For writing teachers, the importance of modeling our writing for our students is well established. It’s important because of the insights it gives students into the act of writing and also because, if it’s done authentically, it gives us credibility with students because they know we are writers ourselves. One of the best ways to establish this with a new group of students early in the year is an idea I got from Nancie Atwell at a workshop years ago. During the second week of school, I give students a copy of a poem—the first genre we study—that I’ve written. In addition to my final draft, though, I scan copies of everything: my notes, each draft with all my revisions, and anything else I did to get from my initial idea to my finished piece.
In what becomes one of our longest mini-lessons of the year, students go through the drafts and come up questions about changes I made to the poem, choices I made as I wrote it, or anything about my process. Then, they interview me. As they listen to my answers, they list ideas in response to this question: What things might a poet do when trying to write a good poem? I collect their lists at the end and type them together into one master list for class the next day. Then, we tape these into our Writing-Reading Handbooks and read through them for the next day’s mini-lesson.
I love this activity for several reasons:
- It shows me as a writer with real intentions. The piece I share with students is always something I would have written anyway, and they get to see how I use poetry in real life, not just in school.
- It shows them what the writing process might look like in real life, not the neat five-step process they’re often taught in the elementary grades. They get to see what kinds of things they might do in our writing workshop that is largely free of deadlines, how messy the process often gets and how they can work through it.
- Seeing all of the revisions I made along the way shows students that revising is something writers do. As a result, most students revise their writing right from the start of the year. I might occasionally have issues getting a student to revise, but it’s usually not a result of the student being unwilling. Rather, that student usually can’t yet recognize how to improve a piece.
- It exposes them to lots of craft decisions right away, ones that we’ll return to and talk about in more detail as the year goes on. While students will usually need more time to begin incorporating these techniques into their own writing, it still gets them thinking about these things right from the start.
- The list provides them with a resource to use early in the year before we’ve covered much ground as writers. When they get stuck for what to work on next, they can consult the list to see if there’s anything on there they haven’t thought about yet.
This time of studying the packet, interviewing me, and compiling their observations forms a great foundation for the writing we’ll do together each year.
If you’d like to see the poem I used this year, click here. And if you’d like to see the list this year’s classes created, you can see that here. I give these to you as a reference, but I’d discourage you from copying them and giving them to students. The value in the list comes from the way we created it together. Also, when I typed up this list, I kept the students’ wording as much as I could, but they are still in the early stages of learning a lot of the vocabulary we will use to talk about poems and other pieces of writing all throughout the year. As a result, I sometimes change their language on this document as a way to continue introducing some of these terms in context.