When I heard some of my first graders exclaim, “I’m done. What do I do now?” and “I don’t know what to do,” or even worse, “What am I supposed to do?” I knew I had to change who owned the learning. Their comments screamed (even if the kids weren’t screaming) that writing was an assignment rather than a self-generated project. Their early drafts revealed problems too. Their writing lacked passion and voice, and their body language as they wrote yelled, “I AM DISENGAGED!” These young writers needed ownership over their writing, and I had to make a change without altering the required unit of study. Now all I had to do was figure out how to do that. (Smile.)
Finding an Authentic Audience
I began by helping students find a real reason to write. We were in the middle of a unit of study on review writing, and finding an authentic audience was tricky with Covid-19. The usual restaurants and family outings to local places weren’t happening, so we needed a different route. Instead, we talked about a real need in our school.
Students move in and out frequently in this community because the school is on an air force base. These kids know what it feels like to move into a new place and not know what to do with your free time. The concept of a class welcome book was born!
They had all kinds of ideas to help other kids know where to go on the base and in the local area. It would be a book filled with reviews explaining where to find the best playgrounds, bike-riding areas, and hideouts. It also included where to get the best chicken nuggets, french fries, ice cream, and pizza. The students even decided to add a section full of ideas about what to play when stuck inside. This would be a book that they would have wanted to receive, and they were excited to make it for children coming soon. Finally, we had an audience for our review writing.
Scaffolding Independence by Making Plans
Now that we had excitement, we needed a tool to help these writers become more independent. Inspired by Beth Moore’s article on Two Writing Teachers, students created their sticky-note calendars. We started simple. The kids put three sticky notes on their goals page in the writing folder. Then they wrote the date, the word Draft, and a possible topic on each note. Their next step was to think of a topic idea and write initials for their topic on the sticky note—so McDonald’s might be “M” and Dunkin’ Donuts became “DD.”
Later, the class could learn to make more elaborate plans that included revising, editing, and publishing. Right now, these beginning plans helped students get started:
The kids had an authentic audience and topics for writing; now they needed a way to plan their next steps from one day to the next. I wanted students not only to remember what they had written but tell themselves what to do next, rather than have it come from me. This is where technology lent a helping hand.
Each day, at the end of writing workshop, the students logged in to SeeSaw (any platform that lets kids record and share a video will work—Google Classroom, Flipgrid, and so on) and created a video. When videotaping, the students had to do three things:
- Show your writing.
- Read your writing.
- Say your next step—“My next step as a writer is . . .”
This two-minute video made a world of difference. With the help of technology, these emergent writers listened to themselves to remember what they had written the day before. The problems of “I don’t know what this says” were gone. Second, these kids gave themselves a next step, so they could get started writing right away.
One unexpected benefit was that I could view their writing and thinking processes from my living room sofa. After school, with my conferring notes in hand, I listened to each student’s recording. I wrote down teaching points, found student writing examples for upcoming minilessons, and planned my writing conferences and small groups. Their recordings helped me see the bigger picture and look for patterns across their writing. I also left personal messages alongside their recordings. In my 10–20-second responses, I congratulated writers on their efforts, noticed craft moves they tried, and helped focus their next steps. Recording videos promoted a lot of student independence, because every child began writing each day with a verbal reminder they had created and a quick conferring tip from me.
I knew the children needed to learn how to incorporate revising, editing, and publishing into their planning, but I wasn’t sure how to bring that to life without over-scaffolding the process. This time, I gave the kids a five-day calendar and some tips for jotting down possible plans. To make the planning process easy, I showed the children three options for next steps:
- Draft _______________ (Topic Idea)
- Revise _____________ (Title)
- Edit _______________ (Title)
Then they set off with their calendars and created a plan for the upcoming week. Once again, students recorded their plans in case they needed help deciphering what they had written on their calendar.
The best part of these two tools is how they shifted agency. Instead of beginning writing by asking me what to do, students logged in to their iPads and watched what they had recorded the previous day. The steps they record aren’t perfect, but I wasn’t concerned with that. Just hearing themselves reread their writing before they begin to work helps these friends take ownership of their writing process and find joy and purpose in the writing they create.
Download a Writing Plan Template