Building Stamina in Primary Writers

My Kindergarten Classroom in October of 2011

Looking around the room……

“I’m done,” echoes as a line forms. I begin looking at the work, making my way down the line. The drawings lack detail, some letter or squiggles are quickly put down and overall the oral story is weak. They were just trying to get done not trying to be writers. Approval is unnecessary. I want them to spend enough time with their writing to know if it meets their own standards. My goal was to create a community of writers, and I wasn’t doing that. What went wrong?

I’ll tell you what went wrong. I had not built stamina with my students. They were young, some as young as four at the time. They were finishing quickly and awaiting my approval. Not my goal. I was overwhelmed and unsure where to go next.

Around that time I had read about building stamina in reading and it was going quite well. I had made charts with the class, had students modeling stamina with reading. We practiced and came back to reflect on how it went. My wheels began turning. What about using this same method with writing? That too became an overwhelming thought. It meant going back to the beginning and starting workshop over. Clean slate. Did I have time? Well, that was an easy question to answer.  Did I really have a choice?

I think Katie Wood Ray explains what stamina is for young writers very well in this short video clip.

So, I developed a plan. We would make a goal chart to see our progress as we built stamina. I would keep my eyes glued on students who were modeling great stamina and use them as teachers to help model good writing behaviors. I would also use students who lacked some of those writing behaviors as secondary models. This would give those students a chance to be the teacher while also practicing a skill they were lacking in their independent writing time. *We would use a timer to really structure our workshop. Then it was time to jump in.

I spent about two weeks on my plan and the pay back was worth the effort. It wasn’t time lost, as I was afraid it might be. It was time well spent, creating a community that wrote together every day for extended periods of time.

Fast Forward to Now in My First Grade Classroom

Looking around the room…

It is humming. Some students are planning while some have already moved to their independent writing time. There are a few looking around their minds searching for a new topic. There are a several deep into their writing. Some are illustrating. There is no line of students. Students are working. It is that busy hum we as teachers live for. I have found that this method of teaching stamina is a real community builder, which in the workshop, is my number one priority. Community is everything and builds the writer.

Below is an example of the type of chart I used. You can see it is set up for my first graders as we will be working on stamina when we return from winter break. We are preparing early so jumping back in isn’t so hard. In my kindergarten classroom the stamina chart went in one minute increments to ten and it was October. In first grade, at this point in the year, I am comfortable with everyone working independently for thirty minutes. This is outside of their initial planning and ending share time. Some students’ stamina is slightly less and some more, but as a class if I can get ninety percent of my students working on independent writing time for thirty minutes, I feel that is a win.

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You can see I have put “Challenge” in the title of this chart. It also goes further than my expectations of the students. I want them to push themselves as writers and I want to push myself to have them more fully engaged in their writing. When we made this chart during the week the class immediately said, “What if we did fifty minutes?” My response was, “I might just fall over with excitement!” They loved that idea. They want to wow me. When we can reach this goal there will be much to celebrate and they will be proud writers with a proud teacher. 

*I want to be clear that I only use the timer for a short period while I am establishing the workshop. I have found firm structure at the beginning is helpful and predictable to students when they are first starting their writing journey. I slowly pull away from the timer once students exhibit independence in monitoring their time. Sometimes individual students need the timer longer, while others are ready to move on or write longer than what is allotted. I would encourage you to use the timer cautiously. Some teachers find it helps keep them on track during conferencing and transitions. I think that is great; however, it can begin to interfere with the flow of workshop. If you find you need a timer to keep track of yourself, go for it, while being sure it doesn’t disrupt your students’ writing process.