Independent Writing: Creating Consistency

When it comes to improving one’s reading skills, I know that I need to encourage my students to read more independently. I give them time in class to read, help them pick out books they might like, and am an avid reader myself. By the end of the school year, I see a dramatic increase in the amount of books students read, as well as their comfort with reading. Students are more willing to attack a difficult text, and are more willing to give different genres a chance. If independent reading is so successful in my classroom using these strategies, couldn’t I apply them to writing?

As the 9th grade English teacher for my school, I have always thought it was my job to introduce students to as many writing genres as possible. In the past, students have written biographies about their classmates, articles about important current events, research-based essays about various topics, literary essays, personal narratives, place narratives (taken from Penny Kittle’s book Write Beside Them), short answer responses, poems, and the list goes on. Though my students write a lot, I don’t feel that they write consistently. I have seen on other teacher blogs that some teachers give their students in-class time to write every day. Wow! Can I find that time for my students? (This year my school went to block schedules, so I only see my students 60 minutes for 4 out of 6 days.) In a 60-minute block, my students read about 10 minutes (sometimes a little bit longer if I am conferencing with a student). That leaves me 45-50 for direct instruction, small group work, and independent practice. Could I really devote 10 every class to independent writing? I’m hesitant, but after watching this technique work with reading, I want to give it a try.

Many famous educators create the time I am scared of trying to find. I am a Penny Kittle fan, so I have read her books and many articles she has been featured in. Recently, I found some of the handouts she uses at her workshops. Her first two essentials for improvement in writing are time and choice. When writing, my students need time to practice their craft and to decide what they want to put on paper. They need time to get ideas down, even if those ideas are lists, drawings, and/or diagrams. They need time to store random thoughts somewhere, for those thoughts could turn into something later on. Giving students choice is just as important. They need the freedom to choose what topic they want to write about, even if they end up changing their minds later on. They need to have the right to choose the genre they want to write in, for sometimes topics don’t fit all genres. Along with time and choice, I know my students need to feel comfortable with taking risks and trying something they normally wouldn’t. That comes with practice, conferences, and studying the craft of published writers. All of this can be seen in my classroom, but not consistently.

So, knowing what will benefit my students, can I really make time for independent writing each and every day I see them? I know we hear this a lot, but the demands of the Common Core are real at my school. Does this kind of writing fit the definition of “rigor” that my administrators want to see? (Look up the definition of rigor. It doesn’t mean what everyone thinks it does.) Can I truly say that writing in notebooks, sometimes without a purpose in mind, is doing right by my students? I know my answer is yes. I know my students will first need a place to play around with language, and I will be their guide. I know my students will pull from their notebooks to eventually create polished pieces of writing. I know that with consistent practice, my students will become better writers.

Now the next step is planning. How do I start? I invite viewers to share their ideas of how they begin and continue with “independent writing” (writing workshop) in their classrooms. I have ideas from Kittle’s book and some others, but I’d love to see what works for the many other teachers who do this. Off to my writer’s notebook to get my ideas down!

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