Wednesday, November 16, 2016

I Want to Know What You Think: Asking My Students for Writing Ideas

One of my favorite parts of being an ELA teacher is getting to write alongside my students. In years past, this might have meant that I gave the semblance of doing this by putting some work up on the document camera and modeling how I might approach a piece. Usually, these were spur-of-the-moment pieces of writing that never turned into anything longer--definitely not something I'd bring to completion.

Nowadays, I find there is so much value in actually going through the same process my students are going through with a piece of my own writing. Since we're writing realistic fiction, from the very beginning, I've been brainstorming plot charts, developing my characters and drafting my story with them.

The benefits of this are obvious:

  • Students see me as a writer, which lends authenticity to my feedback and teaching.
  • They know I'm writing my story, which gives me motivation and accountability to finish it!
  • I gain a lot of personal satisfaction from writing for myself.
  • I get to go through the experience with a student's-eye view instead of just looking at this unit as a teacher, which forces me to think about writing process pieces that I might not have otherwise considered.
  • Students get to hear about my successes and difficulties with my story, which models productive struggle (this is so important for students to see--writing isn't easy for anyone, even adults!)
But what's the best part? Getting ideas and feedback from my students about how my story might go. Today, we talked about "stepping into the drama" of our stories, aiming to "become" our characters as we draft. This strategy helps writers get into the flow of drafting--instead of getting bogged down with what happens next, they simply ask, "What would my character do next and how?" 

To help students understand this, I used my realistic fiction piece I'm writing alongside them. My students are familiar with my story, which is about a girl who struggles with anxiety and uses a series of clues and a forgotten journal to try to befriend a guy she thinks she might have a lot in common with. I talk about it every day. They ask me about how my story is going, and since I'm continually writing it with them, it becomes another talking point and often can be an entry-way into a conference point I might be trying to make with a writer. 

At the beginning of class today, I told my writers that I was getting ready to draft my final scene, where Sloan (my protagonist) is waiting at the bookstore for Ryder (the guy she'd like to befriend) to come in. 

After a quick modeling of how I could figure out what happens next by asking myself what Sloan would do (she would totally arrive early, hide behind the bookshelves and move books aside so that she could see the front door when Ryder arrives), I asked them for suggestions. For a moment, I asked them to be Sloan. 

Each hour bubbled over with ideas. Sydney suggested that Sloan pull out her journal and start writing so that she could calm her nerves down. Harry wondered if Sloan might accidentally write in Ryder's journal, which she was supposed to be returning to him (way to increase the tension, Harry!). Jonah thought she might rip the page out and try to hide the evidence. Elizabeth said the reader would want to know what Sloan had written on the page, and mused aloud that maybe she had written something that showed how much she wanted to be friends with Ryder. Camryn thought Sloan should accidentally cause a scene that drew attention to herself (something she hates) just as Ryder walks in. 

As students shared their thoughts, storytelling their ideas (as opposed to summarizing them), I used the 'Suggest' feature on Google Docs to transcribe as much as I could. Over to the side, I added comments that reflected the direction each student suggested. At the end of fourth hour, I was so excited: I had so many new ideas--and they all came from my students! While I won't be able to use them all, taking them seriously and writing them down showed my students that I valued their thoughts. 

This practice is authentic. It puts students and teachers on the same level: that of a learner who is constantly seeking new ideas and feedback from other learners. I know I will be making changes to my story based on my students' suggestions. Seeing the evidence of their advice reflected in my writing will most certainly show them that their opinions on writing are important. They, too, are writers. We all are. And we're all learning from each other. 

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