Summer Writing Projects in the Upper Grades

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Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. – Anne Ritchie

As Beth posted on Monday, we all have high hopes that our students will build independence through our writing workshops. Our teaching is designed to last not just through that day’s workshop, or even that month’s unit, or even that school year, but for our students’ entire writing lives. What a tall order that is! And what’s more, assessing whether our students genuinely carry our teaching with them as they leave our classrooms often feels near impossible. Enter summer writing projects. Imagine sending your students off with plans, resources, and tips to mentor themselves as they pour their hearts into writing projects of their own design.  It can be done!

There are two huge considerations to ensure successful summer writing projects. The first is preparation, and the second is follow-through.

Preparation: Setting up Summer Writing Projects

Ideas

Of course, when generating ideas for summer writing projects, it is important to allow students choice in genre. A more scaffolded way to support choice is to encourage students to choose from the genres you’ve taught during the school year. If you go this route, students will have all of the teaching you’ve done in their pockets. This would be a good way to go for writers who aren’t as experienced.

A less scaffolded way is to allow students to choose from virtually any genre that exists in the world. Students might design websites, create manuals for their favorite tech devices, or write graphic novellas. If you decide to open the options this broadly, you might encourage students to first identify a mentor text or two before they settle on a genre. Having an example of what they are aiming to create will help immensely if they are embarking on an unfamiliar kind of writing. And of course, any kind of writing they choose to do will have at its core one of the three basic writing genres: informational, opinion, or narrative writing. Channel students to consider which kind of writing their project most closely resembles, and to use qualities of that kind of writing to guide their work.

Tools

Students will next need to decide what they need in order to get the job done. When considering what tools you will gather to help your students, you might ask questions such as:
  • Do they need to be able to write on the go?
  • Will they write using iPads or another digital tool?
  • Will I send home special notebooks just for this purpose?
  • Do they need to be able to storyboard?
  • Are there digital tools I can set up to help facilitate accountability and sharing? (See below.)

Mentorship

You won’t be there if support your students in making their work better. If set up properly, mentor texts can be the next best thing to having you at your students’ sides. Students need not necessarily gather an armload of texts to study. Even one book in the proper genre will provide a wealth of teaching. A simple T-chart with columns labeled “What I notice” and “What I could try” can help your writers to look closely at author’s craft and to consider how they could emulate craft moves to make their writing better. Don’t let your students out the door for the summer without a great text or two to study in their backpacks.
Sample Mentor Text Chart

Sample Mentor Text Chart

Plans

One of the hallmark principals of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a phenomenon in which participants write a novel in a month, is that in order to write about 50,000 words in a month, which is an appropriate novel length, one must write about 1,600 words a day. Writers are encouraged to get out their calendars and work backwards, planning around any potential roadblocks to getting their novel finished by the end-of-month deadline.

Set students up for success and help them create a vision for the work ahead by guiding them to make a plan of action for their summer writing project. Like the novel writers, it will behoove your students to pick a deadline for their work that is carved in stone. Then, they can plan backward, deciding which tasks need to get completed on which days in order to meet the deadline. Giving students a physical calendar on which they can plan can really help.

Self-assessment

You might decide to give students a break from the rubric-fueled writing assessment process of the school year. But even if they don’t score their own writing on a 4-point scale, they can certainly reflect on what went well and what they might do differently next time. In upper grades, you can further support independence by generating a list of questions that support self-reflection, and allowing students to choose a few which they feel will be particularly helpful. Be sure to have students write these in their notebooks (or wherever they will be doing their drafting) so that they remain accountable to them.

Questions to Guide Self-Reflection Chart

Questions to Guide Self-Reflection Chart

Follow-Through: Sharing and Celebrating Summer Writing Projects 

Sure, writing is its own reward. One could argue that a mark of truly teaching students to be independent writers is that they write for their own purposes and act as their own critics, holding themselves accountable for actually doing the writing. However, even adult writers know the shift in purposefulness when there is an actual audience for whom we are writing. I will be the first to admit that my daily writing practice drops off exponentially when I’m just writing “for myself.” Happily, my daily writing practice increases exponentially when I’m accountable to an audience, such as when I was writing daily for the MARCH SOLSC.

Creating digital sharing communities

When I was at the beginning of my foray into integrating tech into the writing workshop, I used pbworks.com to set my students up to collaborate using a wiki. Other collaboration platforms such as Edmodo have joined the pack, and they all have pluses and minuses. Your students will of course be most successful if they are using a platform with which they are familiar. A class blog or page on the school’s website to which students can contribute will work fine, too. As part of their planning, students can decide what and when they will post on a shared space, and how they will offer each other feedback.

Celebrating summer writing next year

If your entire school community, or even just a few grade levels, decides to channel kids toward independent writing over the summer, you have a wonderful opportunity to begin the school year with a celebration. Carve out time to have students present their summer writing to each other, either to the whole class or even just in small groups. Students could visit the grade level below to share to help each year’s new class envision the work of the year ahead.

Of course, the celebration will also give you the chance to do some pre-assessment before you begin your first writing unit. If you know what your students are capable of doing independently, you can adjust your plans to hold them accountable for this and raise the level of the work they are already doing.

To conclude, summer writing projects are rife with opportunities for independence and engagement. Of course, not every student will be willing or able to follow his or her plans to the letter. And that’s just fine. Becoming truly independent requires just as much failure as it does success. If students’ writing doesn’t go so well, this will create an opportunity for reflection and deeper learning. So let students be ambitious and creative in their ideas. And above all, let the joie de vivre of summer permeate your classroom as your students plan and dream.

We’d love to hear more of your thoughts on independent writing in a Two Writing Teachers community virtual get-together. Please join us on Monday, May 12th at 8:30 p.m. EDT for a Twitter Chat on independent writing. Please use the hashtag #TWTBlog. (Click here for more information.)   We hope to see you there!

We’d love to hear more of your thoughts on independent writing in a Two Writing Teachers community virtual get-together. Please join us on Monday, May 12th at 8:30 p.m. EDT for a Twitter Chat on independent writing. Please use the hashtag #TWTBlog. (Click here for more information.)
We hope to see you there!