My students are really good writers. So, let me qualify this statement. This year, I have a room full of writers who do not struggle to generate ideas and to then move those ideas from their heads to paper. There is, however, lots of work to do. The greatest opportunity seems to be in helping my students grow in their craft. While my students are fairly fluent when it comes to writing, they are not particularly thoughtful writers. They don't take time to consider word choice or author's purpose.
Currently, my students are working on an open response question related to Charlotte's Web. The question is; Consider Fern's character in E.B. White's novel, Charlotte's Web. How does her character change over the course of the novel? Use evidence from the text to support your thinking. We began this writing lesson by looking closely at the prompt. After asking the students to read the prompt to themselves and then reading it aloud, I asked them to tell me what the prompt was asking them to write about. Just as I feared, some students were not comprehending the prompt or, at the very least, were taking the time to thoughtfully consider what the prompt was asking. One student offered that the prompt asked them to write about what happened in the story while another thought that he should write about the novel's setting. EEEKKK! This is not at all unusual for fourth graders. All too often, given an open-response prompt like this, fourth graders tend to read the prompt and then write about whatever they want to write about connected to the novel. The first part of my lesson had to focus on attending to the prompt. There will be many other lessons that will address the need to comprehend the prompt and attend to it thoughtfully as they write.
The next part of our lesson addressed constructing a solid topic sentence and then supplying convincing evidence from the text to support the reader's thinking. Finally, the lesson addressed closings. Once the lesson objectives were outlined, writers had an opportunity to draft a response. I reviewed the prompt and asked the students to be sure that they had addressed all aspects of the prompt. When most students had taken adequate time to craft a first draft, I asked the students to consider sharing their writing for class critique. Many students were willing to share. Selecting the right student-writing for the first share was important. I wanted the first share to be rough so that the students can see that a draft can be developed into a high quality piece of writing.
The piece of student writing that I selected was projected at the SmartBoard. This particular piece had a simple but effective topic sentence. What it lacked was any real text evidence to back up the readers thinking. It also lacked a concluding sentence. Writers in our room suggested different pieces of evidence that this writer could include in his piece. We thanked the writer and the classroom got back to work. The second share was important too! The writer I'd select for class critique next would have to be a writer who had already made changes to his or her piece based on the feedback that the first writer had received. This piece would be more polished but would also require a fair amount of revision in order to meet the standards. The first thing I did was praise the writer for the revision that he or she had already done. I pointed out how the changes made were possible because our first student was willing to share his or her work. Then, we read this new piece aloud. I followed up the reading by asking the students to give feedback. This piece had some pretty convincing evidence however, the topic sentence was lacking. The class ended up guiding this writer toward more thoughtful word choice in the topic sentence and because this writer hadn't included a concluding sentence, we helped with that too.
I want my students to be motivated by their peers. I don't want my students to be motivated to earn grades that measure up to their peers' grades. Instead, I want to share examples of student work so that my students can see how writing is developed. I want my writers to aspire to produce writing that measures up to the best writing produced by their peers.
Finally, after the share, I make sure to pull the writers aside who were willing to share their work. I thank each for being brave. I remind them that many writers in our room will improve because of their willingness to take a risk and share their developing writing.
It is about building a culture in the room where students invest in one another. It is about sharing feedback with one another and it is about stepping out of the comfort zone so that we can all improve. This lesson was another step toward building this culture and improving student writing.