Creating Self-Directed Writers

After reading a great book, Self-Directed Writers, this summer during 51gu6wsTMxL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Illinois Writing Project, I had a lot of food for thought.   For example, a student capable of working independently, isn’t the same as a self-directed student.  Although writers have editors and publishers, they need to be more than just independent to be successful.  As a result of reading this text, I have created and am currently implementing my first “self-directed” unit in writing workshop.  It’s not perfect,  but is a step in creating writers capable of guiding themselves.

We use Lucy Calkins Units of Study plus other units that I have created following a similar structure.  Most units in my third grade writing workshop give students choice of topic within a given genre.  In this unit students were able to choose genre, as well as topic within the genre.

These are the steps I took in planning my first Self-Directed unit:

  1.  Choose time frame.  This includes how long you have to complete the unit and point in the year it will be implemented.  Example:  2-3 weeks, after completing Lucy’s Narrative and Informational Units.
  2. Choose an objective for the unit.  You need to have a focus for your mini-lessons that is not genre specific.  Use all of the data you have  (anecdotal notes, on-demand assessments, etc.) to find weaknesses or missing pieces that continue to show up in student writing.   Example:  Introductions/Leads  and Conclusions/Endings
  3. Set parameters.  Although we want our writers to be self-directed as well as independent, they are still learning and need guidelines.  Example:  a)  Students must name the purpose and audience of their writing.  b)  Students must have a piece published by the given deadline.  Although students can work on multiple pieces over the course of the unit, he/she will choose one to turn in.  c)  The published piece must include an introduction/lead and a conclusion/ending. 
  4. Plan mini-lessons.  There are many resources available to pull units from including the Units of Study.  You can pull from lessons in previous units or even previous grade levels.    I was able to find a lot of great mini-lessons in Craft Lessons and Nonfiction Craft Lessons.
  5. Begin unit, adjusting as needed.
  6. Reflect and Revise.

Other notes:

  •  I took a status of the class in the beginning of the unit.  I was able to use this to get a big picture of what students were working on and create small groups for conferring.
  • I used portions of checklists from the LC Units of Study.  For the unit I planned, I gave students a copy of only the Introduction/Lead and Conclusion/Ending part of the checklists for both Narrative and Informational units.
  • Many students choose to write comics.  These fit in with the narrative checklist, but require additional, new to me, teaching points.  (Conferring with Writers of Comics)
  • No students chose poetry.  I am not sure what I would have done in terms of introduction/conclusion and checklist.  Any ideas are appreciated.

We weren’t able to finish the unit before winter break.  However, I can’t wait to see the finished products and celebrate in 2016!

Dear Grandpa,

Dear Grandpa,

I remember the funeral.  Troy was not even one, but walking already.  We sat in the coat closet of the funeral home.  I was criss-cross-applesauce on the ground, Brittney and some of my cousins on the couch.  On the other side of that door was the wake – your wake, Grandpa.

The door was closed.  Was it to keep Troy inside?  Or to keep everything else out?  The sounds of people reminiscing?  The sniffles?  The sight of your body in that coffin?  We sat in there most of the day and into the evening.   Talking about memories.

Square dancing in the living room, as you called out the moves.

The smell of beef jerky waking us up in the morning, but not being able to eat it yet.

Weeks in Michigan at Barbra and Norman’s house on the lake.

We laughed, smiled, reminisced.  But, when we walked out of that coat closet, nothing stayed the same.  Yes, we are all still family.  But, you were our leader, our patriarch.  And without you, things changed.  You kept us together when you were alive.  You gave us places and reasons to gather.  You were our glue.  But, with you gone, we don’t have the ability to stick.  Yes, Uncle Chuck and Uncle Tim still work at the shop.  Mom still talks to her sisters.  Uncle Pat and his family went to visit Aunt Terri.  But, without you, we are groups.  We are not one family.

Grandpa, you led and we followed.  But in the end, we followed your model, not your words.  You had little contact, if any, with your siblings as adults.  Now, your kids are repeating your model.

You didn’t give us a model to follow.  You didn’t help us know how to keep together when you were gone. Yes, we all love you.  I love you.  But, I have some anger, too.  While I am aware that time passes and things change.  And I understand why things – the Runge family – is several separate entities.  I don’t like it.

I will show my son – my family – through my example.  I will show him the importance of family.  I will teach him to forgive and to accept – both by my words and by my actions.  I will not be the glue that holds my family together.  I will give them what they need to stay together.

Thanks for the lesson, Grandpa.


Writing Marathon

20150716_103831This summer I participated in an amazing professional development with the Illinois Writing Project.  For twelve days, we learned about ourselves as writers and about how to be writing leaders in our classroom and our school.  On one of those days we participated in a writing marathonMy school’s literacy coach, Michelle, and I knew this was something that we needed to take back to our school.

previewThis past Thursday, Michelle and I met at a the beautiful Cantigny Park with eight of our colleagues.  (five returning, five new)  We were able to introduce this strategy and build relationships at the same time.  Teachers learned about each other and about writing.

IMG_32781One observation made was that sometimes we talked to each other during the independent writing time, but that was alright.   It gave us ideas to write about.  Maybe a completely silent independent writing time isn’t necessarily realistic?  Maybe we need to allow students to wander when they hit a writing block?  Maybe we need to give them opportunities to write in places other than their seats?  Food for thought.

There were also times that something one person said during a share led to the writing of someone else during the next stop.  It just shows that share time is so important.  It is often the part of writing workshop that is forgotten or eliminated for lack of time.  However, it can generate so many ideas!

20150815_122407I can’t wait to participate in a Writing Marathon with my third graders!  However, I know that it isn’t something we can just expect them to do and love without preparation.  Here are a few of my thoughts about a marathon with third graders…

  • During the fall, with lots of fall colors!
  • Practice in the field and at the park before the event.  Students need modeling and practice on how to use the environment for inspiration.
  • Generate a list of ideas in their notebooks before the marathon.
  • On the marathon field trip, bring parents willing to write with us.

You can expect a post later this fall about how this went over with third graders!  I can’t wait!  Write on!

A Writer’s Notebook

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I just finished another great read by Ralph Fletcher, Breathing In Breathing Out:  Keeping a Writer’s Notebook.  It had nothing to do with the Inquiry that I was supposed to be doing, but I couldn’t help it.  I wanted to finish.  I admire Ralph Fletcher’s writing (Marshfield Dreams) and his ability to teach writing strategies (Craft Lessons).  A quick read with insight into a writer’s notebook, it filled me with ideas and forgiveness.


Ralph Fletcher (I feel like his name can’t be separated), among other things, gives his readers categories that could be found within a writer’s notebook.  He puts these into the following categories:  odd facts, questions, odds and ends, lists, lines and insights, artifacts.  Can you believe it?!  I have some of these things in my notebook?!  So here are some of the random things I have written in my notebook this summer, some I may develop and some may go no farther than sharing through this post.

  • Model how you want your kids to act.
  • “Not every day is a good day for writing.”
  • Your choice, your time (regarding writing workshop)
  • Recovering Catholic
  • Themes are necessary for my happiness
  • What was that game called we played at Brittney’s house?  There were fairies , magic, and adventure?
  • Mentors in his life:  teachers and texts
  • Listening to Troy’s Dreams
  • Pruning Bushes- even as adult writers.
  • “Failing is another word for growing.” – Kahn Academy “You Can Learn Anything” video


Ralph Fletch, a published writer, says it is alright for some of your writing to be bad.  Throughout the book he gives many metaphors for a writer’s notebook.  However, regardless of the metaphor that makes sense to you, he says that the notebook is for all writing, good and bad.  In fact, he says that most of the writing in your notebook will be bad.  And that’s O.K.  So, Jennie, I forgive you for a whole lot of bad writing.  Ralph Fletcher says it’s normal and expected.

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Why do I do this?

Why do I do this job?  Why do I do this job that is constantly attacked?  Why do I do a job that requires me to spend my own money?  Why do I do this job that emotionally and physically drains me?

I do it.  I do it because it also fills me.  I do it because it fills me with love.  I do it because it fills me with passion.  I do it because it challenges me on a daily basis.  I do it because it gives me hope and keeps me going. 

I do it because…

My freshman year adviser in college told me I should find a new career path.  She said I was not cut out to be a teacher.  Teachers need to be interested in all subjects, she said, and I just didn’t show enough interest in her class.

Let’s not even focus on how she was constantly canceling class, showing up late, or sending someone in to give us directions for our class.  It was a rough year.  Living several hours from family.  Years before I recognized my own depression/anxiety, but looking back I now know that I was extremely depressed.  Unengaged.

Listening to her, not becoming a teacher, didn’t cross my mind.  Even in a very difficult place, mentally, it never occurred to me to walk away from my dreams of teaching.  I have always wondered why….I am thinking it is because of all of those other teachers and mentors encouraging me in the past.

It gives me hope that the one year I spend with a kid building his/her confidence and guiding his/her learning, will help them.  I get them for only one year.  But maybe it is enough.  Enough to make a permanent difference.  Enough of a difference to get them past the neigh-Sayers they will inevitably encounter.

That is why I do it.

I do it because…

Today, during a PD with the Illinois Writing Project, a college freshman came in to share her writing with our group.  I had seen her around this building, moving furniture, reading and writing.  She is working as a custodian until she leaves for college next month.  It turns out she is a writer and received a writing scholarship.  When our leader asked her to come in and share some of her writing, she agreed.

Wow!  Out of all experiences I have had in the last few weeks, this is one that will stick with me the most.  Yes, her one 130ish word sentence was beautiful and well written.  However, it was her passion for writing and her story that, even now, brings on tears.  She told us about how in third grade a parent came in and did a creative writing talk.  She explained to us how that was when she realized she loved it.  That was when she realized she was good at it.  Third grade!  And now she off to a creative writing program in college, with exciting plans for her future.

This is why I do it.

I do it because…

At the end of this past year, on the last day of a very difficult year, a parent came up to me to thank me.  He shook my hand and thanked me for everything that I did for his daughter.   He didn’t usually pick her up from school, but he made a point of not only picking her up, but shaking my hand and thanking me.   He said that she learned from me, that I impacted her.

That is why I do it.

Note to Self: Bring Bug Spray!

One of the other teachers here, at the Illinois Writing Project Workshop, wrote about how she was distracted by something and couldn’t get past it to write.  She was so right!  (Thanks Anne!  I hope everyone realizes that whatever you say in the presence of a blogger, might end up on her blog.)20150716_100054

Sometimes you get that one thing that annoys you, distracts you and you can’t get to a place where you can focus on the writing.  Unfortunately, it’s probably going to happen in our classrooms no matter how we try to control the environment.  There will be pencils tapping, kids whispering, teachers conferring.

So, maybe we need to teach kids how to move past it.  How to deal…Easier said than done…

One option is to write about that thing that is taking up all your focus. Then, once it is on paper, maybe it will leave your mind.  It worked for me during an amazing writing marathon last week.  The bugs were swarming because of the rain and it was all I could think about, so that is what I wrote about.  Once I had it on paper, I moved on to write about something else.  (Of course, bringing bug spray would have made this a non-issue!)

I know this idea won’t always work so, I would love to hear any ideas you have for helping kids get past the distractions during writing workshop.  What do you have?  Please share!

Dear New Co-teacher

Yes, the world has ended.  Jill Pickle has left me and I will be working with a new teacher this year.  I know, I will survive and develop another great relationship.  I am past my self-pity and looking forward to meeting my new partner.  Since co-teaching is like a marriage, I want my new partner to have a heads up.

Dear New Co-teacher,

I don’t know who you are yet, but very soon we will be a team.  We will be spending so much time together our cycles will sync.  (TMI…I know, but get used to it.)  Here are some things you should know about me.

1.  I may look angry, but I’m not.  Some people call it the “resting *itch face.”  Don’t be intimidated.

2.  Smiling and small talk don’t come naturally to me.  Please don’t take it personally if I look at you and don’t greet you.

3.  Along the same lines…sometimes I will respond in my head and not verbalize it.  (And not realize I didn’t say it.)  I apologize in advance.

4.  I am a morning person.

5.  I have some control issues.  I don’t delegate well, but I am working on it.

6.  I am dedicated to these kids and will do everything that I can to help them learn.

7.  I am an organized mess.  Although, from the outside, it will just look like a mess.  I will try to change, but I just don’t think it will ever happen…

8.  I want you to tell me if I make you angry, upset, frustrated, etc.  I can’t fix what I don’t know.

9.  I whole heartedly believe that co-teaching is the best for ALL students.  All of the students are OURS and together we will help them grow.

Good Luck!

Your New Partner,


Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 11.58.24 AMTo go along with Michelle’s BigTime Blogging Challenge, here’s a poem…

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Creating Writers

I am in day three of a twelve day workshop with the Illinois Writing Project and it is already a fantastic experience.  I have learned so much in just a few days, but I have also realized how far I have come in my writing instruction in two short years.  You know how when you see your kid every day and so you don’t always notice how tall his is until one day the top of his head comes above your chin?  Well, that is how I feel about writing in my classroom.

I think about where I was with my knowledge two summers ago – just learning about workshop.  Two summers ago I was reading through Lucy’s Units of Study for third grade.  I was taking notes, wondering if this would work.  All of my thoughts were hypothetical.  It was going to be my first year as a classroom teacher, after four years as a reading teacher.  It was also my school’s first year implementing workshop and Lucy.

Now, I see how far I have come and how much my students have grown.  I know what aspects of my writing instruction and workshop need to be strengthened.  I know where to look to find resources.  All of a sudden, I realize how much I know and how much of that knowledge has been gained in the last two years.

When asked to write a poem using only prepositional phrases today, I ended up thinking about how writing workshop has been essential in developing my third grade writers.  Writers with skills, willing to write, and confident in their writing.  Writers writing EVERY day.  But just like my son’s height and my writing instruction, they don’t really realize what is happening until the end.  Until that all important publishing.

at the beginning

at war with

with the help of

in collaboration

for better or worse

at a distance

by my watch

in confidence

in the end

to THEIR astonishment