Transitioning Makers to Print in the Writing Workshop

“But how is that writing?” he asked, and I got it.

I get it.

This doesn’t look like writing, does it?

And his question is one we should all be asking, make writing friends.

In recent weeks, I’ve explored why we might want to use loose parts in our writing workshops and classrooms. I’ve also shared a bit about how.

I haven’t blogged about transitioning makers to print, though. This post is for those of you who asked.

If you’ve been hanging out with me for any amount of time, then you know that often, my workshop days unfold a bit like this: We begin with a mini-lesson, and then, we sink into independent making and writing time (with assessment and feedback folded in), we reflect, and then, we enjoy a bit of exhibition/celebration time. There are no real surprises here. I use a traditional workshop structure, for the most part. There are two big differences, though:

When I design workshop units with teachers, we use structure as our unit center rather than process. This is why. And don’t worry: This doesn’t mean we neglect the process entirely. We do this because centering structure tends to inspire a far more recursive process, in my experience.

During independent writing time, students also build bits of their drafts using loose parts. Then, they better their builds in response to feedback before they transition to print. Want to know more? Take a peek at this post.

So, how do we help writers transform something that looks like this:

Into this?

We support writers bit by bit, while protecting the full complexity of those gorgeous ideas.

Learning Targets and Teaching Points Matter

And they aren’t the same, although each has its place inside of different kinds of workshops. And I work in very different kinds of workshops, so I like to speak to both.

When our targets or teaching points are small enough–micro enough–we can teach precise lessons that are brief. We can give kids tools that are a just-right size for a single lesson, and they can use them to make and write just a bit of their drafts.

When our mini-lessons go too long or kids fail to progress, I find that it’s often because we’re trying to do too much in a single session.

So, we try to remember to break off a small bit of learning, and teach it mini. We let kids try to do what we’re teaching them to do, and we invite them to use loose parts rather than words to produce it. We ask good questions over their shoulders, offering bits of feedback that helps each of them better their builds. We go to them. We walk the room. We drop curiosities over their shoulders.

And this seems to make a difference: We dart around them like hummingbirds. Each exchange is a quick dip. They soak up a tiny drop of knowledge or a question that helps them think differently. Better. Using loose parts allows them to tinker, iterate, and completely hack their builds, over and over again, until they are working with their very best ideas. They do this quickly. Joyfully.

Here’s the thing: I’ve learned that print is a commitment, so I don’t expect writers to make it until they’ve done some hard prototyping.

Once their builds reflect beautiful, complex ideas, I invite them to write the words represented by that one small bit on a sticky note or an index card or any other loose part that can eventually move, mix, and stand up to great revision. We write bit by bit rather than draft by draft. We revise this way for a long time, too. This keeps our writing loose. Pliable. Easier to stretch, shape, and even–break.

They all put down varied amounts of text of varied complexity, and this is okay. It’s not about length, but strength. And strength is defined by the teaching point or learning target.

Transitioning to Print

Here’s what it looked like when I last asked a whole bunch of writers in a single room to write about the main character of a story: Some wrote passages. Others wrote a paragraph. Some just listed essential words. Just a few wrote nothing at all.

I find that when we offer the greatest invitation–if we invite all of them to write long–our real work has little to do with prodding them to do more or cheerleading when they do. We simply assess the print that each writer puts down (quantity and quality), and help them level up. Offering the GREATEST invitation first matters, though. Often, writers are able to do far more than we might assume. Challenge them to do all that they are able to.

Writers who are crafting paragraphs or entire passages might benefit from studying how other writers (plural) craft similar things. Studying multiple mentor texts or examples will often inspire them to tinker with that part of their writing in different ways before choosing a single approach.

Writers who are only putting down single words might benefit from a sentence frame or two or three. If they see how we move words into sentences and passages, they can often create their own. Larry Ferlazzo shares a variety of writing scaffolds here and speaks to sentence frames at the bottom of that post.

Writers who haven’t produced any print at all often find it useful to label as much as they can inside of their builds first. Then, they use those labels and sentence frames to stretch themselves and their volume.

When writers aren’t making any marks at all, I scribe for them. Newcomers who are just learning English write in their preferred language first. Then, we translate.

I also document what students are able to do cognitively with meaning and structure, and I distinguish this assessment from what they can do with print. Consistently. This is my scale, and it accompanies my photographs, video and audio recordings, and ample annotations:

I find that this kind of documentation makes me a far better diagnostician. It enables better intervention, too. There are so many different ways to scaffold writers to print, and I need to be clear: These are just a handful of approaches. Which do you prefer? Leave a comment here or come find me on Twitter or Facebook if you have ideas to share.

Why Distinguish Print from Meaning and Structure?

Because it’s far more equitable. Read more on that here, if you’re interested.

It also enables a more succinct assessment of writers’ true strengths and needs. When we assess learning targets that have nothing to do with print by demanding the use of print, we obscure our findings quite a bit. We also perpetuate a level of graphocentrism inside of our schools that perpetuates the achievement gap.

Writing matters. Print matters. And unless we become far more adept at helping writers of all ages scale the barriers created by print just long enough to engage with meaning and structure, some (even many) of the students that we serve may fail to become print comfortable at all.

We seem to remember this when we’re teaching reading.

Why not writing?

Connect with Us

There are quite a few teachers testing these approaches in their own classrooms, and I’d love to connect you to them. Join us in the Building Better Writers Facebook community to continue the conversation, all.

And remember: This isn’t THE way. It’s ONE way that fits inside a single blog post.

More on different kinds of making and writing soon.

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