Following through with “I do. We do. You do.” in writing workshop.

Yesterday, Stacey wrote a thoughtful post about how we lead our students to ownership of their learning habits, and she concluded with these wise words:

“Doing something for someone else doesn’t help them grow.  The magic happens when we gradually release responsibility for something over time so others can flourish as a result of our teaching.”

I was especially glad to read the highlighted words above, because I was struggling with the by-product of this type of teaching: it takes time.  Particularly in writing workshop, where independence is knowing:

  • the structure of the genre you are working with

  • the variations in the type of writing that fall within this genre

  • editorial decisions that can enhance your writing in this genre

  • the editing processes you must use to polish your drafts into a final, publishable piece

Each step requires time, and when one is following the very same model of teaching in reading workshop, one begins to question oneself: is this taking too long? am I beating this genre to death? I think this Billy Collins poem haunts my teaching practices:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

I didn’t want to torture a confession out of feature articles (or anything else I teach!), the writing component of our non fiction unit of study, but teaching this way (to return to Stacey’s post):

  • I do

  • We do

  • You do (with guidance)

  • You do (independence!)

takes time.  Here’s what we did in our immersion period:

I “took apart” a feature article using my ELMO –  analyzed its structure and discussed its writing.

Then we read one aloud as a class, pausing to observe and make notations:

(artistic help courtesy my students)

Then we worked in teams to do the same, with guidance and much conferring:

And, finally, we worked on our own, choosing an article to read, appreciate, learn from and analyze:         photo (67)    photo (66)

I    loved listening in on the conversations my students had as they shared their learning. They had much to say about the topics they’d read about, the quality of the writing, and the intentionality of the structure and elements they’d noticed:

  • “I thought it was so much cooler that the author included a diagram to show how this worked then spent a whole paragraph describing it in a boring way. I just got more from the picture.”

  • “The spooky story in the lead hooked me right away. I think if the writer had started with a question, it wouldn’t have, though.”

  • “I liked the way all the definitions had a sidebar AND illustrations. That really helped me figure stuff out.”

As my kids begin to research and draft their articles, they have a pretty good idea about all the tools at their disposal – all the elements they can use to enhance their writing, and make their topics clear.  At the beginning of this unit, I had tacked up a definition of feature articles from Katie Wood Ray’s wonderful book: Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop (Heinemann, 2006):

“…the feature article is literary nonfiction, interesting to read because the writer has deliberately crafted it to engage the reader’s attention while including all sorts of interesting information.”

Taking the time to follow the I do, we do, you do model, I think, has given my students the opportunity to know how to independently choose and craft elements they would like to have in their feature articles.  They understood this idea of deliberation over craft.  There will be many writing conferences, I am sure, as they begin their drafts and move towards publishing, but I fully expect that they will be better able to work independently because we walked through the process in a measured way…just like Stacey’s mom will soon be whiz at texting, creating her iCloud Calendar,  and using Evernote to organize her life.