What Do Teachers Mean By 'Independent Writing?'

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It always concerns me when student writers approach the task of writing, lacking any sense of freedom to explore and manipulate ideas. They commonly experience emotional blocks when it comes to making decisions. A distinct lack of confidence is evident. They ask questions of their teachers such as:

How much should I write?

Should I use paragraphs?
What should I write about?
Is it okay to write about...?

The term 'independent writing' is an accepted phase within the writing workshop, but a closer examination reveals the writing taking place at this point is all too frequently, independent in name only. All too often young writers can be observed working on an assigned writing task and the questions they ask indicate they are a long way short of being independent and self directed. This scenario suggests the whole notion of independent writing may require a significant rethink in such classrooms.

-And yet, in other classrooms I gain a sense that the writers are reflective and self directed. They think, they solve problems, they articulate their writing intentions, they take risks and display a strong sense of ownership for the development of the text. The question arises, -What is the root cause of this difference in attitude?

The answer appears to lie in the classroom climate that exists. Frequently, when we dig a little deeper, it becomes apparent that a number of emotional blocks exist. -Blocks inhibiting thinking and prohibiting the growth of independence.

I therefore pose the following questions:

Are your students afraid to take risks, make mistakes and occasionally fail?

Do your students exhibit a strong desire for order and security?

Do your students display an inability to relax and allow ideas to” incubate?”

Do your students appear to hesitant about embracing the challenges writing presents?

Do your students lack the flexibility of thinking to make the task their own?

Are your students overly motivated to succeed quickly?

Do your students write for their teacher, or some wider audience?

If the majority of your answers are YES, then it may well be that your students have received the wrong messages about what writing requires of them. This misunderstanding may result from a teacher's own need, or desire, to control the learning environment. Without knowing it, the teacher may have been entrenching dependency.

A most interesting piece of data from a study conducted by (Taylor et al.,2001) came from the observational data on classroom instruction. A consistent finding was that the more a teacher was coded for telling children information, the less the children grew in achievement...

This does not mean that teachers should never tell students information; it would be impossible to teach without doing so. However, excessive amounts of 'telling,' especially in situations where coaching students to come up with their own responses is possible, may rob children of the opportunity to take responsibility for developing their own skills and strategies.

Similarly, where students demonstrated growth, the more they were coded as actively responding to teacher 'showing' through modelling and demonstrations. Instead of merely listening to the teacher, these students were observed actually writing more often than other students because of what they had seen.

Higher-level questions emerge as a significant predictor of growth. Questions that encourage thinking and reflection. In addition to what teachers teach, findings at the classroom level suggest that how teachers teach is important when seeking to make changes in instruction to improve students’ writing achievement.

As professionals, we must possess the conviction, the knowledge, and the teaching techniques necessary to ensure that every child is equipped with an armory of skills, strategies, habits, and attitudes that may be applied to writing. We therefore need to teach in ways that avoid a fear of audience, where young writers fear harsh external standards. Such fear inhibits risk taking. The writing emerges as words that are clearly safe and formulaic.

We must develop within our students a healthy sense and preparedness to add, change, and expand their writing.  If we don’t work towards these goals, we will continue to witness the premature desire for closure, where the writer exhibits a resistance to adapting the original text in any meaningful way.
 'Getting kids to be risk takers is dependent upon your own belief systems, language, and actions.'   
Leah Mermelstein, Self Directed Writers, The Third Essential Element in the Writing workshop, Heinemann 2013

We need to work against a sense of isolation among our students. -A solitary feeling deriving from not knowing whether the problems and concerns surrounding writing are common or unique. Problems that arise throughout the writing process needs to be aired and shared, so that concerns can be alleviated, solutions celebrated. 

Talking through these issues should be a strong feature of our teaching. Teaching needs to be guided by a desire to investigate, rather than interrogate. Young writers must be encouraged to articulate their writing intentions, their concerns; to identify their achievements and articulate their intentions.

Often, we notice a tendency among young writers to create and criticize their writing ideas simultaneously. They begin to self correct and edit even as their creative thinking is spluttering into life. They become sidetracked on achieving the right outcome, rather than the best possible outcome. They work against their own creative energies for fear of making a mistake. The resultant text lacks sparkle or originality.

A deliberate element of choice needs to surround the writing students undertake. Where tasks are ‘assigned’ resistance is often a by-product. Students do not develop a sense of ownership and therefore feel unable to take responsibility for making meaningful modifications or revisions. The student develops a sense that it is the teacher’s responsibility for thinking up the topic or focus. Consequently, they develop an unspoken sense of limitation with respect to what is permitted, appropriate, or possible with the writing. They frequently write merely to please the teacher.

When students reach a point in their writing development when they expect to make changes, when they expect order and meaning from the processes of revision and editing, when they understand that thinking and writing are forever linked- this is when writing will flourish.

For these reasons our students need to know they are part of a community of learners, each able to demonstrate reflective, creative and critical behaviors in respect to their personal writing development.

I shall conclude with with something to ponder -What do we need to do in our teaching to promote the link between writing and metacognitive thinking?

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