I was recently approached to comment as a critical friend about how a school was using the writer's notebook to develop the writing of students. They had experienced some confusion around how this valuable resource should be viewed. One view was described as follows:
'Students use their writer’s notebook to create any writing piece they want, in any style, for any purpose, however they wish, whenever they wish, at all times? (E.g. Everyone in the class is writing completely different things, depending entirely on their own desires.)'While this position most accurately aligns to the vision of authentic writing approaches, it doesn’t quite cover what actually needs to be taking place in the classroom and beyond. It would be erroneous to think the role of the most experienced writer in the classroom is supplanted by this pedagogical stance. It is critically important for teacher- writers to play an active role in the writing lives of students.
We most certainly want our young writers to develop a sense of ownership over topic and genre. We also want them to make informed decision about what they want to write (and how). At the same time we also must encourage responsibility and accountability for the choices made. All writers, no matter how experienced, need a nudge. All writers need to reflect upon action and outcome.
Tuning in lessons should be informed by student writing samples. The writing students pursue should be nourished continually through lessons that highlight matters of task management, convention (grammar, punctuation, spelling)
craft and process (revision, editing, publishing). While student writers are making decision we want these decisions to be informed decisions.
It imperative for teachers to be actively teaching strategy lessons (small group and whole class) where students practice an aspect of writing. The teaching approach is based soundly on assessment of writing samples, writing behaviours and knowledge of the developing writer gleaned from writing conferences.
The teacher must also be using the reading workshop to highlight text structures and features of various text types. This strengthens the reading- writing connection in the mind of the developing writer.
Read-aloud, and shared reading instructional practices should be used to continue exposing young writers to different genres and their inherent features. This work must be done mindfully. It must be part of the planning. Further opportunities to teach into the writing community exist in interactive, modelled and shared writing approaches.
Writing demonstrations across different genres must be shared regularly. When teachers use their own writing and model how they choose a particular genre when writing about specific topics, young writers are better informed about choice and what influences it.
Teachers should also be highlighting how writers may decide to write about a particular topic using different modes and be sharing examples of such book titles with students. This is further reinforcement of text structures and features and further highlights the many options a writer has from which to select.
Employ questions such as:
What do you want to write about?
How do authors normally write about this?
What research do you need to do before you write?
Are you thinking about using more than one text type in your writing piece? (Hybrid texts)
Teachers should also be encouraging students to write in different genres just as we want kids to read different genres. Otherwise, students will continue to write from the comfort zone and not learn to explore new and potentially engaging writing options.
It is important to remain mindful of what students are writing about. This enables teachers to assist the student writer to connect with the appropriate genre and support their particular thinking and ideas. If a student is writing poetry, it stands to reason they should be reading poetry. It is difficult to write what you do not know. As teachers we must be helping the young writer connect with models/ text types.
Exposing the developing writer to potential mentors is central to the teaching role with which we are entrusted. So, a deep and abiding knowledge of literature is essential to performing this role most effectively.
All this work needs to be taking place in order to inform the developing writer of their options as well as expectations when deciding to write in a particular way, regarding a particular topic.