The Classroom

The Classroom is a podcast by a middle school writing teacher conferring with students about the books they read and issues in writing. The podcast strives to give students a voice about the impact of choice in the classroom and the reality of what works for them in the teaching of reading and writing.
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Nov 19, 2016

In Children Want to Write (edited by Thomas Newkirk and Penny Kittle) we read that Donald Graves completed a study in 1973 suggesting that students need out help in becoming critical thinkers within three explicit phases of the writing process: pre-composing, composing, and post-composing. One details I have been focusing on lately is the acknowledgment that students can be either reactive writers or reflective writers (111).

I had never grappled with the notion that adolescent writers could be either on any given day depending on the task set before them. In other words, my decisions as a teacher influence the decisions of my young writers to approach their work in a reactive way or a reflective way.

Over the past two weeks, I observed my students put into both me. When I put them in a reactive situation (writing alone), it was not on purpose. I wanted them to be reflective and expressive, but it did not turn out that way. My decision was well-intentioned but short-sighted because (after rading the same text) many students, writing independently of each another, began their writing identically:

The council suggests...

Other identical patterns emerged throughout the essays...including a bizarrely Manchurian Candidate-sque duty to the five-paragraph essay.

I must write an introduction, three paragraphs of support, and a conclusion.

Yet, when I positioned my students with writing partners, in the hopes of inspiring conversation as they wrote so that they might be more reflective, I was hoping for change...and got it. Students still read a common text, but the act of conversation teased out a variety and depth of writing absent from the previous attempt.

In this podcast, Elsa tells me about some of the initial gains she took away from this first experience with a writing partner. 


In retrospect, confronted with addressing an academic text and an academic writing task alone, students reverted to formula...and not writing. They trusted in structures ingrained in elementary school and did not act as writer. Sadly, a culture of adolescents continues to grow with the belief that academic writing is accomplished successfully through graphic organizers, reliable formats, and trusted formula. If one can understand how to edit such work for grammatically correct rhetoric, then by-golly we are on the road to being good writers.

When I read the repetitive openings of more than a dozen essays to my students, they giggled. Then they swallowed and looked to me for a solution. They were reactive writers. All of them.

I presented another academic writing task with a common piece of literature...but asked them to accomplish the writing in pairs or threes. 

What happened? They talked. And talked. And talked. Then, they wrote on shared documents. Some broke up responsibilities. Others wrote in a more blended approach--discussing each line and idea. They became reflective writers. All of them.

In my opinion, the necessary shift is moving academic writing from isolated silos to collaborative, social exercises where ideas flow back and forth between partners and even cross from group to group. Shared thinking. This is where students will grow as thinkers capable of writing analysis. Just because students are tested in silos does not mean that must train them in silos.

All writing practice should embrace what good writers do: talk, revise, research, read, and collaborate. Many academic writing situations leave young writers feels abandoned and unconfident. 

My 8th grade student, Elsa, captures the experience:

"It kind of felt different...I felt like I had someone to rely on...if I didn't understand something or was really confused about it, she was right there to say, 'OK, how about if you work on the conclusion, and I'll try to work this out, and then we can switch again and we can make changes to what we think. I really liked that idea. And then I did the same for her because she was really stressed out on some stuff, and then we'd switch places...and we got it done really quickly, but we took time to go over each others' stuff it was actually really nice to have someone you could rely on to help you figure out any questions that you had."

Tom Newkirk writes "reactive writers do no wish to reexamine finished products. For them, the actual doing, getting the message down in rough form, is everything. Teachers who wish to help reactive children to become more self-critical have a difficult task since self-criticism is a reflective act that involves a return to something written. Reflective writers, on the other hand, enjoy the contemplation of their writing, the meaning of their message, and the development of their characters (111).

The fact that the same adolescent can be both a reflective writer and reactive writer depending on the task set before them is a bit of new discovery for me. By constantly indoctrinating students with the belief that form beats thinking, we corral students into a reactive mindset with academic writing. We have more influence over our students' attitudes than we might believe.