Independent Writng: Multi-genre writing projects to celebrate a year of writing workshop

 

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The last quarter of the school year brings gifts all its own – it’s a time to celebrate all the investment that has been made during the first three quarters: our students have a sense of independence and ownership of their learning, and they are ready, willing and able to spread their wings and fly on their own…with a bit of guidance and encouragement. I save two genres for this particular time in the school year – digital writing experiments, and the multi-genre writing project.

By this time of year, my students have cycled through the following units of study:

  • personal narrative
  • memoir
  • feature article
  • persuasive essays and letters
  • photo essays
  • and, from the very first week of school, we’ve also written:
  • book reviews
  • poetry
  • a slice of life once every week
  • experiments in digital storytelling

So, we’ve explored many types of writing in an organized, methodical, predictable writing workshop way: immersing ourselves in mentor texts, selecting topics and ideas that move us, drafting, revising, editing and re-editing, and finally publishing each genre to the happy fanfare of writing celebrations. And, as we arrive at the last quarter of the year, we eye each other and ask…now what?!!…and the answer is: The Multi Genre Writing Project. In a nutshell, this is the time of year in which we look back over all the different ways in which we’ve learned to write effectively and beautifully, and flex our well toned writing muscles to show what we can do. On our own (with a bit of guidance and encouragement).

Two wonderful books opened my eyes to the possibility of this writing project:

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Camille Allen, in her book The Multigenre Research Paper:Voice, Passion, and Discovery in Grades 4-6 , describes the essential idea behind the venture this way:
“The best way I can describe a multigenre paper is to say that each piece in the paper utilizes a different genre, reveals one facet of the topic, and makes its own point…The paper is instead a collage of writing and artistic expression with an overarching theme that engulfs and informs the reader.”

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And Penny Kittle, in Write Beside Them, describes multigenre writing as:
“At its core, multigenre means letting go – letting writers decide. If the territory drives you to write, then I trust you to determine how to write about it…The writing helps us see and feel, not just know the facts. That’s the essence of multigenre work – a broadening of understanding through the use of different forms of writing.”

Last year, I experimented a bit with the multigenre project, trying to figure out how it would look in a sixth grade classroom and trying to answer some thorny questions: how much freedom in topic choice? how many genres to throw into the mix? Some things worked quite well (yes, freedom in topic choice works – but sixth graders need parameters), and some things did not (my kids were able to work with success when I limited the genres to four). This year, I am armed with lessons learned, and my kids are excited to begin.

The launch:
Penny Kittle writes about introducing this project with a dramatic classroom scene – a police officer arriving to issue a bench warrant for her arrest on a traffic violation. That certainly got the attention of her high school kids! We launched in a quieter way, by reaching into our writers notebooks and writing portfolios in search of our burning questions – what issues and topics had we written about the most? wondered about the most? wanted to keep writing about the most. Each student came up with a list of three, to be narrowed to down one.

The genres to choose from:
Last year, in my enthusiasm to allow my kids maximum freedom, I allowed them to choose as many of the genres as they wanted. Big mistake. In their enthusiasm, they wanted to take on everything, and we were pressed for time (the only drawback to the fourth quarter of the year is that when it ends, it ends – there is no more borrowing time). So, this year my kids have to pick four genres from our menu:

  • personal narrative
  • memoir
  • feature article
  • persuasive essays and letters
  • book reviews
  • poetry
  • a slice of life once every week

The process:
Once my kids have chosen their topics and genres, we meet to confer about feasibility and time frame. We have five weeks to work with, so each student completes a planning proposal:

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This gives us a framework in which to focus our topics, organize time, and set project parameters, all three of which are necessary to make sure that my kids have the best chance of creating meaningful work that they can be proud of – not something we are rushing to complete in the waning days of the school year when both time and stamina are running out. Once topics have been chosen, and we’ve met to confer about the planning proposal, we number each genre in the order that makes the most sense: most time-consuming to least time-consuming, which ensures that the project will be completed in time.

The day-to-day:
The daily minilesson is replaced with a short piece of mentor text – a poem, an extract from a memoir or nonfiction text, an editorial, a personal narrative. Since every student is working on something different, the mentor text serves as an inspiration piece, something to listen to as a writer and tuck away for reference. And then we write, confer, meet with writing partners to share and nudge, and then write some more. As each piece of the project is completed and polished, it is filed away for our final writing celebration.

Some current multi-genre proposals:

From Thomas, a baseball enthusiast:
A feature article on Jackie Robinson
A memoir – his first MLB baseball game
An editorial about the need to make the selection of summer travel baseball teams “more fair” (I have a feeling that I’m going to learn a lot about the politics in youth baseball through this)
A narrative poem about the first game of the summer leagues

From Koji, who wants to celebrate his Japanese heritage:
A “Where I’m From” poem
A personal narrative about going to his grandparents for a part of every summer
A feature article about the cherry blossom trees in Washington, D.C.
An opinion piece comparing Japanese schools to American schools

From Lacey, a gymnast:
An ode to her gymnastics center
A letter to our school Superintendent, proposing to have gymnastics as a middle school sport
An article about Nadia Comaneci – her hero
A photo essay about her gymnastics routine on Tapestry

The Writing Celebration
This takes up the last week of school, and we need every moment of it to share each aspect of everyone’s project.  It’s a celebration of our multigenre project, but it’s also the celebration of how far each of my students has traveled as a writer in the space of a year.  It’s the perfect way to cap a year of writing workshop.

 

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!