Having someone notice

Another important part of the writing process is deciding who your audience is and how that will affect what you write and how you write it. More important may be the realization that you have an audience at all. I gave the students lots of time to share their writing with each other last year, but when the students published a piece of writing it went straight to a pile of papers on a table only to be taken home at the end of the year (hopefully it didn’t go in the garbage can). One thing I have been wondering about this summer is how I can provide students with a better definition and concept of “audience.”  

I realized that I didn’t start really working at my writing again (after studying Journalism in college the first time around) until I started my own blog. Even if no one ever read my posts, the possibility was there. This made all the difference. I crafted my words more carefully, I studied articles in The New York Times for inspiration, I rolled sentences around and around and around. I played with words, I reveled in clicking the ‘publish’ button, I was humbled anytime someone told me that they had enjoyed reading my work. What if my students could find the same joy? I began to toss the idea around of having students create their own blogs. I found a website called kidblog. Here is an example of a student blog. And here is a blog by 9-year-old Martha in the UK who has had over 7 million hits on her blog and is helping to feed children all over the world.  

I also plan to continue an “author’s chair,” have monthly celebrations of our writing, encourage students to write letters to authors, each other, me, etc., share magazines that publish student work including Stone Soup, start a writing group, and have students create a classroom newspaper. What other ways can we teach students about the importance of audience? Please add any comments or suggestions!


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Books, books and more books

I used a lot of fantastic mentor texts in my classroom last year and I’m proud of that. What I’m not so proud of is the way that I used them to “spark” ideas in the students for their own writing. I would read a book and then I would give them a writing prompt: “Now write about a time that you _______ (wanted something, got mad, left your favorite stuffed animal at the laundromat).” I was telling the students the experience they should have gotten from the book instead of allowing them to tell me (which leads to zero critical thinking). In order to allow students to have their own ideas, I plan to keep my mouth shut at the end of a story and let them tell me what it makes them think about. I will let them ponder the words and choose their favorites to add to their notebooks. I will encourage them to read as much as possible on their own.

Here are some of my favorite mentor texts:

A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant

Big Blue Whale by Nicola Davies

Big Moon Tortilla by Joy Cowley

Not Afraid of Dogs by Susanna Pitzer

Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts

How else can we use mentor texts to help students with prewriting?




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Is there an app for that?

Can ipads be part of the writing process? How could students use ipads to prewrite?

  • Dictating stories instead of having to physically write
  • Taking photographs
  • Story creating (Pet Pals app)
  • Drawing pictures
  • Checking spelling

Do you have other ideas? Please comment below!



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My ideas come from everywhere—the landscape, something I hear on the radio or from a book I’m reading.- Melissa Sweet

Something I didn’t realize until I started this project is that ideas are included in that big polka-dotted umbrella step of the writing process called prewriting, and that the gurus consider prewriting to be the place where you spend most of your time in the writing process. I should have realized this considering how much time I spend reading enticing words over and over or composing introductions to blog posts in my mind while running in the rain. This is the stuff of prewriting… Never have I successfully sat down to write anything by first listing what happened at the beginning, the middle and the end. From here on out when I refer to ‘prewriting,’ I am including the concept of ideas (for writing).

We want students to discover a writing process that works for them. What are some of the different ways that we can share with them about the process of prewriting?


  • Show students how to use a writer’s notebook: Record details from their lives, make lists of topics they are interested in, ask questions (what if…?), write down favorite words or lines from a book, make a timeline of events
  • Write with them
  • Give opportunities to take photographs or sketch ideas
  • Share examples of how authors and illustrators go through the creative process: For example, David Wiesner talks about how he get the idea for Art & Max  and  An interview with Melissa Sweet
  • Encourage them to talk with us or their classmates/ friends about something they want to write
  • Provide them with HELPFUL organizers (not mandated ones)
  • Read, read, read, read, read, read, read!



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Chickens and rainwater: Getting students to notice their worlds

The Red Wheelbarrow

William Carlos Williams


so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white



Returning to my guiding question, how do I get students to think like writers (and ban the phrase ‘I have nothing to write about’ from our vocabulary) and with the research in mind, I can give my students time to write (4-5 days a week) and a predictable routine for workshop. I can listen to their stories and allow them the freedom to choose their topics and genres. But how do I get students to become constant observers of their worlds? To notice details and become “enormously taken by the things anyone else would walk by?” Who taught William Carlos Williams to do these things?

Free write: What experiences can we give students so that they can practice noticing details and the things most people ignore? How can we encourage them to become life-long observers of their worlds?

Write for a couple of minutes and then please share your ideas at your table. Write down your favorite ones on a separate sheet of paper- I will add them to the blog!



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Standing on the shoulders of giants: Donald, Donald, Lucy and Ralph

Pondering these questions led me to four writing ‘gurus:’ Donald Murray, Donald Graves, Lucy Calkins, and Ralph Fletcher.

Donald Murray: Teach process, not product

Murray believed that teachers should focus on teaching students the process of writing. He wrote about this in his 1972 article,”Teach Writing as Process Not Product:”


“What is the process we should teach? It is the process of discovery through language. It is the process of exploration of what we know and what we feel we know through language. It is the process of using language to learn about our world, evaluate what we learn about our world, to communicate what we learn about our world. Instead of teaching finished writing, we should teach unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness. We work with language in action. We share with our students the continual excitement of choosing one word instead of another, of searching for the one true word.”

Murray believed that prewriting is “everything that takes place before the first draft” and that prewriting usually takes about 85% of the writer’s time. In prewriting the writer thinks about her audience and chooses a form that will carry her subject. Prewriting may include “research and daydreaming, notemaking and outlining, title-writing and lead-writing.”


Donald Graves: Students need time and choice

Graves believed that students need time to write: “If students are not engaged in writing at least four days out of five, and for a period of thirty-five to forty minutes, beginning in first grade, they will have little opportunity to learn to think through the medium of writing” (‘7 Conditions of Writing,’ Graves). He also wrote that students should be able to choose their own topics when they write.

Graves believed that if students have time to write every day, they don’t find it hard to choose topics. “If a child knows she will write again tomorrow – her mind can go to work pondering her writing topic.”


Lucy Calkins: Writing is the process of growing meaning

In her book, The Art of Teaching Writing, Calkins wrote that she has changed her definition of authorship and that it now includes living with a sense of awareness. She cited James Dickey’s definition of a writer:

A writer is “someone who is enormously taken by things anyone else would walk by.” Calkins wrote: “Writing does not begin with deskwork but with lifework.”

Calkins realized when she was teaching that if her students said “I have nothing to write about,” and she supplied them with a topic, then she was indirectly teaching them that their lives weren’t writing about: “We cannot teach writing well unless we trust that there are real, human reasons to write.” Calkins wrote that the writer’s workshop should be a place where students are invited to pursue their own projects in an environment that is predictable and stable. And when teachers listen intently to their students’ stories and celebrate their lives, this will motivate students to want to write more.

Calkins wrote that writing can bring people together and become a powerful force in reforming schools. When we know our students’ stories, “these youngsters begin to affect us and our teaching. We cannot avoid seeing them among the sea of children, and when faces and lives and stories emerge, our teaching is forever different.” And when students share their writing with each other, they can no longer look at each other the same way either: “In the workshop children write about what is alive and vital and real for them- and other writers in the room listen and extend and guide, laugh and cry and marvel.”

When discussing the process of writing, Calkins refers to the prewriting stage as “rehearsal.” People who consider themselves to be writers are in a constant state of awareness: “Just as photographers are always seeing potential pictures, so too, writers see potential stories and poems and essays everywhere and gather them in entries and jotted notes,” she wrote. Recognizing that writing is life work and not deskwork drastically changes how we teach writing. Instead of simply teaching students how to list topics and brainstorm ideas, we must teach them to be wide-awake when viewing the world around them. And the best way to do this is to write often. Educators have began to “advocate that students jot down things they notice and wonder about, their memories and ideas, their favorite words and responses to reading into a container of some sort.” Students should begin the writing process by “collecting bits and pieces- entries” in their notebooks; this will lead them to experience writing as a process of growing meaning. Calkins wrote that the first goal when teaching writing is to fill students with a sense of “‘I’ve got so much to say’ and ‘My life is full of possible stories.'”

Other points made by Calkins:

  • Rehearsal for writing can involve brainstorming possible topics or mapping out a story, but the more important thing is to show students how to live “wide-awake” lives and collect their observations in a notebook.
  • Teachers should demonstrate how they live attentively and establish rituals in their classrooms that encourage students to do the same.
  • Refer to students as ‘authors.’
  • Build a strong and safe classroom community.


Fletcher: Help each student discover her effective writing process

In his book, co-written with JoAnn Portalupi, Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide, Flectcher wrote that each writer has her or his own, highly personalized, way of getting words onto paper:

“Any one-size-fits all writing process would be not only inaccurate but destructive to students.”


Therefore, we don’t want to teach “the writing process; rather we want each of them to find a process that works for him or her.” Fletcher wrote that there are countless ways to prewrite (also called brainstorming or rehearsing) and that this stage should not be a rigid routine (filling out a story map, an outline or a graphic organizer). Students should be allowed to choose how they want to rehearse for a piece of writing:

“Prewriting should be a help, not a burden, for writers in school.”

In order to help students determine an effective process, they should be shown various ways to prewrite:

  • Jotting down a list
  • Conferring with a fellow classmate about a story she wants to write
  • Paging through a book
  • Sitting and thinking
  • The writer’s notebook

Fletcher wrote that the writer’s notebook encourages kids to “live like a writer” by having its focus on thinking, dreaming and gathering during all the hours that the students are not in writer’s workshop. The notebook should be a place where students can play and generate ideas and dream- it should not be a place for the teacher to assign formalized prewriting.


I realized that much of what I was doing was throwing brightly-colored hula hoops at my students and asking them to double-dutch through them with the greatest of ease. My goal is to encourage students to write and not burden them, but I wasn’t able to step back and think if I really was helping or just going through the motions. After doing this research I feel that my workshop can start to take wings, free from the assigned worksheets and one-size-fits all approach. But where do I start?

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Guiding Questions

How can I teach my students to think like writers?


How can I encourage them to generate their own ideas and plan their writing in a way that works for them?


How can I share with them the importance of writing for an audience and create experiences that will allow them to feel honored?




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