TL;DR Writing should be a much more significant focus in our classrooms.
I’m going to start off by admitting that this is a realization I should have reached long ago. I spent my first 16 years of teaching in a school with some of the most brilliant colleagues and thoughtful professional development anywhere. In those years I gained a lot of experience with how children learn, especially when it comes to reading and writing. (Instead of what so many teachers get, which is how teachers teach. How children learn is far more important.) I have also been involved in the Northern Virginia Writing Project for a number of years. I’ve been writing here, relatively regularly, for almost sixteen years. So the value and benefits of writing should have been clear to me much sooner.
In addition, for many years I’ve thought we should do a far better job of connecting reading and writing. I love reading workshop and I love writing workshop for the choices students have and the time to truly read and write. I don’t love that having separate workshops gives students the impression that reading and writing are distinct and unrelated things. At least a decade ago I smushed the two workshops together and my first graders had LAB (language arts block). We began with one focus lesson, spent the next 90 minutes or so reading and writing in various ways (independently, in small groups), and then came back together to share. The connections between reading and writing were explicit and transparent.
In our current, virtual setting, I have returned to that LAB structure. We only have 90 minutes for language arts. Trying to do two focus lessons and two shares, especially with the chance of technical challenges, was eating up all our time. So we opted to try this out. It’s not quite as fluid as what my first graders were doing years ago, but it is definitely far more connected than a typical reading and writing workshop are.
Currently our students are in the midst of a nonfiction unit. As I’ve been planning this unit, both for reading and writing, looking closely at texts, and writing for the prompts I will be giving the students, I’ve decided that writing should be a much bigger focus.
The process of writing, especially on a topic or story that is of genuine interest to you, really forces you to understand how text works. We are looking at mentor texts, reading them, learning from them, and analyzing what the author did to organize and share information. Then we try out those same ideas as writers. Doing the writing we are also reading is clicking on some lightbulbs. Students are connecting ideas and noticing what authors are doing. They are reading with a new lens.
I have felt most comfortable with this in nonfiction for some reason. That’s okay, for now. It’s my stepping stone to take this on more broadly. My students are always writing in the genre or style that we’re reading, at least some. I work to balance my expectation that they are trying on the genre with my belief that they should have choice in their writing. Sometimes I’m better at it than other times.
Our next unit will be focused on traditional tales. When I reflect on how we’ve done it in the past, I realize the skeleton is there. I’ve had students take what they’re reading and use what they’ve learned for their writing. Now I want to be sure I’m building a two-way bridge between the reading and writing. I’ve frequently fallen into the trap, a very common one in education, I think, of valuing and prioritizing reading over writing. I’ve seen reading as a way to help students grow as writers. I haven’t been so thoughtful about the flipside.
Writing this has helped me clarify my own thinking. Just another reason we should be having students write and helping them do so a lot more.