Lisa is a third-grade teacher and a regular visitor in my office, happy to share successes and open up for reflection on the days when writing instruction feels more like walking through mud. Today, she had metaphorical mud up to her knees. Since I’m the district’s writing coordinator and a reliably passionate collaborator on anything related to writing, Lisa knew she’d have my full attention to brainstorm about her writing instruction.
“Nothing is working with my student, N,” she said. She went through a litany of attempts and failures both on her part and on the student’s part. She’d provided a variety of paper choices, but they didn’t inspire any additional writing. She’d provided graphic organizers, but he wouldn’t fill them out. She’d changed his seat location to minimize distractions while he was writing, but he still found many things to do besides write. She caught herself at the end of it though… “I know what you’re going to ask,” she said with a laugh.
“What can he do?” we said almost at the same time.
What can he do?
In the midst of curricular pressures and striving to have students reach for standards and skills that seem far from reach, it’s critical for both teachers and students to identify what they can do, as opposed to focusing on what is hard. Sometimes it helps to have some go-to strategies when the writing journey feels like a walk through thick mud. Here are three writing strategies that have worked for me over the years:
1. Understand some of the predictable developmental pathways.
Writing is a complex process since it involves the integration of fine motor skills, memory, creative thinking, and additional skills, too. However, one of the aspects of the Common Core that I appreciate is that it unfolds a progression of skills across grades. If students aren’t ready to write a multi-paragraph essay with a logical structure, as described by the grade 5 opinion writing standard, then maybe they are ready to write a text that states an opinion and offers reasons and examples as described by the grade 2 opinion writing standards. Once they master that skill, it might feel easier to nudge them into additional paragraphs with an organizational structure. Likewise, if they are struggling to create a research-based information piece, they may grow more monumentally if they practice writing about topics of expertise; that way, they are not trying to learn new information and write with precision and accuracy. Once the process of writing becomes easier, then there are more accessible inroads for weaving in newly acquired information. Many times it benefits students and feels much less frustrating to back up the level of difficulty and build on success.
2. Develop a variety of lenses for looking at and thinking about students as writers.
Another strategy for identifying what students can do as writers involves breaking down the task of a writing piece into categories. Maybe a writer is able to maintain a focus, but struggles to elaborate on ideas. Maybe the elaboration is there, but the ability to use sentence structures effectively is a challenge. Maybe a writer is able to think of ideas, has a lot to say, but struggles with conventions and spelling. As you look at students’ writing through multiple lenses, it’s rare to find a writer who can do nothing unless there are literally no words on the page.
3. Expand the menu of possibilities.
There are many opportunities to write, and they don’t all involve writing an original text of a specific genre. Pay attention to what students can create verbally. Oral storytelling is a skill that some students who struggle with written work may have. Additionally, pictures have the power to tell stories and deliver messages, and you may be able to identify some strengths by inviting students to share ideas through alternate modalities such as talk and art. Large gaps between students’ ideas and written work may signal the need for intentional and responsive instruction to help eliminate the writing roadblock, but you will not reveal those instructional opportunities unless you go on a hunt for strengths.
No matter how you do it, shifting to an asset-based approach delivers the message to students that you believe in them, and therefore, they become more likely to believe in themselves. Additionally, success leads to a positive outlook and a belief in possibilities. Offer students pathways of possibilities, the belief in their abilities, and choices for accessibilities, and you are likely to see positive learning outcomes in their writing! That metaphorically muddy pathway will hopefully morph into smoother ground.