Making (More) Time for Students to Write and Read

One of my weaknesses as a teacher is that I plan too much. I don’t mean that I spend too much time planning; instead I try to cram too much into each class period. I love to learn and get new ideas that I can experiment with in my writing-reading workshop, but the problem comes when I try to do so much that it begins to compete with the most important part of my workshop: students’ time to write and read and my time to confer with them about their writing and reading.

I have 85 minutes for each block, which seems like a lot. But when you subtract my goal of at least 30 minutes to write and 15-20 minutes to read, it doesn’t leave as much time as it seems for everything else. I also tend to underestimate the amount of time things will take, which again leads me to schedule too much.

Even more than in years past, I’ve started wrestling with what I can cut out or shorten to free up more time to write and read. Before I continue, let me give you a brief glimpse at my weekly schedule. These are the basics and don’t include booktalks, which I try to make time for at least a couple days a week, and lots of other things that come up.

  • Monday: writing workshop: read aloud of a poem or current genre (maybe), mini-lesson, and time to write; go over notes from previous week’s reading roundtable discussion; time to read
  • Tuesday: writing workshop: read aloud of a poem or current genre (maybe), mini-lesson, and time to write; time to read
  • Wednesday: writing workshop: read aloud of a poem or current genre (maybe), mini-lesson, and time to write; introduce the week’s reading roundtable discussion topic and teach mini-lesson as needed (this is for the two classes who aren’t writing letter-essays that week); time to read
  • Thursday: writing workshop: read aloud of a poem or current genre (maybe), mini-lesson, and time to write; time to read
  • Friday: weekly reflections; picture book read aloud; reading roundtable discussion (in two classes); time to read

One problem that was new for this year was that we participated in Pernille Ripp’s Global Read Aloud for the first time. I’m glad we did it, but I know that I didn’t do a good enough job of figuring out how to fit this into our normal schedule. Students’ time to read their own books was cut too often while we read this book aloud. I’ve have to plan this out better next year.

I’ve also thought a lot about our writing lessons. I liked Katie Wood Ray’s idea in Study Driven about making students’ observations even more central to our genre studies, but the more students are involved, the longer it takes. I’ve wrestled with finding the right balance of mini-lectures, which I can keep short to get us writing more quickly, and lessons where students compile observations about the texts we’ve read together. I’m trying to identify the concepts and techniques that are worth the time investment and also the ones that are better for me to just teach.

I’ve also tried to cut back a bit on some of the other work I’ve asked students to do. For example, with our weekly reading roundtable discussions, which are whole-class discussions where students use the various books they’re reading individually as evidence to answer our question for the week (e.g., How do authors create effective, engaging, memorable protagonists?). Students used to write two paragraphs in preparation for each discussion, each one about a different book. I’ve cut this down to one paragraph for most of the discussions now, in order to free up more time to read.

This whole issue is something I want to continue wrestling with all year in order to make the time we spend together as productive and efficient as possible. For anyone who’s reading, I’d love to hear ways that you have found to free up more time for students to write and read. Please share.

Going Deeper in Our Topic Choice

Before I start, you should know that my first priority as a writing teacher is that each of my students write pieces that matter to them. Sure, I teach many mini-lessons related to craft and conventions, but none of those matter if my students’ writing doesn’t matter to them. As a result, we put a lot of work into finding topics that are deeply important to us; I teach a mini-lesson entitled The Rule of So What?, a phrase I’ve borrowed from Nancie Atwell; we read and discuss pieces that were meaningful to the writers, pieces written by me, former students, and professional writers; and I emphasize finding real purposes and audiences for our writing, rather than just writing for the teacher or for a grade. Most of the pieces students write will be read by others.

For most of my students, this is all new. For most of them, the only reason they’ve ever written before is because they were in school and a teacher told them they had to. Many students buy in to this idea immediately, though. They examine their memories and their lives, and they find topics that matter to them. Others come around more slowly but still eventually begin exploring meaningful topics when they write. However, there are always a handful of students who just never get it. All year, they write because they have to. As a result, these students improve their skills as writers, but they miss out on the real potential that writing has, the rich rewards that those of us who write have experienced. This always pains me, because I know if they don’t experience this in 7th and 8th grade, the chances of them experiencing it in high school are greatly reduced.

This fall, about six weeks into the year, I became especially aware of a handful of students who were still staying at the surface level when it came to topic choice. So one morning, between our mini-lesson on good titles and writing time, I tried a new approach. I asked students this question: What topics do you need to write about but haven’t, for one reason or another, been willing to write about yet? After taking a few minutes to record these, I challenged them to take a risk and, at some point when they thought they might be ready, write about one of these topics.

For many students, the results were immediate as students began writing about topics that were difficult yet critically important: a mom or cousin who had die, seeing a father for the first time in several years. Other students started writing about moments with people who mattered: a girl whose grandpa told her stories from WWII, a boy who felt a strong attachment to his mom when he was younger. Each student sets a goal for the quarter in terms of topic choice, and I saw many more of them showing up there. While some students will still need to be nudged in conferences to explore these topics, I think it’s the farthest a class of mine has ever been at the end of the first quarter.

I know what I did is nothing extraordinary, but it amazed me how such a simple question—What do I need to write about that I’ve been avoiding?— made such a big difference for so many students, and I can’t wait to continue nurturing them as writers the rest of the year.