As my students are turning in their research papers, what I’m calling “research articles,” I am reflecting a great deal on how my writing instruction has evolved over the past two and a half years.  I’ve used the Being-A-Writer program, which I believe to be an excellent resource for mentor texts and teachers new to writing.  I’ve also dabbled in creating my own rubrics, and even doing a bit of my own research on the writing process.  However, I think all good writing instruction comes down to the power of the pen.

The Power of the What?

What do I mean by that?  Well, one’s writing implement holds a great deal of power. After, all, it is the instrument that acts as a conduit between the neurons that are bouncing around in our brains and the paper that rests on our desks, dying to be manipulated.  And holding that pen can be somewhat of a dangerous power, a power that students do not know how to handle.

Please ignore my sentence that begins with a conjunction.  It just felt right.

Just like anything else, kids need structure. There are many schools of thought about writing instruction.  Some are very constructivist, those that support a writer’s workshop format, where students are constructing their own writing pieces, reflecting, and constantly trying to improve their practice through targeted mini-lessons and conferences.  There are others that believe in writing in three main genres (expository, narrative, persuasive), and providing an extremely structured format for students to use (i.e., the five paragraph essay).

As is the case with many strategies and philosophies, I believe that we truly find what is best for kids somewhere in the middle, for no one teacher or one researcher has ever found all the answers.  In fact, even the greatest teachers of today are simply an amalgamation of their predecessors and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Structure + Freedom = Effective Scaffolding for Writing

Example 2: Expository Writing

I think kids need a hearty mix of structure and freedom when they write.  After all, we want them to like it, but we’ve all met those children who lose themselves in freedom.  They choose a topic to write about, get bored, and then move onto a new one, never really completing a piece.  Likewise, there are others, as well, who feel confined under structure, and their creative juices are stifled, also causing a dislike for writing.

In Regie Routman’s book, Writing Essentials, she discusses a gradual release of responsibility and the use of shared writing to ease that release of responsibility.  Shared writing, in my opinion, is one the most important steps in teaching writing, as the teacher is able to provide enough scaffolding for the students to be successful, while supporting struggling learners and giving students a chance to work collaboratively to try out new ideas.

In shared writing, the power of the pen is, well, shared.  The teacher holds the pen, writing on the board or chart paper, and the students are calling out ideas.  The teacher has the right to modify ideas, add his or her own, and choose the ideas that are coming to him or her, but the writing is ultimately a combination of the students’ thoughts and the teacher’s knowledge of good writing, which is where the scaffolding comes in.

Example 2: Shared Writing with Expository

I especially love to use this practice when I’ve allowed time for children to find comfort in the structure of a given genre, and they need to master the art of embellishing.  Anyone can take an organizer and copy and paste their sentences.  True writing comes when the abstract begins to flirt with the concrete.

Throughout this post, I’ve attached some examples of this process in two different genres, expository and narrative.

Example 1: Lifting a Line
The first (see Example 1) applies a strategy I referred to in a previous post, called lifting a line.  While lifting a line, students are supposed to channel the five sentences and embellish one line to help readers visualize. At this point in the learning process, I had already modeled this strategy several times, and we were at the point where the power of the pen could be shared.

Example 3: Expository Piece on Mutualism
(Before Embellishments)

Example 2: Expository (Initial Stage)
The second example (see Example 2) comes from our expository essays.  I spent a bit of time telling my students about Japan, and I decided my essay would be about customs in Japan.  Most of the transition words come from me, but the other thoughts come from the kids and what they learned about Japan through me.

Example 4: Expository Piece
(After Embellishments)

Example 3 and 4: Expository (Initial and Final Stages)
The third example (see Example 3) relates to our study of symbiosis.  I use colors to represent the desired paragraph structure (define, example, explain, benefit/result), which was another excellent way to use my power over the pen to help scaffold the instruction.  This was a different spin on the lesson, though.  The first example (Example 3) you see is the result of us copying directly off of the organizer, adding some transition words.  The second example, which we also did as shared writing, was when we embellished.  Once again, many of the transitional phrases are mine, but many other embellishments belong to them.  This truly served as two excellent examples for strong and weak work, and they were able to have a hand in writing both of them.

In short, the power of the pen is quite a responsibility.  Just like anything else, I believe it essential to gradually give them that power, by participating in the act of shared writing.

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