To begin, I introduce our first official unit of the year, memoir. We read over the Recommended Memoir List & Parent Letter as a class and look over the list of recommended titles. As mentioned in the letter, students are asked to choose any memoir to read during the unit. They are encouraged to explore beyond the list of recommended reading. I am very flexible on okaying books. Sometimes issues of age appropriateness come up, but I often leave these choices up to the parents.
As we read over the letter, I ask students to star books that look interesting or authors that sound familiar. We have a brief sharing session, and I ask kids which books look appealing. This can serve as a time to get students excited about our new unit and enthusiastic about reading, in general.
I designate one day as the "check-in" day. On this day I check in all the student's memoirs. For this first unit check-in, I give the kids a week, including the weekend, to secure their texts. I encourage them to visit our library, the public library, my classroom library. Buying books are the last resort. Of course, some parents want to buy books for their kids and are happy to do so, but the words "buy this book" never come out of my mouth, due to the vast inequalities that exist among the students in my district.
Eventually, this will lead into a more formal memoir unit, where students will be reading a memoir of their choosing, as well as using these texts to write their own memoirs.
I place my writing sample, Teacher Model: Special Connection, under the document camera. This writing sample comes from an activity we did the day prior. I explain to the students that today we will revisit this writing from yesterday. I explain, sometimes, when you're writing, it is good to get down as much as you can. I often use the term you have to write, to write. Meaning you actually have to put words on the paper, even if they're not the best words, or the most creative.
Now, I say, is your chance to get rid of the excess words that you don't need, or trim the fat. What don't you need? What is not vital to the telling of your story? Or, what just seems like extra. I love sensory details, I usually don't want to cut those. However, do we see anything that just seems like plain facts that we don't need?
I glance at my work and begin to read it paragraph by paragraph. I begin to hint at the show don't tell strategy. Where am I telling the reader things where I could be showing them? Mostly, though, I want them to concentrate not on adding anything, only on cutting. It seems less overwhelming for the more reluctant readers. I model making a change in my first paragraph. Then I ask them for their opinion and a mini-discussion emerges. Typically, kids aren't used to looking at their teacher's writing in a critical way, so sometimes I let them talk at their tables first. Then I say, don't be shy, let me hear what I don't need. I hear a from a few kids. If I don't agree with a change that should be made, I always model the response, preparing the kids for their peer conferences. "Thank you, ___________________, I appreciate that feedback. However, I am the author and it is ultimately my decision what to keep and what to throw away, and I really LOVE that line!" Then I ask the students what they notice about the way I responded to the criticism.
I continue making changes. When I am modeling this, I don't really have a clear direction as to where I'm going. Sometimes a student will make a suggestion that will totally blow me away! I'll make that change. I keep a fresh copy of my writing sample for every block, because each class will make equally valid revision points. This is why I like to split up writing and revision days. First of all, it lets the students get some distance from their work. They are able to look at it again with fresh eyes. Secondly, it gives me time to prepare my writing and make copies for each of my classes.
It is important to model with my own writing because sharing your work is a form a of risk taking. I am putting myself out there by presenting my writing to the class. In order for me to expect students to do this with their work, I better be willing to do the same with my own.
Now it is the student's turn to check their own writing for extra information. I circulate. Some kids are pros right away! They get it and know what to cut. Others need a little bit of guidance. While helping these students, it is easy for me to start at the beginning. Usually we have extra information right when we start writing. That information at the beginning is used to orient us as writers, not our readers. A lot of times, we can cut right to the lead or the the action. (Ralph Fletcher).
Sometimes I make suggestions for kids to cut their whole first paragraph. Before I make suggestions on what to cut, I always first give a compliment. This eases their minds and makes them more open to taking constructive criticism.
Here is a video example of an idea I might give a student on how to cut their draft: How to trim the fat.
After adequate work time, I ask if any students would be willing to share their work. It is vital to get students to put their work under the document camera, so others can visualize the fact that peers are not afraid to cut big chunks of their writing. Also, it is still early enough in the year where you can build that sense of classroom security and safety, which is really vital to the sharing of work.