tackling challenges during independent projects

did we mention in an earlier post that launching independent project is not for the faint of heart?

you will undoubtedly face challenges managing independent projects. independent project days will also be one of the more chaotic times in your writing workshop.  the first thing to remember is the purpose of the independent projects; for us, it isn’t that they’re writing the highest quality piece, but, instead, that they’re writing something they’re excited about. once you’ve reminded yourself of the purpose of the independent projects, then you’ll feel better equipped to deal with the challenges.

here are a few of the challenges we’ve faced during our independent project units and how we’ve dealt with them. maybe you’re seeing similar issues or have some different challenges that you could share?

the “researcher” – since independent projects in our room are open genre, they’re not tied to the genres we’re learning as a class. (though we think that could be a way to modify independent projects for less independent kids, maybe those newer to workshop or in younger grades. rather than having it be totally open, you could launch independent projects after you’ve had two units, and the writers choose which of those units you’ve already studied they’re doing an independent project in. that way, they’re supported by the teaching that has already taken place, and their choices grow across the year as you’ve done more units as a class.) this creates some very predictable trouble in that the students are often working on pieces that they know nothing about.

students who are doing lots and lots of research or their independent projects are often students who are doing an informational-type piece, maybe a feature article or brochure. they often need time on a computer to research their topic, and the time on the computer becomes just browsing the internet or looking at lots of pictures related to their topic (it’s a thing), not really doing productive research that will benefit their writing.

there are a few ways to address this issue. the first is to require that the topic they’re writing about is one that they’re an expert on already (so, a soccer player might write a feature article about soccer drills or create a program with write-ups for their soccer team’s players), so little to no research is required. if you’re interested in helping them learn a little bit about the research process, though, this is a great chance to do some teaching into it with some tips for researchers (probably in a small group with all the students in a genre that requires research, and then you can follow up in 1:1 conferences). here are some tips that you might give researchers:

  • make sure they have a plan for their piece before they start researching so that their research is more angled. if they’re writing a feature article, this means that they’ve planned out the sections to their article so that they know the focus and categories for their research.
  • ask the librarian for some guidance in kid-friendly search engines or putting a filter on google. our librarian has databases linked from the library’s website with places that kids can search about a topic and the results will be age-appropriate. sometimes this limits the amount of material available to them, but we can all agree, we’re sure, that doing open searches on google isn’t the safest way for kids to do research.
  • show them how to take notes, maybe using boxes and bullets since that’s a way they’re likely familiar with from either nonfiction reading or essay writing. (if you’ve already done a nonfiction unit that included teaching your students how to take notes, you can rely on the teaching you’ve already done in that unit!)
  • give them explicit time limits for their research, teaching them that researchers (or writers in general) often have a writing plan to make sure that they are spending enough time writing. it might look like rotating through the computers so that they’re doing 10 minutes of research and then moving on to write for the rest of workshop.
  • teach them to read something as they’re researching – either online or in a text – and then close it or put it away as they take notes. similarly, teach them to read over their notes and then put them away as they write each part of their piece, looking back at their notes as they need to. both of these practices will help students move away from copying things directly, and instead they’ll write it in their own voice, which will be much more engaging for the reader.

the “team” project – maybe it’s because independent projects feel so fun to kids, and so it feels natural to want to include your friends in something fun, but independent projects lead our kids to wanting to work together on pieces, which is interesting because they’re not co-authoring pieces in writing workshop. you could take the stance that independent projects are independent – it is in the name, after all. if you’re up for a little more flexibility, we’ve found success in making sure that each writer’s proposal has the specific work that they’ll be doing. so, if they’re writing a story, we’ll encourage them to make it more like a story with chapters, and they’ll each write one chapter, so that they each write a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. it gets a little trickier if they’re writing something like a brochure that has parts, because they can each be responsible for their own part, but they’ll have to co-author the plan for the entire brochure. our experience is that any time students are co-authoring something, one student ends up being more dominant, and so we try to eliminate that whenever possible while still allowing them the opportunity to collaborate.

this is also a great opportunity to do some small groups around working productively together, and give some explicit tips like take turns, and physically pass the pencil when your turn is up, or using a timer to make sure everyone has equal time. you can also teach students the value in talking through their plans and then pausing the conversation to do some writing work (like, literally teach them to say, “now’s a good time to stop and write, i think,” when one partner feels like they’ve talked things through enough).

the artist – in our experience, this is the student that spends a great deal of time making detailed illustrations for their writing piece. the problem is their passion for art is often greater than their passion for writing, and so the project becomes more of an art project than a writing project. one way we deal with this is by teaching the student that the art comes second, after the writing is finished. you could also have the student use a timer to manage time spent writing and time spent illustrating.

keeping track of 20-something different projects – we’re the types of teachers who like to know what’s going on in the room. not because we’re controlling it all – we think we work hard to help our students be independent and there are often many different things happening at once in our room. but, still, we feel like we’re able to do our job the best if we have our pulse on what our kids are working on. that can be hard during independent projects; our brains just can’t hold onto all of the separate projects.

one way we’ve helped ourselves track what students are working on is to have a pocket chart with a pocket for each student with an index card inside. the index card has the student’s name at the top, and then underneath or on the back, students write the date they started their independent project, the topic, and the genre (they can write this on the index card straight from their proposal once it’s been approved). when the project has been published, they draw a single line through it and write the date with their new project that’s just been approved. this way, if we’re planning for small groups or conferences, we can check to see how long students have been working on projects or what the genre is that they’re working on without needing the students there to remind us.

when you feel your head spinning and wonder why you ever thought it was a good idea to launch a writing unit where students choose whatever genre and topic they want, just remind yourself that your kids are EXCITED about writing. what more can you ask?

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