What Do You Do in the Last Days of a Writing Study?

As a writing study dwindles to an end, it can be hard to know what to do in those last few days — what minilessons your students want, whether to plan for more conferring time, how to address the range of needs at the end. Students are working toward a common deadline, but this can look like a lot of different things in one classroom: some students may be polishing their work with editing lessons while other students are furiously drafting because they changed their idea halfway through the study. Maybe a few students are done even and are looking for something new to work on. Needless to say, structuring time in the last few days of a study poses a specific set of challenges.

Last study I decided to try something new with my eighth graders to refocus the last few days and ensure they were using the minilessons inside their notebooks as they worked towards a final copy: student-made minilesson posters.

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The project is simple: put students in groups, and assign each group to one or more minilessons taught during the unit of study. Then have students give brief presentations (2-3 minutes tops) to share their poster with the class.

What I love about this project is that it costs minimal time (one and a half class periods) but has great results. While students worked on their posters, the language of all the minilessons was alive, floating around in the classroom. I heard students saying things like, “My notes say something different than yours. How should we put that down?” Or “I have a gap in my notes here — what do yours say,” or “I think we should find a better example from the mentor text.”

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As I waltzed around the classroom answering questions, I realized that I do not give my students enough opportunities to discuss minilessons after I teach them. We share notebook time, we share writing, but rarely do we share our ideas, concerns, and questions about the actual lessons. Instead, we dive right into writing and conferring, and while I am able to check for individuals’ understanding in conferences, students don’t have the chance to work through questions or seek clarification with their peers. I had no idea how valuable that experience could be until I did this activity!

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Aside from giving students a chance to talk to one another and helping each other fill in their notes while reviewing key concepts, this activity had some other benefits:

  • It helped me identify misconceptions about certain minilessons. For example, the group covering “choose your words carefully” was having trouble picking out strong words in the mentor text “Litany” by Greg Orr. They were working with the line “In the bowl, among the vegetable chunks / pale shapes of the alphabet bobbed at random / or lay in the shallow spoon.” They were confused because they didn’t see any “big” words. I was able to remind them that carefully chosen words may be “small” but sharp: concrete nouns and vivid verbs that pack a real punch. It only took a few seconds to remind them that adjectives only go so far and bigger words for the sake of using bigger words were not examples of well chosen diction.Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 9.28.55 PM
  • Students had fun. The poster for “cut to the bone” (a Nancie Atwell lesson) was created by three boys who had a lot of fun coming up with a fake version (on the right, in red) of the mentor text “First Love” by Carl Linder to demonstrate the pitfalls of clunky writing that has not been edited for unnecessary repetition  and adjectives.Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 9.30.36 PM
  • We gained a collection of posters to keep around the room to reference in later studies.
  • Students were closely and carefully reviewing the minilessons that would help them revise and polish their writing  — something I can’t guarantee was happening prior to this activity.

After this poster activity and mini presentations, I concluded with an activity Rebekah shared in a post last year — a simple way to check in with students and help you plan your last few lessons of a study: give each student a sticky note, and pose this question:

What do you need to meet your next deadline? What do you need more of? What are you having trouble with that I might be able to address in a minilesson?

Then have them stick their note on the board on their way out. (Responses to these questions were so much richer and more thoughtful after the mini poster project!) Study their answers and compare them with your observations during the poster project to determine what’s essential to teach to the whole group, and what can most likely be addressed in individual conferences.

What do you do in the last days of a study? How do you structure your time together? Do you “review” your minilessons or teach new ones? Leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet us at @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.

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September 2015

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