Using Quick Writes as Authentic Writing Spaces for Volume Development

 

#volumeup

 

Student writing volume is an under-invested component in establishing students as writers.  I have several theories for this, but all lead to the same conclusion–it’s hard.  It’s hard for kids to write more and well because collectively I don’t think we are as intentional about building student writing stamina as we are about building their reading stamina. It’s also hard for teachers because the more they write the more we have to read.  That takes time and it feels overwhelming.

While these are all very real and valid reasons, I’m still left with an itch I can’t ignore called hypocrisy.  If I believe readers need to read more to become better readers, the same has to be true for writing.  So why do my expectations differ?  Why do I encourage my kids to read more to get better at reading, but not write more to get better at writing?

Oh, yeah.  It’s hard.  But then I remember the wise words of Mary Ehrenworth and know I have to do the hard things more.  The hard things don’t get easier, and I don’t become more proficient at them, if I avoid them.

I had to scratch this itch.  To do so I began reflecting on where to start this work knowing everyone would feel its weight.  The purpose of getting kids to write more was not about giving a grade.  The purpose was about building stamina in a way that resulted in increased volume.  So, where does writing exist that I don’t grade?  I didn’t want to create something new (enter overwhelming feelings) and  I don’t want kids to feel the additional weight of it being assigned a score (doing this makes me a hypocrite again. It doesn’t match my purpose. I don’t need any new itches.)

Answer: QUICK WRITES!

We typically start each unit of writing with a series of quick writes over the span of several days.  This serves as the immersion phase into our new unit,  allowing students to explore and experiment with the style and genre of writing they are about to embark upon.  Additionally, it gives our students the opportunity for “joyful, ungraded practice” as advised by the incredibly brilliant Penny Kittle.  If I can center students in an environment where they feel liberated as writers, and engaged in the act of it, that’s where I can find our real potential for volume and stamina.  My quick write environment typically provides just that.

To track this goal, I have set up a graph to show progress.  It looks similar to our reading stamina graph, only we track words, sentences, paragraphs or pages, not minutes.

Our set-up for quick writes is this:

  1. Look at and examine the picture, infographic, writing, etc.
  2. Think
  3. Write
  4. Talk
  5. Write

Students get five minutes to write for steps 3 and 5.  After our very first quick write we average how much we were able to write as a class for a collective ten minutes.  This is our baseline data.  As the unit and year progresses, we work to increase this amount by words and sentences (primary level) and paragraphs and pages (intermediate level).

Just as we monitor volume for reading, I am working to do this same thing for students as writers.  When it is higher?  When is it lower?  Perhaps our volume goals will even differ by genre.  As I navigate this for the first time, I’m not exactly sure where it will go or what I will find.  I have assumptions, and I’m looking forward to seeing how, or if, students will fulfill those.  Regardless, I know the information this provides will make my instruction more intentional.

And scratch that dang itch.

Text, Tool, and Thought: Survivors Club by Michael Bornstein

Survivors Club

Text:

In the book, Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz, Michael Bornstein joins his daughter to tell the tragic and miraculous story of his family and their will to survive the evils of World War II.  Michael Bornstein’s family lived in Zarki, Poland in 1939.  In October of the same year, the the Jewish community was invaded by Nazi soldiers as World War II began rearing its horrendous, hateful head.  Despite a heavy Gestapo and Nazi presence, Zarki would remain an open ghetto.  (It is still remembered as being one of the more favorable ghettos to have resided, despite the unspeakable crimes witnessed by its inhabitants).  Shortly after the invasion, Michael’s mamishu (mother) learned she was pregnant with him and he was born into the ghetto on May 2, 1940.  What transpired over the next four years of Michael’s young life can only be told by the author himself.  His family got separated time and again, but when life in the ghetto is all you know this is your norm. Ultimately forced into Auschwitz, Michael soon realized his family’s luck had run out.  They could not survive this.  Or could they?

Tool:

This book serves as a powerful example of narrative nonfiction.  Michael tells his story in such a profound, yet protected, way for his young audience, without losing any authenticity of the era or his life.  As many of our students launch the year with some form of narrative writing–whether formal or informal–this book shows exactly why our personal stories must be shared.

Potential Craft Moves to Highlight:

  • power of personal accounts
  • embedding another language to connect to larger message (Yiddish terms are used consistently to highlight the family’s commitment to their faith; German terms are used when Nazis are talking to show how misplaced and misunderstood they were in the community)
  • theme–migration, war, poverty, family, faith, marginalization, death, crime, power… (the list goes on)

In connection to bullet one, having students interview family members about powerful stories in their lives could serve as a brainstorming tool to pull in those deeper, more meaningful moments in our lives.  It might look something like this:

  • What different parts of the world is our family from?
  • How do those places connect with my life today?  Food?  Clothing?  Religion?  Family traditions? Home? Music?  Art?
  • Why are these cultural components so important to our family?
  • How do we keep our family history alive?  How can I keep it alive through my narrative nonfiction writing?

The interview does not have to be long–remember, we’re just brainstorming at this point.

Thought:

So often when our kids begin narrative writing they want to talk about winning a video game (likely Minecraft), their trip to the local amusement park, or that one time they got a great Christmas present.  And we sigh.  There has to be more.  How am I going to get this child to see there’s more?

Additionally, we live in a society where our demographics are changing at a steady pace. If we want to know our neighbors, we have to listen to their stories.  More importantly, if we want to know ourselves, we have to know our own.  This is where understanding and empathy are birthed, and connections to others become meaningful and lasting.  Culturally relevant teaching has never been more important, and how many of our students really know and understand their own history?

As I read this book, I could not help but think how much of this author’s young life has impacted every facet of his being as he’s grown into an adult.  Certainly, our students are not likely to have stories as harrowing.  But some will, and they can’t be ignored.  Those who don’t still have important stories to tell.  Connect with families to learn student stories through the interview builds vital relationships for the year and gets them involved in their child’s learning right away.  More importantly, for our students it creates an outlet for writing to be connected to self-discovery.  I can’t think of a more essential audience than that.

 

Two additional picture books that could serve as mentor text:

  1. Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruus (this text can connect thematically with migration, poverty, war, hardship, etc. and bring about meaningful cultural conversations connected to these themes.  The story is told in Arabic and English, showing the power of bringing in another language as well).
  2. Mirror by Jeannie Baker (this text shows life in the Middle East on one side of the text, and in the U.S. on the other side.  This helps kids see all the small day-to-day activities that create the culture we live in.  As they start to think about stories they have connected to their culture, this can help them see all that culture entails).