One of my goals for the beginning of the year is to get students to understand how to be writers. It's not just enough that they write, but I want them to begin to consider themselves with their own strengths and weaknesses. I know this is a lofty goal, but it's one that I find crucial to the success of my students.The first towards that goal is for students to reflect on writing in general. For them to figure out what works and what doesn't work for them. If they can figure out what gets in the way of writing for them, they can work towards overcoming that.
I begin the lesson by passing out an excerpt from a memoir called Hole In My Life by Jack Gantos. This is a fantastic memoir about Gantos' life as he learns the consequences from the mistakes he's made and also shows his journey as a writer. I found that many boys love this book. Using an excerpt from a text can serve as a great booktalk. The excerpt we read as a class is Chapter Three, King's Court (and here is page 1: Kings Court Page 1). This excerpt touches on Gantos' history of writing in school and how he came up with his own way of writing in his own notebook. This is perfect to use this time of the year since we just worked on setting up notebooks in class. We read the excerpt as a class and occasionally I wall ask for a volunteer to read a paragraph or two. It's a brief section and does not take too long to get through.
After we read it, I ask the students to think about what gets in the way of writing for them. Gantos mentioned a few that did for him. I want students to think about this question so they can begin to think of ways to overcome those obstacles throughout the school year since they will be doing a lot of writing. Students spend a few minutes in class writing down their thoughts. I also encourage students to write how they, or we, can fix this.
This shows some student examples: What Gets In The Way Student Examples.
For some students who struggle with thinking of ideas, we refer back to the text and look at what Gantos brings up that got in the way for him. They can use these ideas as develop their own writing based on it.
After we have thought about what gets in the way of writing, we move on to the discussing our censors. The censor is the little voice in our heads that tell us not to write that or that our writing isn't good enough. I purposely bring this idea up because I think, by the time 8th grade comes, the censor in a student's head is very loud and hurts them from writing. I want students to try and overcome that.
I begin this part of the lesson by passing out an excerpt from Alexandra Johnson's book on writing called Leaving A Trace. We use an excerpt early in the book that discusses and defines what a censor is titled "Censoring the Censor." This show page 1: Censoring The Censor Page 1. Again, I choose a shorter piece on purpose. I want students to be engaged in the ideas and not necessarily the text early in the school year. If I choose a longer piece, students would not be as engaged. We will work towards reading longer pieces in class by the end of the year but start the year, I choose shorter pieces. We read this excerpt as a class. Once we finish the reading, I have students write two different things.
The first writing that I have students do is to create their own rules for writing, something Johnson mentions in the excerpt. We briefly discuss some examples and I share mine. I want students to personalize their experience as a writer and by creating their own rules they are making decisions as to what works for them and what doesn't. The hope is that they will hold themselves more responsible for the writing they will during the year this way.
The second piece I have students write is a letter to their censor. This is usually a short piece in which they directly talk to that voice in their head that tells them they are not good enough or they should not write that way. Johnson mentions this idea as a way to help freeing the writing. I also share my example with some students who need a model to follow. Surprisingly, many students get into this. It's partially due to the fact that I tell them it's not graded but it's really as a way to help them.
This shows some examples of student work of this writing:Student Examples. This Teacher Example I can use for students who need assistance either in the structure of this writing or with ideas. This Rules and Letter Student Work video discusses the student examples and how I encourage their writing.
Since students are doing a few different types of writing, this is a lesson that can be broken up into different days or the writing assignments can be assigned for homework. Early in the year, I try and avoid doing so much writing outside of school. I want to see what they are capable of on their own.