Diving In

Today is the last day for my Writing Lab students to work on their blogs. During this last blog cycle they worked at adding details to their writing. One of my students, who is typically behind the rest of the class, had not turned her work in for editing on turnitin.com so I was getting worried. I sat down next to her to see what was happening for her and she said, “I’m trying to find more ways to describe the place I’m talking about in my blog. I really want my reader to understand what a special place it is.”

If that’s not taking audience and purpose into consideration, I don’t know what is.

To hear this student talk about audience and purpose and having a specific reason to add details other than the fact it’s a requirement is music to my ears. Oftentimes with students who struggle with writing, it can be difficult to know where to even begin. There’s so much to teach.

I really feel that giving them time and space just to write and think about the effect their writing might have on their reader can be one of the best tools we can give our students. I really think that sometimes we overcomplicate things so much that it keeps kids from diving in. That’s what I think has worked so well with having my students who struggle blog. They can dive in to writing in an authentic way each day.

After all, how do WE become better writers, better bloggers? We write and we get feedback from our audience. Why should we expect anything different from our students?

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Commit to Something

This year I made a commitment to have my struggling students start blogging. I was reluctant to begin this endeavor because there were so many unknown variables: could I really pull off a workshop where they write about topics they want? What would I do for mentor texts to teach them skills? How would I teach e wry skill on the rubric? I really had no idea.

But I also knew that unless I committed to it from the get- go I would never do it and I’d just do the same old assignments I’ve always done with them.

And so I began.

First getting the students on social media to teach etiquette and how to comment to one another in genuine ways. Then they made paper blogs to learn that different types of writing, even online, have structure.

At this point I got stuck.

My students in this class are all different skill levels. I had to figure out a way to give my students mentor texts without pushing them to read about things they’re not interested in. This is when this population turns off and I could lose them for the rest of the semester.

So I took a risk and had my students find their own mentors who write about the topics they have chosen.

The risk has paid off. The deal is that for most of them this is the first time they have looked closely at writers. It is the first time most of them have read like writers.

Each blog cycle they set a goal based on our rubric that is targeted to struggling writers, and the find a place where one of their three blog mentors does whatever they envision doing. They post all of this on G+. But here’s where I’m struggling, and where you might be able to help me.

How do I get them to write valuable comments to one another and develop this as part of our class culture? This is what I would really like to try this school year. I am committed to play around with it some more…I feel like the curriculum is solid. I just really think they could help one another with feedback.

12 Steps of Writing Lab

Each semester for the last four years I have taught Writing Lab, a course for students who score below proficient in writing on standardized tests. There are a lot of reasons students are placed into the course: maybe they didn’t try on the test (most claim this, but pretesting shows they are wrong), they have not been taught well in the past, they have family issues where writing is not on the top of their priorities, they have learning disabilities, or most of the time they have been told so many times they are bad at writing that they have simply given up.

To say that most of my students begin our semester together with a bad attitude is an understatement. The first thing I do in class is give them a pretest to double check that the students who are in the class are meant to be there. I would feel terrible if a student didn’t really need the class and we were simply jumping through hoops. Students work hard to get out of the class, but this rarely happens. We look at test scores and set goals to make sure students understand the outcomes they need to have upon finishing the course. This gives them a sense of purpose.

My other colleagues who also teach the course and I joke that Writing Lab goes through its own 12-step process. First, students must accept their need for the course, that they have no control over being in the course. Then they begin to understand that someone is there to help, their teacher. After this point in their process, they mellow out their behaviors and begin to do the work in class. Then they begin goal setting each piece of writing, writing their little hearts out, and begin asking for help.

By then end of the semester, most of my students don’t want to leave. They realize they have a safe place to write, to ask questions, and to be themselves through their writing. Each semester it puts me in awe at the process my colleagues and I have created. It is truly magical.