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Peer Writing Partnerships

Middle school teachers have four to five sections of writing classes, which can translate into 100 to 150 students. Having to read, confer, and offer feedback on that amount of writing is frustrating and exhausting; it often results in teachers asking their students to do less writing, even though the research clearly shows that not only does writing frequently improve writing—it also improves reading comprehension (Writing to Read, Graham & Hebert, 2010).
Inviting students to help one another and provide feedback while they plan, draft, revise, and edit means students improve their writing before teachers read the work. Responding to these drafts takes less teacher time because many issues have already been addressed.
Peer partnerships can be formal, created by the teacher and given a specific purpose. They can also be informal, allowing students to choose their partners and the focus of the feedback. In a workshop, students might work informally with one to three peers each time class meets, based on the writers’ needs and their classmates’ expertise in the area that requires feedback.
Please share how you use writing partnerships in your classes.
Laura Robb

Negotiating Criteria Before Students Plan and Write

Instead of using rubrics, I prefer negotiating writing criteria with students. Criteria are organic because they emerge from what students already know and what I'm hoping they'll practice and learn; they are positive and change with each piece students write. Eventually, students learn to create their own criteria for free-choice writing, setting specific standards for themselves. Students negotiate content and some style and organization criteria after studying one or two mentor texts. I might add a style criteria and suggest a writing convention criteria based on my observations of students' writing needs. Because you negotiate criteria before the planning stage, you know early on the mini-lessons you'll need to teach as the unit progresses. See Teaching Nonfiction Writing: A Practical Guide (Scholastic, 2010) and Teaching Middle School Writers: What Every English Teacher Needs to Know (Heinemann, 2010), for a detailed discussion of criteria.
Laura Robb

Writer's Notebooks

Recently, I led several workshops for teachers on writer's notebooks. What I found is that using notebooks to explore possible ideas for writing is, at best, sporadic. You can invite students to respond in notebooks to song lyrics, poems, titles of books, poems, stories, newspaper headlines, quotes from famous, infamous, and everyday people, paintings, and photographs to stimulate writing ideas. Notebooks remain at school, and I recommend that students write in their notebooks three times a week. Lessons are short—about 5 minutes—and you can model how you respond so students develop a mental model.
Rereading sections of notebooks can help student writers find topics they care about—topics they want to invest in. Take a few minutes to share how you incorporate writer's notebooks into your curriculum.
Laura Robb

Show Us How You Use Writing To Improve Reading

I'm asking teachers of all subjects--literature, science, social studies, math--to share how you involve students in writing about their reading on a daily basis. Dr. Steve Graham's research indicates that you and I can improve reading comprehension through writing. Please share your ideas so we can all benefit.
Laura Robb

Writing Improves Reading

Steve Graham, who teaches at Vanderbuilt University just completed a research study for the Carnegie Institute called “Writing to Improve Reading.” Graham found that students' journaling about reading, note-taking, analytical essays and paragraphs, process writing, and word study impact their writing and reading development. I find that when students write about their reading they develop thinking and writing fluency. From word study, students can improve their reading, writing, and thinking vocabulary as well as use affixes, roots, and stems to help them decode. You can download Graham’s study at www.allianceforexcellenteducation.com.
Let me know the role writing about reading plays in your classroom and share some of the experiences you offer students.
Laura Robb

Teaching Middle School Writers

At this point in the year, the state writing tests dominate instruction in many schools. For my new book, Teaching Middle School Writers, I conducted a national survey of 1500 students. The survey revealed that students have a rich writing life outside of school; they treasure this life because they can choose to write about topics they care about—topics they're passionate about. I think we can offer "test prep" along with choice in writing topics. I recommend that teachers simulate the state tests every 6 to 8 weeks by inviting students to respond to a writing prompt. Use their writing to identify what skills need reteaching and present mini-lessons on these topics. During interim times, students can choose topics, even within a genre such as persuasive or narrative writing. I find that students do well on tests when they plan in detail, use the writing process, and have been taught writing craft and technique.
Please weigh in with your thoughts and ideas.
Laura Robb

Survey for Digital Literacies

Each year the middle school students we teach arrive at school with a digital life that I believe we need to tap into. The ideal time to do this is at the start of the year when we're establishing routines and getting to know our students. Create a survey that asks students about their experiences with
  • texting
  • blogging
  • reading on the Internet
  • reading manga and video narratives
  • playing video games
  • creating original video games
  • making videos and posting them on social networking sites
  • other digital activities
This information can provide insights into students' creative reading and writing lives outside of school that we won't know about unless we ask. The challenge is to tap into and connect their passion for learning and creating outside of school to what they do in school. Please share how you’ve forged some of these connections.
Laura Robb

Give Students Choices

When I interview students, they repeatedly tell me that they want to choose their books and their writing topics. Learning to make good choices builds responsibility and independence. Students develop literary tastes, discovering topics and genres that they relish and feel the need to read about. With writing, students can explore topics that they feel passionate about and want to invest time in developing. Writing choice can exist side-by-side writing test prep. Practice with a state prompt every seven to eight weeks. The rest of the time, offer choices.
It's possible to offer students choices with instructional reading, especially when you organize whole-class differentiated instructional reading (see my book, Differentiating Reading Instruction, Chapter 4). You and your librarian can select books on a wide range of reading levels, then give students choices within their instructional reading levels.
Let me know how you handle choice in your reading and writing curricula.
Laura Robb

Grammar Can Improve Writing

It's interesting to note that all the isolated grammar exercises that students complete do not improve their writing. In addition, memorizing the parts of speech does not guarantee that they'll use them correctly or understand how each one can support writing. Students need to truly comprehend the role of each element and the impact it can actually make in their writing. For example, the important point about verbs is that they should be strong and specific in order to create images in readers' minds—using grill rather than cook, or sob rather than cry. The same is true of nouns. It’s hard to create images in a reader’s mind with words like stuff or things, but specific words, like tennis racket and dirt bike, make visualization easy for readers. One of my favorite parts of speech is the preposition. It introduces a group of words called prepositional phrases, which are a great way to add details to sentences. Prepositional phrases can also be used to vary sentence openings.
Let me and other teachers know what you're doing with grammar in your classes and how the lessons help children write better.
Laura Robb
For more information, you can check out Nonfiction Writing From the Inside Out.

The Power of Literacy Folders

Keeping key assessments in a literacy folder can add extra strength to our instructional decisions. A literacy folder can simply be a file folder with a student’s name on it. You can store these in crates or in a file cabinet. Having ready access to these dated assessments makes it easy to review them before you decide to intervene with scaffolding or reteach a lesson to one or a group of students. Here's what I suggest you keep in a literacy folder:
  • Results of reading inventories
  • Reading surveys and interest inventories
  • Documented conferences
  • Two or three photocopied journal entries that show progress or lack of
  • progress
  • Two or three photocopied writing workshop pieces
  • Tests and quizzes
  • Observational notes
Every few weeks, review a student’s work and then staple the pieces together along with your evaluation and recommendations. Then start collecting another round of assessments. You'll find these useful at parent conferences and when discussing adjustments with students and administrators.
Laura Robb

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in The Laura Robb Blog are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.