The Writer’s Sandbox

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Sometimes the simplest things are the most beautiful. 

When seeking to create a new unit for our junior Communications students, my teaching team and I kept bumping up against one very important thing: we didn’t feel like we were teaching enough writing. The variety of writing types wasn’t enough. The amount of writing wasn’t enough. The frequency of writing instruction wasn’t enough. And we wanted to do something about it. This is how the Writer’s Sandbox unit was born–an experimental writing unit that focused on flexibility, authorship, craft study, and play.

We didn’t know what we were doing. And that was the greatest part of it. We could invent along the way, as long as we had a “how” before the what. So we gathered our knowledge about good writing instruction. We knew that we’d have to help students understand the different conventions that accompany different genres. We knew we could find and use good mentor texts as models, and we knew we could write alongside our kids and share our own processes. We hoped that our students could come away with a greater sens of independence, adaptability, and joy in writing: this was the biggest goal.

This particular group of students is much more familiar with the “just follow the formula” types of written assignments that are all too easy for teachers to assign. I am guilty of this at times–sometimes students’ skills or motivation can be so desperately low that it is vastly easier to provide them with an all-inclusive, paint-by-number assignment structure that will minimize panic and guarantee them a feeling of success, if only they follow the steps. And maybe there’s a place for that somewhere. But that’s not the path to any kind of good writing or thinking in the real world.

Unsure of how our students would react, we used the presentation below to introduce the concept of The Writer’s Sandbox to our perked-up (but perhaps slightly wary) group of students…

The beauty of a unit like this is that it’s process-oriented, which means it can be customized to fit any length of time and any types of writing that one can dream up. The process we used can be seen on my classroom notepad in the picture at the beginning of this post. Each day had a slightly different vibe as we tackled different genres or phases of the writing process. But, to keep a sense of routine and structure, every day had the same elements: progress charted, writing shared aloud, a creativity or skills-building warm-up, information about conventions and purpose, a mentor text, and time to write. It was a path that students were quick to adapt to. Having the visual reminder was reassuring to them.

The types of writing that we worked on included poetry, flash fiction, application essays, infographic, satire, and thank-you letters. The end of the unit moved into lessons on revision, and student-led writing conferences were a big part of the final grade, whereas initial drafts were non-threatening “check off” compliance grades. Teaching was fun, because it became more about trying things, about “what did you come up with?”, laughing together at the failures, puzzling together at the challenges, and cheering on the moments when, as one student put it, “Once the words start flowing, they just don’t stop until they run out.”

The culminating project was a formalized portfolio of three polished pieces. We required the application essay, since we want every junior to have a starting point for their real college essays next year. The choice and direction of the other two pieces were completely up to the student. In many cases, a type of theme emerged organically among the three pieces, as students crafted verse and image that reflected what / where / who they care about most. Precious things. Things that, to them, have shaped the foundation of their lives, identify, and vision of the future.

Was every portfolio of student writing life-changingly good? No. But lives were changed in the process of making them. I know I’ve said this before, but every time I give my students a new measure of freedom and control over their own learning, I am astounded at what they create, and at how much they actually teach themselves and each other. One thing I can say with honesty is that every student was truly proud of his or her final product. They cared about that writing, and that is an excellent place to start. I think it’s fair to say that the unit worked.

Like any fledgling unit, this one has given me things to think about, to alter, to keep and replace. But it’s a dang good idea. Maybe you can use it!

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