Students Choose the Lesson

Students Choose the Lesson

My grade 8 Language classes officially donned the mantle of the author’s cloak.  In addition to our regular reflections and project posts, we’ve dedicated one period per week for the purpose of writing a narrative on Kidblog for publication.   Inspired by the different writing styles published authors shared, students started writing a story in the manner they wanted.  The last several weeks have been inspiring – the kids are amazing.

The general outline we agreed upon was that students were to post a piece of writing each week in order to bring them closer to writing a finished piece.  That’s it.  What students understood that to mean, and even insist on, was that writing a non-fiction post summarizing their research or understanding of space travel, or robotics were all legitimate background writings to help establish an authentic setting or plot line in their upcoming stories. The results have been immensely rewarding thus far, and we’ve only begun.

Some students started with the epilogue, or the climax, while other students started their first post brainstorming the traits of their protagonist.  They weren’t ready to start a story- but were more than happy to make up a fictional character sketch with background experiences and extremely detailed personalities.  They had so much fun making these; I think a few of them forgot that they were actually writing.

In watching their progression, I was able to determine specific mini-lessons.  I set this up so that after they write a post, a few days later we discuss/explore an element of narratives they will need to be successful.  They then have another three days before they need to write for their story.  This time lapse allows kids to process what they’ve done, think about the lesson, and figure how to apply their new learning before writing again.  We also have an anchor chart where we are tracking what we agree upon as important story elements – an ongoing, student-created checklist of success criteria.

This is a deviation from traditional story writing in class.  Writing their stories on their blogs scaffolds their learning differently, and I think, with greater benefit.

  1. Each time they sit to write, students are the driving force of what they will write about. Their choice and voice increases engagement- they think they’re “getting away with things” by choosing character development or background research, even though they are writing more than usual, and ultimately they will produce better quality pieces.
  2. Having time between writing posts, allows me as a teacher, to determine where students’ needs – I can make a small group or whole class lesson to address or extend their learning. This ongoing assessment means I can shape my program to fit student needs compared to having a preconceived notion of lessons I will teach that fit into the ‘unit’.  Additionally, on our class anchor chart, there is space for students to request lessons as well.  Can I teach about building suspense, or foreshadowing and flashbacks? The more choice they have, the more empowered they’re becoming.
  3. Asking the students to comment on each other’s work gives the students real-time, effective feedback.  Students are encouraged to seek specific feedback at the end of their post (e.g. Do you think this character comes across as shy or mean?) and actively apply that feedback for the following posts – essentially revising as they go.
  4. Having regular peer feedback requires the student authors to organize their thinking in ways they haven’t before.  Their post titles need to indicate what we (classmates) are reading.  Few students have chosen to start at the beginning – so letting classmates know that the post is part of the climax, or epilogue, or character development is important.  I think it benefits the student authors too, in that they are better able to articulate why they are writing each piece and where it fits in as a whole.
  5. The longer timeline means that there is little pressure to write to just  “get it done.”  Students are writing purposefully and already sharing mid-week where they are going next with their writing, new ideas they have, and even writing from home. They also have the option of turning off their thinking – sometimes they need a break and once a week means they return fresh and ready.

As with any class, I have both prolific and hesitant writers.  What I seem to be missing this time around, happily, are the reluctant writers.  In the end, I imagine I will have stories that cover pages and pages of plot twists.  I also anticipate short, basic plot structure submissions too.  The difference hopefully, will be that those short stories will have pages and pages of background writings, and the story itself will not end with the dreaded ‘… and then I woke up and found it was all a dream!” but will be a richer submission than their traditional experience of writing a story.

Photo credit: Valerie Brinkman (@BrinkmanValerie) via Twitter

About the Author
Siobhan is an intermediate teacher with the Waterloo school board in Canada. Teaching for over 15 years, she loves to include new and innovative ideas in her classroom to promote student voice and engagement. She loves to read, paint, and run to relax when she's not spending time with her husband and three school aged children.

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