Internalizing the Writing Process: Organizing and Writing

Once students have completed the planning stage of the writing process, it is important for teachers to conduct an informal assessment to ensure that their young writers are well-planned and bursting with ideas.

Writers who have effectively completed planning should be able to respond to the following questions:

  •      Why are you going to write this piece?
  •      What genre will your piece be?
  •      Who is your audience?
  •      What do you know about your topic?
  •      What are the most important ideas that you will share in your writing?

An oral assessment in which peers ask and answer questions while the teacher circulates can serve as a great checkpoint before beginning to facilitate organizing. My students have also enjoyed recording their brief interviews with one another via the super-simple online recording tool vocaroo and submitting them via e-mail.  If students do not pass this checkpoint, they require more support and the planning stage should be revisited. After all, how can ideas be organized when there are none?

In order to internalize ways to organize writing, students need to know how to create their own outlines and graphic organizers. However, meeting this goal takes effective teacher modeling as well as practice and repetition. Teacher-created graphic organizers can serve as initial models, but these should be  phased out during the year as students draw them and memorize them. Although it doesn’t make sense for students to memorize a unique organizer for every genre encountered, students should develop the following general repertoire:

  •      a narrative or fiction summary consisting of characters, setting, and major beginning, middle, and end plot points
  •      a non-fiction summary with main idea and at least 3 supporting details
  •      a process writing essay
  •      an enumerative essay
  •      a comparison essay
  •      a contrast essay
  •      a compare and contrast essay
  •      a brief or 5-paragraph essay

A wonderful source for expository graphic organizers is the book From Talking to Writing: Strategies for Scaffolding Expository Expression by Terrill M. Jennings and Charles W. Haynes. This Landmark School publication is an incredible resource on explicit teaching of writing that I use nearly daily in my practice.

Compare and Contrast

At the beginning of the year, I often spend a class period or two using transparencies or chart paper to model using an organizer. For example, when my intermediate ESL class studied World Mythology, students read various myths of Heracles. The students then had to select three episodes from the life of Heracles to write as diary entries. In order to do this, the students needed to create a narrative summary organizer with a detailed list of the important plot points. I used the story of infant Heracles killing the snakes who invaded his nursery to model the organization task on a transparency, showing the students how I continually returned to the text to identify the characters, setting, and plot points. Because the students had read the story prior to this modeling, they were also able to engage in the conversation and orally assist with the completion of the model organizer.

After this demonstration, students had a solid model of how to complete their own organizers for their diary entries. As another checkpoint, I highly recommend collecting and assessing organizers, to ensure that the students now have substance acquired from the planning phase and the structure acquired from the organization phase to finally move on to writing.

Honestly, the writing phase of the writing process is such a joyful moment for me as the facilitator. Before the pleasure of our first “writing” session of the year, I review my norms and expectations with the class.

On our writing days, students must:

  •      come prepared with their planning and organizing documents
  •     have sharpened pencils and working pens
  •      enter the room quietly
  •      write silently for the entire time

Of course, this does not happen perfectly the first time. The first time that we embark upon this journey, I time the class in order to gauge their writing stamina. I also make a rule that students may not get up from their seats for any reason for the first fifteen minutes.

The secret is that, usually, after fifteen minutes have passed, the students have become absorbed in their work, and I get to sit back and watch the fruits of my labor – young writers putting words on paper for an extended period of time. To encourage the children, when fifteen minutes have passed, I walk around quietly and put a small candy next to each child, but I am careful not to interrupt their writing.

When students know why they are writing and have ideas to write about, they are more successful in the writing stage. Students are able to fill a page or two (or even more) with their ideas.

This article is the second in a three part series on the topic of “Internalizing the Writing Process”.

But How Long Can YOU Write For?

In the most recent publication of the American Educator, Daniel T. Willingham’s article “For the Love of Reading” explores several methods for engaging students not only in moments of reading, but in a life-long love of it. I was struck particularly by a section of the article called “I’m Bored. Fix it.” in which Willingham offers:

“The consequence of long-term experience with digital technologies is not an inability to sustain attention. It’s impatience with boredom. It’s an expectation that I should always have something interesting to watch, read, and listen to, and that creating an interesting experience should require little effort….we just have a very low threshold for boredom.”

As an English/language arts teacher, I see my students struggle to sustain focus while reading. Each day, we chart the amount of time we read on a line graph, one color per class. The hope is that if students are aware of good reading habits and have the incentive of seeing the line graph trend upward (perhaps faster than the other classes), they will build stamina and a love of reading will follow. The graph does not motivate students for the entire school year, but at the beginning of the year especially, it incentivizes focus and sustained reading. After the habits are solidified, the graph becomes less important.

I began to ponder how to support my students as they built that same stamina as writers – how could I structure an activity varied enough to hold interest and generate content, but consistent enough that students can recognize progress over time?

My conversations with mentor teachers about that question landed me in the pages of Rain, Steam, and Speed (Gerald Fleming and Meredith Pike-Baky), which offered many ideas about how to build writing stamina in a middle school classroom. I read them, as teachers do, with my own students in mind, and took off running.

The premise was to give students a consistent atmosphere for writing, a clear expectation for what the writing should look like and how it would be graded, and engaging prompts to hold student attention and inspire thoughtful responses. The set-up also includes incremental increases in the time limit as students get more accustomed to the task.

To generate interest, I started off, as suggested, by having students personalize their journals. They spent a class period collaging, sketching, and markering their identities onto manila folders. The next day, I gave them a long spiel about the procedures for writing—the “how it works” talk—and then we gave it a go.

Scooby Journal      Carl B Journal

The consistent atmosphere for writing mirrors the consistent atmosphere that I build in my classroom for reading. The routine that Rain, Steam, and Speed suggests is that when students arrive, the prompt is written on the board. The same student passes out the journals each day. Before writing, one student reads the prompt aloud. The teacher, after thanking the student for his/her bravery, rephrases the prompt and checks for understanding. Then the music starts, and students write. I followed that routine, though I found it was easiest to project the prompt rather than write it long-hand because students had an easier time deciphering it.

As the year went on, I watched my students compete with and best themselves. Several students who started the year with only a few sentences per entry ended the year writing several pages on a single topic. This effect, which Fleming and Pike-Baky call “Writing Fluency,” normalizes the development of ideas while writing. A student does not have to be sure that an idea is “right” before adding it to an essay, nor does the student need to check in with a teacher about grammar and spelling before putting a sentence on the page.

As a result of this practice, students develop a confidence in their own work, and especially an ease to getting started that I had not seen before. This is not to say, however, that we did not hit road bumps. It took a lot of convincing for some of my students to pick up their pencils, and some of my prompts fell flat. But one of the most frustrating parts of this experiment for me was that the positive results that, though students were becoming more fluent writers in my E/la classroom, they were not applying that fluency in their other content classes.

As any teaching team begins to see students as writers in all contents, it seems that conditions, expectations, and engagement can be handled similarly across content classes to trigger that same confidence and stamina. Normalizing writing as a method of thinking and giving students practice helped them through boredom and exhibit their thought processes through writing. For example, I can see students writing in the same conditions that I used in my classroom on the many possible outcomes of an experiment before trying it out in a science class or explaining the best way to approach a thought problem in math. Once students find value in thinking through writing, they can use it as a tool to deepen their understanding of content and concepts.

Near the end of that school year, I overheard one of my students talking with an eighth grader (one year older) about high school. The conversation got a little competitive, and after the eighth grader elaborated on all the high schools where she had been accepted and the grades she had gotten that year, my student looked at her and asked, “But how long can you write for?”