The Genius Hours

What would you do if you weren't afraid?

Writing Groups

on July 3, 2013

Last night, during the #ELAtlap chat, I mentioned using writing groups in my classroom. Enough people asked for more information that I decided a blog post was in order.  I’ll start by saying that if you are ever offered an opportunity to attend a Writing Project in your area – do it. It remains one of the best professional development experiences I’ve had. I attended the Central Virginia Writing Project more than a decade ago, but there is not a day that goes by that I’m not using something I learned during that month. Actually, thinking back on what I learned, I’m a little surprised that Genius Hour and reading workshop have taken so long to really worm their way into my practice.

Writing groups will not work until and unless your students feel a sense of community.  Done well, you are asking students to share their inner selves not only with you but with each other. This  requires a very real sense of  trust.  We do a lot of low-level sharing as a class. In the beginning of the year, I’ll also ask for volunteers who would like to share their writing. While there are always a few students who prefer not to share, many middle school kids love to share. This allows me to slowly build in that trust.

There are a lot of pieces you need to take into account when creating your groups. I try to make each group as diverse as I can while ensuring that each student will grow while they a part of that group. I do my best to find at least one thing that each student does really well. When students ask me a question I know can be answered by a student, I point them in that child’s direction, declaring him/her to be the “class expert.”  I may have a (or more than than one) spelling expert, a comma expert, a thesis statement expert, a paragraphing expert, a detail expert, etc.  The choices are endless. My goal is to build capacity within the class. My students love the spelling expert because they know if they ask me how to spell something, I’m likely to answer them with, “D-I-C-T-I-O-N-A-R-Y”.

While we are doing whole-class sharing, I begin to teach them what constructive criticism looks like. One of my favorite books on teaching students how to respond to each other is Sharing and Responding. Though this book is mostly for adults, I’ve found it is pretty easy to adapt for my students. We start with a technique called “Two Stars and a Question”. Students tell two things they really liked about the piece being shared and then they are allowed to ask a question.

  • Why does your character do this?
  • Why did you use this word and not that one?
  • Why didn’t you…
  • Have you considered….
  • How did you know…

This remains one of their favorites because it’s easy and it’s not threatening. It is also a way to offer advice while doing so in a way that the author is free to reject it without drama. On my side, it also forces the author to think about why s/he made the choices they did.  Looking at and reflecting on your own writing is hard. It is far less threatening to look at and reflect on someone else’s writing, but once you get into the habit of doing that for someone else, it becomes a part of who you are as a writer. Students pick up the habit of being (somewhat, writing groups aren’t miracles) more reflective about their own writing.

Depending on the class, I’m usually ready to put them into their first writing group by the end of the first quarter. If our first project is to write a piece that contains a thesis statement, I’ll create writing groups designed for that purpose. In my opinion, four students is the perfect size for a writing group, but I’ve had groups as small as two and as large as six. I start with the students I know are pretty far down the road to being able to write a solid thesis statement. The next student in the group is the one I know will struggle the most with the concept. I try to pair the strong and weak students based on personality and ability to work together.  The next two kids in the group are put there based on their strengths, weaknesses and their ability to work with two already in the group. Honestly, some days putting writing groups together feels a little like trying to put together seating for a dinner at the UN.

Back in the old days, or last year, we did our writing group work on paper. I collected everyone’s drafts ahead of time and made copies for each member of the group so they could write on it.  Sometimes the author asks for the marked-up copies back so that s/he can use those notes to revise the draft. In other cases, they write on their own paper.  In some cases, the writing group member would ask me to make a copy of their marked-up copy so that s/he could use the notes to revise his/her own paper.

This year our school division is going Google! I’m really excited to see what this means for my writing groups. The sixth grade is also part of a 1-to-1 initiative, so students will have daily access to tablets. I suspect I’ll be spending at least part of class teaching my kids how to use Google Docs effectively.

We set a purpose for our writing group meetings. I spend a lot of time explaining the difference between revising and editing. We always focus on revising before editing. One of my favorite secrets (stolen from one of the books below, but I can’t for the life of me remember which one) is to have students take that beginning of a story from their writing notebook and write it on a legal pad. They can use that to physically cut their paper apart, rearrange it, do whatever they want to do without “messing up” their notebook. This probably won’t be necessary if we’re going to do it all online, but I have to say there’s a small part of me that is reluctant to give up my writing notebooks, but I suppose I must join the 21st century eventually.

I’ve used the following books to improve my writing workshop, including writing groups:

I’d love to have a conversation about how other people use writing groups or the writing workshop in their own classrooms. Ask questions, make suggestions, challenge me. I’m up for it.

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