once we’ve looked at students’ on demand writing at the start of a writing unit, we can begin to plan some small group instruction and help students set individual goals that we can target during conferences. in order to do this work, we need to help students to gain the stamina that they’ll need to write long and strong while working independently.
we’ve found that there are strategies we can teach to help writers who are struggling getting their words down on paper.
in the writing process, we always start our units by gathering ideas about what to write about. these gathering strategies help students with what to write. we remind students of the gathering strategies that they’ve already learned and the ideas that they’ve already gathered. this is important.
while there are new things to learn in every unit, we don’t just throw out what we’ve already learned about writing because writing in every genre shares many qualities. for example, during a narrative unit of study, students may use a strategy of thinking about an important place in their life and then brainstorming small moment story ideas about this place. later, during an informational unit, they may choose to write a feature article about this same place.
all of our students keep lists of ideas in the backs of their writers’ notebooks. these lists could include important firsts and lasts in their lives, “headlines” about story ideas in their recent past, writing territories (topics – usually people, places, and things – that they’re experts on), and strong emotions.
if we notice a student is stuck on what to write about, our first move will be to remind him of the ideas he has gathered and then if he needs some further help, we’ll model how we use the lists in our own notebooks to help us generate ideas. it’s important that we don’t offer topics to the stuck writer like, “what about the baseball game you had yesterday?” the strategy that’s at use in this situation is the teacher naming possible topics for the writer, and that’s not a transferable strategy for the writer, nor is it a strategy that promotes independence. instead, reminding the student of a gathering strategy (e.g. “writers think over their day and consider if there’s anything that happened that would be interesting to write about”), and then modeling this strategy using our own topics is work that can be transferred to the writer’s independent work.
after the first few weeks of school, when students have gathering strategies to lean on, it’s rare that we have students who have difficulty determining what to write. instead, their difficulty becomes sustaining their independent writing time – filling all of writing workshop with writing.
here are some things we teach mostly whole-class, and then reinforce in small groups or 1:1 conferences as needed, to help grow and then maintain students’ writing stamina:
goal setting strategies. when we notice students who aren’t getting much down on paper, we’ll often try helping them set a goal for where they’ll write to. we usually do this by placing an X a few lines down their page. similar to placing a post-it ahead in their book, the X shows their goal in the next few minutes. we’ll often introduce this strategy in a small group of writers who need it, and then give them a concrete amount of time – like 3 or 5 minutes – that we’ll be back to see how it went trying to meet their X goal. we start small first, like 2 or 3 lines, so that students can feel success in meeting their goal. almost always, they meet it and feel so proud of their work. we tell them that once they’ve met their goal, they try it again, setting the X a few lines down. once that goal feels reachable, they start increasing the number of lines they’ll need to write to meet their X. if they weren’t successful, they’ll either decide to try for the same number of lines again or drop the X back a line.
this is a great strategy to introduce on drafting days to help those students who stop and start often as they write write more from start to finish. it’s also a strategy that they can easily transfer and do independently any time they’re writing – in or out of their notebook, at home or at school.
writing work that’s always ok. we teach our students that across our day, in each subject, their job is to keep going and fill each minute of their independent time with work. this means that they need some choice in what they’re doing and that they need backups (and sometimes backup to their backup) to lean on when they finish one thing. we teach our kids that a writer is never finished.
as we move through our first unit of study, we’ll begin to add things to the “writing work that’s always ok” chart. this is usually before students have been introduced to plan boxes, and so they’ll more informally use the chart if they need help choosing ways to keep going in writing workshop. we choose things that the students have been introduced to many times – there have been several mini-lessons that have explicitly modeled the work, and they’ve had chances to practice the work both in class and at home. this way, we’re confident that they’re as independent with the things on this chart as they can be, and its purpose – to help them keep going independently – will
independent projects. independent projects provide students with ongoing writing work. when they feel finished (for that day) or stuck on their piece they’re writing within our class genre, they can move on to their independent project and continue working for as long as it carries them.
once we’ve introduced plan boxes, and students feel more free to make choices about how they’re spending their independent writing time, a predictable problem is what to do about the writers who rush through their class piece, not really trying the strategies from mini-lessons in a deep way, so that they can get to their independent projects. we always have an explicit conversation with these writers when we notice it. we say we understand that they’re excited about working on their independent project, but that a writer also has to be committed to trying new things they’ve been taught, and in our room, that means giving their class piece focused attention every day. some students need to then be guided to take a break from their independent project for a few days so that they can get their class piece back on track. others – and this is our usual approach – need to be given the guideline that the first and second items in their plan boxes need to be related to their class piece, and then they can choose to make the third item something related to their independent project.