suited to older teens, or if perhaps this group just wasn’t as confident since they had less experience with their research skills.  I do think that some students were a bit weary from the all testing of the previous week and a half, and I am sure this impacted the energy levels for some of my writers.

Introduction to Scholarly Sources and Search Tips for Google/The Open Web

Once we had selected our topic three topic choices, we were ready to begin presearch to learn more about the topics and decide which one would bubble up to the top for each student.  However, in order to do presearch, students needed some mini-lessons on scholarly sources and search tips for Google.  I realized very quickly that most of the students had little to no experience using either type of source or the search tips.

The other complicating issue was that our district did not have access to any scholarly resources outside of GALILEO, our state virtual library.  While GALILEO is a wonderful resource, it is heavily dominated by EBSCO databases, most of which are far above the reading level of my students; in addition, the search interface and filters are challenging for students, especially middle schoolers, to use.  I would have loved to have had access to some other databases besides EBSCO as I’ve had in other districts, but we did the best we could.

I used the research guide I created to show students how to navigate and use the different kinds of information sources; I broke these mini-lessons up over three days so that students had a chance to practice using the resources and ask questions.

Presearch Work:  Applying Our Search Skills and Evaluating Information Using the CRAAP Test

Once students were introduced to these sources, we captured our applied work with the presearch notetaking template:

Students had two choices for presearch and the presearch notetaking template:

  1.  They could focus on their top topic if they felt pretty strongly about that top choice after doing the first round of topic narrowing (shown earlier in this post).
  2. Students could take notes on all three topics or their top two choices if they needed to learn more about the topic and eliminate one of the choices with certainty.  I think it was important to offer this option because many students opted for this choice and felt better about their final topic choice after having room to explore and learn more details about two or all three of their top three topic choices.

Some students breezed through this work, and other struggled to complete even one.  I was intrigued that overall my 7th grade writers seemed to thrive more with the presearch work than the 8th grade writers.

Most students found Britannica and SIRS Discoverer to be the most helpful resources through GALILEO though some did find articles of interest (and that they could read) with my assistance from the EBSCO databases in GALILEO.  Most students actually did a great job of finding a good blend of scholarly resources as well as quality resources through Google; for some topics (like those related to travel), the open web was a better place to scour and vet quality resources.  Because my classes were fairly small (16-18), I was able to give each student personalized support and assistance during our presearch phase.

Using Our Presearch to Think Broadly and Deeply About Possible Research Questions for Our Final Topic

The primary purpose of presearch was to give students time and space to explore their topic(s) and to learn more to make an informed choice for the final topic.  However, I also wanted the presearch work to be a springboard to help students with our final and critical step of brainstorming questions about the selected topic.  I used an activity I modified from my friend Heather Hersey, who modified her version of the activity from Joyce Valenza.  I’ve used the “question lenses” activity in the past (see this version and this version).  However, I did some more significant modifications to the template and modeled my own research questions generated around a hypothetical research topic I had used as a model throughout our unit up to this point with the students.  Here is the handout and template I used as a model and as part of our mini-lesson:

Students needed about two days of class time (40 minutes per class session) to complete their own version of questions; I asked them to generate at least two questions in each category.  This activity definitely pushed their thinking and some even did some additional presearch as they worked on the activity to help them with the process.  This activity by far was the most challenging part of our research unit up to this point.  The goal was to get a total of 10 questions with 2 in each of the 5 question categories though they could do more.  Here is a sample of student work (used with appropriate permissions):

Once students completed their question chart and I had reviewed it with them individually, each student then selected his or her top three questions.  I told students they only had to write about two but to select three in case they decided they might need to abandon one of the research questions as we moved forward with additional research the following week.  Here is where students recorded and captured their top choices as well as thoughts on the kinds of writing they would do with their questions and sources they might need to use for additional research:

Once I had approved a student’s investigation plan, he or she was ready to move on to additional research and then writing the paper.  It was essential students had three solid questions in the plan (which came from the 10 questions they generated) so that they had a new focal point for additional and more strategic research about their topics.

Reflections On These Parts of Our Research Unit of Study

In hindsight, I wish that I could have introduced the unit earlier in the year when there was more time, but I also knew students needed some intensive work with informational and argumentative writing skills without having the additional layers of research skills on top of the writing instruction that they needed.   Though I wish the timing and pacing of these pieces of the unit could have been a little different, I am glad students were able to experience these parts of research and investigation because it was clear very few in grades 7 or 8 had these kinds of learning experiences where the topic selection, presearch, and generation of research questions were emphasized and heavily frontloaded.

In the future, I would like to find  ways to connect my students with real world professionals who use these research skills as part of their daily work in their careers to help students see these research skill processes in action “in the wild”.  I think information literacy in the “real world” is something that gets very little attention from teachers or librarians.  Looking ahead to next year, I would like to find ways to connect research skills to genuine and authentic workplace experiences for my students.

Many students had limited or no experience with the scholarly resources in GALILEO, so I am glad students had this time to explore and use GALILEO resources because they’ll be expected to use them in high school and college; many shared they liked the resources they used within GALILEO plus they enjoyed learning search tips for Google. Though they didn’t seem too energized by the CRAAP Test Rumble, they clearly were using the CRAAP Test during presearch and that tool showed up in their thinking and source selection as we moved further into more focused research later in the unit.

I also realized how intense these weeks were because I have virtually no photos of students working after we did the CRAAP Test Rumble because I was so busy conferencing non-stop on a daily basis with so many students as they engaged in presearch, generated questions with the question lens activity, and then finalized a working investigation plan for their research paper.   I feel a great sense of regret and sadness now that I realize I have virtually no photos of the students working in this unit.

In closing, these experiences challenged students to think critically about different aspects of research and information.  Nearly every student, including those who may have come up a little short with their deadlines or quality/quantity of work, showed some measure of growth in these skills, and that was the ultimate goal.

Coming Up:  Part 2

In my next post, I’ll write about how I introduced EasyBib into our research work for crafting our bibliographies and taking digital notes.  I’ll also share with you how I personalized the writing instruction for the paper to be available “upon demand” as students completed different research and learning tasks.

Joy.  Writers. 

Yesterday my 6th graders designed their learning contract for Cycle 2 of our Greenbelt Writing project.  Today every student in period 6-3 came in and got to work with no verbal prompting on their first writing piece–it was just rather breathtaking watching them work and make decisions as they composed.  My 6-6 writers also got down to business and immersed themselves in the first writing pieces of this cycle.

We are mired in end of year craziness, and the pace is frenetic as I juggle all the end of year events with my 7th and 8th grade writers and their inquiry projects, many of whom are doing their very first research-based writing in their young lives (another post coming on that this week–there is joy in academic writing structures, too!).   Even with smaller classes, juggling six classes of writers is sometimes akin to moving at the speed of light. But today as I walked about watching my 6th grade writers, I tried to really watch and listen.

It’s in these moments you pause and you suddenly really see what is happening before you, much like the unfurling of the trees and flowers as spring comes into full bloom, and the world suddenly seems lush and vibrant.   You  pause from the frenetic pace of the day to see young writers blossoming and growing in front of you, and I feel both awe and joy. Maybe this is not the kind of growth that shows up in what Georgia defines as a growth bubble, but it is growth, and you hope you’ve nurtured a young write in a way that will continue to bear fruit in years to come.  I am thankful I can still feel the awe and the joy after 25 years of teaching.

I have quite a few of my students who are doing collaborative writing this week.  A sampler of today’s  writing pieces  include Reader’s Theatre scripts, couplet poems, Gretchen Bernabei’s writing structure “Story of My Thinking,” and Gretchen Bernabei’s structure “Favorite Place.”  I have students doing persuasive pieces; other students are doing writing pieces about people who have made a difference like Malala Yousafzai.  They are writing about historical events they have chosen and care about like the Chernobyl, Holocaust, and September 11.  They are writing personal narratives about lost parents; they are writing about favorite and special places like a hunting camp.  They are writing about how to play baseball and crafting time travel stories.   We still have challenges, but they are writing.

They are writing collaboratively, and they are writing alone.

They are writing, and they are writing with joy.

Nurturing Seeds of Writing Joy with Greenbelt Writing

A week ago, I sat down and read Ralph Fletcher’s new book, Joy Write, on a Sunday afternoon.   A wonderful synopsis of the book is posted over at Two Writing Teachers by Stacy Shubitz; for me, the book really crystallized the tension I often feel between teaching certain genres I know my kids need and the messier, experimental writing that kids also need to grow as writers.  Because I only get to see each class for roughly forty minutes each day, time has been one of the challenges as I’ve wrestled with this inner conflict.  While I don’t completely agree with everything Ralph Fletcher says (and I’ve been a fan of his work my entire career), I do love his ideas about greenbelt writing and its importance, especially for struggling writers.  I don’t feel a writer’s workshop is an “either/or” proposition for secondary grades, but instead, I think a writing studio includes greenbelt writing as well as more structured writing that includes more 1:1 help and guided instruction, an inquiry stance on writing that includes the use of modeling and mentor texts, and the use of writer’s notebooks for thinking and trying out different writing/text structures.

Fletcher introduces his concept of Greenbelt Writing in Chapter 5 and then has subsequent chapters explaining what it might look like. Fletcher defines Greenbelt Writing as:

“Writing that is raw, unmanicured, uncurated.  I’m talking about informal writing. Writing that is wild, like the pungent skunk cabbage that sprouts haphazardly along the edge of a swamp.  I’m talking about low-stakes writing, the kind of comfortable composing kids do when they know there’s no one looking over the shoulder.”

Fletcher also says that the more “developed” and structured modern writing workshop can be supplemented with greenbelt writing, a “wild territory where kids can discover the power of writing” that is (39):

  • personal
  • passionate
  • joyful
  • whimsical
  • playful
  • infused with choice, humor, and voice
  • reflective of the quirkiness of childhood

In Chapter 10, Fletcher says, “…instead of giving reluctant writers more structure, let’s give them more freedom.  Invite students to try out any of the writing types detailed in Chapters 6 and 7, and especially the ideas found in Chapter 8” (85).  Fletcher then tells teachers to encourage these kinds of writing:  free-writing, journal writing, writing in a favorite genre, collaborative writing, humor, obsessions, and edgy writing.  Several teachers he interviewed who have tried greenbelt writing with their students say their students gain confidence and see themselves as writers, processes that are essential to growth as a writer.  Fletcher acknowledges teachers may not completely buy into the idea that greenbelt writing will lead to “…stronger formal classroom writing” (86).  However, Karen Huy, a third grade teacher, says “Before I can even get reluctant writers to regard themselves a writers, I have to get them to see all of their many forms of writing as writing” (87).

With these ideas and arguments (as well as counterarguments from personal experience and included in the book) in mind, Chapters 5 and 10—“Greenbelt Writing” and “The Reluctant Writers” —were the two chapters that resonated with me the most; they pushed my thinking and perspective, and as a result, I scrapped my plans for the last 3.5 weeks with my 6th grade Writing Connections and rebooted to have a “Greenbelt Writing” unit.  While a formal unit is not truly in the spirit of the book, it is a starting point for us and a space for us to experiment with greenbelt writing; it also gives us this space to simply write, share, and hopefully thrive while sustaining our writing stamina.    I also see the greenbelt writing project as a space for us to plant seeds for the 2017-18 year and to figure out how to better balance greenbelt writing with the required genres I know my students must learn.  Though I am presenting this as a unit to my 6th grade writers, I am trying to stay true to Fletcher’s urging that we not keep out as teachers but adopt a “hands off” (40) approach in terms of letting students pick their genres of writing/writing projects and evaluating their work/knowing when it is publish-ready.  Most importantly, this unit is designed to give students “spaces and opportunities to experience the pleasure of writing” (40).

Last week, we began by brainstorming topics we were interested in writing about.  I then introduced our project guidelines to both of my sections of 6th Writing Connections.  I have organized our project into two writing cycles; in each cycle, students choose two writing projects to develop and publish on our 6th Writing Connections KidBlog.  We also reviewed our calendar and timeline for Writing Cycle 1.



All of my 6th graders are struggling writers, so I thought about how to keep the writing open yet provide some flexible writing structures for those who might want something to help them start.  I crafted the following menu and stations for each kind of writing that students could visit:

Students always have the option to free-write most of the genres; some of the genres are ones we have done earlier in the year, like different kinds of poetry and personal narratives.  While I know Fletcher railed against the use of any templates in his book, the reality is that many of my students honestly have NO idea where or how to begin even with lots of modeling.  I primarily used writing/text structures  from Gretchen Bernabei (I have all of her books!) because I love how her work provides flexible writing/text structures to help students who need “training wheels” to get them going with their selected writing pieces if they are not sure how to begin with their choices as a free-write. Her text structures and “kernel essays” also give them ideas for exploring different ways writing might look within a genre.  Here are my go to resources I used from Gretchen:

After they reviewed the list of options, they visited each “genre” station and decided which kinds of writing they wanted to do.  I asked students to pick two choices, indicate the topic, share if they planned to write with a partner, and share if they planned to create any of the writing pieces as a VoiceThread (we have a district subscription).  I took everyone’s contract and created a master roster that is now posted in the room so students can double-check their chosen writing projects.  Here is a sampler of student topics and writing pieces:

  • Favorite places (local, like Mom’s house; others are more exotic like the Bahamas)
  • Medical Marijuana–persuasive/argument
  • Family stories
  • Favorite memories, like the first day of school
  • Traffic/car accidents
  • Anxiety and worry stories–one student is writing about his fear of tornadoes
  • School rules–persuasive
  • Gun control–persuasive
  • How to bathe a dog
  • Flowers
  • Made up story–the disappearing boy, dogs, the dangers of technology
  • What if humanity became extinct
  • How to make a spinner
  • Personal narrative–“my scars”
  • Readers’ Theatre Scripts–time travel, soccer, smartphones
  • How to build a skateboard
  • How to make slime
  • Assorted poems (free verse, color, Where I’m From)
  • Persuasive–why I deserve a dog, why I need a certain kind of shoe, why the school day should be shorter
  • Problem-Solution–bullying
  • Valuable advice–being a good friend, being a good student in middle school
  • How to stay organized
  • Poem topics:  flower, wildlife, nature, ocean, beach, my dog
  • Archery–how to

For the last three days, students have been working on their projects with enthusiasm.  I had three students who were ready to publish poems today in period 6-3; they LOVED seeing their work on our class blog and learning how to publish on the blog.

It’s also worth nothing that nearly every student chose to do one collaborative project, and many are interested in trying VoiceThread.  I’m excited to see what students create the next three weeks, and I will try to do a follow-up post near the end of May.  I’ll also continue to contemplate the arguments and ideas Fletcher presented in his wonderful book and dwell in this metaphor of informal writing as a greenbelt.