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Coaching Reluctant Writers

Heather Rader

I'm not sure I've ever met a reluctant writer. Oh, she may look reluctant or he may sound reluctant, but they rarely are.

Take, for example, Eduardo. Eduardo slunk into his sixth-grade literacy block every day. He rolled his eyes, put his head on his desk and often called out "I'm bored!" Eduardo's teacher was unsure if he was struggling because of his lack of confidence with English (Eduardo comes from a Spanish speaking home), or just a general dislike of reading and writing.

After the morning minilesson, I watched Eduardo lay his head down on top of his journal. Although it appeared to be napping time, it was crafting time.

"What will you write about today?" I bent down next to him so we were eye-to-eye.

"I hate writing," he groaned.

"That sounds like an interesting topic. Have you written about that yet?"

"What?" he said.

"How much you hate writing?"

He looked up. "I can write about hating writing?"

"Many of the best pieces from writing workshop are about things writers love and hate. How might that start?"

"Uhhh . . . I hate writing?" he said.

"Then what would come next?" I encouraged.

"I hate writing so much I'd rather do just about anything else?"

"Uh-huh. Cool. Get that down."

Then I walked away to give him space. He watched me for awhile to see if I was serious, and then picked up his pencil. According to his teacher, Eduardo wrote more that day than he'd written all year. After he'd been writing for about 10 minutes, I read his piece. One of his lines caught my attention -- "I've always hated writing."

"Really? You can't remember liking writing?"

"Maybe in like kindergarten and first grade I liked it," he conceded.

"And what was writing like then?" I asked.

"Easy. I could do it."

"When did you stop liking it?"

"When I had to write more than a sentence," he said.

"That's a great anecdote. Do you know what that means?" He shrugged and I continued, "An anecdote is a story within a story. You could add a great piece about liking writing in first grade until you had to write more than a sentence."

Eduardo's façade could fool anyone into thinking he was reluctant, but he wasn't. At the end of the literacy block I wrote him a note that said, "You did great work today. Keep writing, Eduardo." He didn't smile at me, but I watched him take that post-it and put it inside his journal for safekeeping. I wondered how much positive feedback Eduardo had received on his writing over the years.

Coaching Writers with Wows and Wonders

What do you do poorly? Pick one thing in your life (nothing too intense). For me, it would be cluttered refrigerator doors. My fridge is plastered with a Student of the Month certificate from September (it's now March) as well as a rainbow painting, band schedule, coupon, progress report, notes to remember . . . you get the picture. While I like to say it's the publishing place for my three wonderful kids, I also know it's bad feng shui. I need to reduce the visual clutter in my kitchen.

Now imagine someone on a daily basis reminding you of how poorly you do this thing you've chosen. I imagine a family member saying, "Look at all this visual clutter, you need to do something about this. You need to store the certificate, file the coupon, recycle the progress report. . ." I don't know about you, but having someone hound me about my weaknesses is not a great motivator for me.

Yet in my work with teachers, some have the hardest time finding something nice to say about kids' writing. I've yet to find a piece of writing that I couldn't affirm something that a writer is doing well. And that's essential as we build children's identities about themselves as writers. Knowing what we do well gives us inspiration to do it more, and the willingness to look at other things we could improve.

One simple structure we use is WOW and WONDER with student writing. A wow is one or more things that we can affirm that writer is doing well. The wonder is one thing the writer could improve in this piece and subsequent pieces.

Take this piece of second grade student writing by Maddie:

Der mrs radr

i lit pet the cat be cus I lik the rhyming it is fune an I lik mama panyas pancakes cas I lkt I'm one step ahead of you I like is r pete is and pet the cat is fune becas I like I lave my red sos

Here is the translation of that draft spelling:

Dear Mrs. Rader, 

I like Pete the Cat because I like the rhyming. It is funny. And I like Mama Panya's Pancakes because I like "I'm one step ahead of you." I like Pete the Cat. It's funny because I like "I love my red shoes."

There are many WOWs I might draw Maddie's attention to in this letter to me. For content, Maddie gave me specific examples of what she likes about the book Pete the Cat. She likes the rhyming and the refrain "I love my red shoes." She also liked the book I read, Mama Panya's Pancakes, and remembered the refrain from that book "I'm one step ahead of you." Real writers give us examples like this to elaborate. She's doing it. 

A WOW in her conventions is that her words have spaces, and I would guess that she used a chart or the book itself to get down the title Mama Panya's Pancakes and the refrain, "I'm one step ahead of you." Real writers use mentor texts all the time for correct spelling of titles and quotes.

If I wanted to work on content with Maddie, I WONDER about keeping her details about the books together. In her sequence she gave me a detail about Pete the Cat, then Mama Panya, and back to Pete. Moving that last sentence would increase the organization of this piece and the clarity. It would also be a lesson that Maddie could apply to other pieces -- "to group like ideas."

As for a WONDER about her conventions, there are many directions to go here, but I will practice restraint in not going into all of them. In spelling, I notice two high frequency words "like" and "because." I might spend a couple of minutes having Maddie add these to her personal dictionary or discussing how she might use her personal dictionary to support her. Then I'll make a note and check back with her on future pieces, praising her as she spells these words correctly in her writing. I also notice there is no punctuation. I might have Maddie read the letter to me and make notes where she naturally pauses and show her how to put in punctuation. In either case, I'm going to focus on one small thing she can do to improve this piece and future pieces. One nudge forward as she grows as a writer.

Coaching Teachers of Writing

With each teacher I coach, I learn more about language that instills confidence in teachers and their ability to teach writing.

I asked a teacher Jen if I could record our conversation, and then I listened to the voice memo later and wrote down this question:

What are your ideas about how to teach prewriting explicitly so students understand the purpose and use it successfully?

A simple question, but let's break it down further:

 

When I show up to a meeting with an open-ended question, trust in the teacher and the ability to listen, it will trump anything I might "tell" every time. 

Consider these questions:

  • If there were no such thing as reluctant writers, what do kids need to be successful in writing?
  • How often do you notice the "wows" of student writing? 
  • Have the teachers you collaborate with had explicit practice writing and talking about wows?
  • Do you focus in on a small number of "wonders" with writers? 
  • Have the teachers you collaborate with had explicit practice prioritizing one wonder?
  • When you pose questions of educators, do you notice words and phrases that highlight plurals, positive presupposition and purpose?

 

Heather Rader

Heather Rader is an instructional coach in Washington State. Her Choice Literacy publications include the book Side By Side: Short Takes on Best Practice for Teachers & Literacy Leaders and the DVD On the Same Page. You can find her "Coach to Coach" blog at www.heatherrader.com