Scary! Far From Perfect! Successful!

Scary!  Far from perfect!  Successful!  These all describe my first attempt at a self-directed writing unit with third graders.  I am using self-directed to describe a unit in which students not only choose their topics, but also the genre.  The mini-lessons for this unit centered on introductions and conclusions, things that were missing in students’ current writing.   In theory, it was a fantastic idea.  In practice, I didn’t know.

First, I read and learned.  I looked at student work and found common missing pieces.  I created a plan.

Then it came time to get started.  The kids were pumped and so was I.  Of course, as with any risk, there was some anxiety.  Time is precious.  Time with kids is precious.  Was I wasting it on this unit?

There were some hiccups and more research I need to do.  (For example, how to confer with kids writing comics.)  Tracking the students was difficult, even with multiple teachers in the room for writing.  (Trying a solution to this and will share in an upcoming post.)

However, after reading the final products and seeing the students sharing with their peers, I know it was a success and a good use of that precious time.   With one unit under my belt and some adjustments, I am ready to do it again!  (In a few months..not just yet.)

Here is a sampling of student work.  There was such variety!

We had personal narratives:

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We had some informational writing:

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We had some fictional fights between dinosaurs:

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We had some creative comics:

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And one of my favorite comics…a laugh out loud comic about why dogs eat homework, from the point of view of the dogs.

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Conferring with Writers of Comics

We are currently in our first “Self-Directed” unit of the year in writing workshop – my first ever.  So, students are choosing their genre and topic, instead of just the topic within a given genre.  You can read more about it here.

Because I teach third graders and have always encouraged the reading of comics, many students chose to write narratives in the form of comics.  This was exciting for them, a little stressful for me.  I am not a reader of comics.   I am not a writer of comics.  Therefore, I found myself ill-prepared for conferring with students as they wrote comics.

Here are some of the teaching points that I used the two weeks before break.  Most of these came up simply because I, the reader, was confused about something they were sharing through their comic.  And they were generally questions posed that we solved together.

  • Introduction/Lead – Did you start in a way that hooked your reader?  Is your reader going to keep reading?   Does your reader know who your characters are?  Strategies for beginning a narrative can be applied.
  • Conclusion/Ending – How did you end the comic?  Did you bring your comic to a conclusion?  Or are you ending it on a cliffhanger?  Strategies for ending a narrative can be applied.
  • Word Choice – With so few words in a comic, the quality of the words is even more important.  Are there simple/common words that could be changed to add detail to the picture you are creating in the reader’s mind?
  • Setting –  Readers need to know where the characters are, especially at first or if there is more than one setting.  How are you letting your readers know where your characters are?
  • Flashbacks – How can you show this event is from a different time?  How can you set it apart from the other events?

Fortunately, my son is an avid comic book reader and received many new ones for Christmas.  And…he shares!  So, after reading several comic books I have learned a few more things that writers do when writing comics.

  1. Onomatopoeia – There is an abundance of onomatopoeia on every page, regardless of characters/series.
  2.  Dialogue vs. Thoughts – When writers want to share what the characters are thinking he/she puts it in a box (vs. using speech bubbles for dialogue).Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 6.32.23 PM
  3.   Tone/Volume –  Tone/volume is sometimes communicated in the shape of the speech bubbles.  While the typical speech bubble is talking, a bubble with a lot of spikes holds dialogue that is yelled or said with a lot of anger.Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 6.11.27 PM.png

There is one week left of this unit when we get back from break and I can’t wait to see their work and share what I have learned.  I also plan on reading more comics for two reasons.  One:  In order to be able to help my students, I need to be familiar with the genre.  Two:  They are really addictive and well written!

Consider giving students an opportunity to choose their own genre and don’t forget that as teachers, we need to immerse ourselves in any genre that we intend to help our students read or write.


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!