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Pursuing Meaningful, Authentic, Student-Centered Writing During Precarious Times

As educators and schools transition to emergency remote teaching, we all know that so much of what makes for effective teaching can’t be fully replicated online with the limitations of social distance and city lockdowns. While we may have district mandates and community expectations to provide standards- and skills-based instruction, we also hope this is a chance for all of us–teachers, administrators, and teacher educators–to re-think what meaningful, engaging learning really involves.

Fortunately, writing is one of those disciplines that affords everyone the flexibility, creativity, and authenticity to be deeply meaningful both in and out of traditional school contexts. You may have already found lots of online sources for writing prompts, such as those from The New York Times. These are such wonderful resources that we highly recommend. However, we also draw inspiration from Katherine and Randy Bomer, NCTE’s 2017 Outstanding Elementary Educators in the English Language Arts, who remind us of the importance of:

placing kids in the driver’s seat of their own learning, making them always the composers—of their writing, of their reading, of their literate lives, of their social relations in the classroom, of their conversations. [We] learned that it was possible to take away that agency, but we should only do it if we have some really compelling reason to interrupt what kids would do intentionally, for their own purposes (Warrington, 2017, p. 89).

These times have highlighted for us how much children have to say in their own words and for their own purposes as they make sense of this pandemic. Below are teaching ideas and invitations to help merge curricular requirements with the opportunities for students to engage in authentic, meaningful, student-centered writing during these precarious times. We’ve also included ideas for replicating the differentiated structures for writing instruction through online tools.

Writing Structures

Shared Writing – In shared writing, teachers act as the scribe while students determine the ideas, organization, voice, sentence structures, word choice, and conventions for the piece. When Zooming with your students (or another video conference tool), open a Word document and share your screen with students. As they contribute to the piece, type their contributions onto the Word document for all to see the shared writing piece you are creating with one another. Remind students to use the hand-raising feature of your video conference tool to help you know who has something to contribute to your shared writing piece.

Interactive Writing – In interactive writing, teachers and students share the pen to co-write a piece. You may want to do this in small groups for easier online management. Using a class collaborative tool or wiki, such as Jamboard or Google Docs, type the text you want students to write with you and leave blanks where you want them to finish the writing. Since it’s difficult to physically share the pen with one another while writing this piece, use the wiki’s chat feature or comment feature to call on students to fill in certain blanks.

Guided Writing and Small Group Writing Conferences – Divide students into small groups based on a particular writing strategy or skill you want them to work on. Provide writing assignments that are differentiated according to each group’s strengths and needs (make sure to remember all the smart things you always do when differentiating instruction, such as avoiding comparison and competition by not announcing to the whole class what each group is doing). Schedule Zoom or other video conference meetings to meet with each group to teach a minilesson or hold a small group conference.

Independent Writing and Quick-Writes – Many of our students, their families, and even ourselves feel stretched thin under these circumstances, but we can still encourage and support students’ growth as independent writers. Quick-writes provide authentic, meaningful, student-centered daily experiences that may help students sustain their engagement with writing while dealing with the moment-by-moment changes of our world. The brief daily writing notebook tasks, such as those provided by author Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s Keeping a Notebook videos, and the creative ideas provided in Jason Reynolds’ Write.Right.Rite series are some great ways to inspire and sustain students’ independent writing. Use digital portfolio apps, such as See Saw or Google Classroom, to encourage students to submit their independent writing.

Writing Formats

A quick reminder about writing online: It doesn’t have to involve just words on paper or a Word document. For many emergent writers (and even for advanced writers), photographs, drawings, and other visual forms of composing can communicate vast amounts of information. Many of the ideas and invitations below can be adapted for multimodal writing, involving visual and digital composing tools, such as Storybird, Book Creator, VoiceThread, Jamboard, and even PowerPoint or Keynote slides. For more tools, see this post Tech & Learning post.

Genre-Based Writing

Persuasive Writing

  • Write to Your Teacher, Principal, or School Administrators – Invite students to write about what they enjoy about distance learning and would like to continue doing when they are back in the classroom, or write about what is difficult for them at this time and what they would like changed so that learning remains engaging, effective, and doable for them and their family.
  • Write to Your Government Officials – During this time, many of our government officials are working hard to make sure everyone stays safe, healthy, strong, and secure. But they might not know or see a particular challenge that your students or their community faces. Invite students to write to their mayor, town councilperson, state representative, governor, or other government official to let them know of that challenge and to convince them to provide students with the resources needed. This piece could take the form of a letter (see the Teaching Tolerance lesson on writing for social change) or an op-ed piece they can send to their local newspaper (see the ALA’s lesson on writing op-ed pieces).  

Opinion and Argument Writing

  • Create “Top Ten” and “Best of” Pieces – Many of us are filling up our days reading books, watching movies and TV shows,, and listening to music. Invite students to create a list of their “Top Ten” or “Best of”, such as their Top Ten songs for a family dance party or a Best of Pixar movies. Remind them to use their opinion and argument writing skills to flesh out the reasons why each item is on your list, and share it with the rest of the class via your online learning platform.
  • Construct a “Reasons Why” Piece – Help students develop their opinion and argument skills by choosing a topic they have been thinking about a lot while away from school, such as friends, art projects, or even the many issues surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. Then, for a prewriting activity, have them jot down some of the specific thoughts and opinions they have about that topic, such as “Creating art can calms me down” or “It’s a privilege to be able to stay home during this pandemic.” Invite students to pick one of those thoughts, and write an opinion or argument piece that explains the reasons why they believe in those thoughts.

Informational (All About) Writing

  • Co-construct a Whole Class “Things to Do” Piece – Many students are facing the challenge of figuring out what to do each day after completing their school work, especially when our options are limited to our homes and immediate neighborhoods. Have students brainstorm a variety of things they and their classmates can do in these circumstances to keep busy, active, and productive. Then have them sort the list into related categories based on what they’ve listed, such as “Things to Build,” “Things to Bake,” or “Things to Do When It Rains.” Use a wiki tool, such as Google Docs, to do this and then post online as a reference for the class to use.
  • Describe Ways to Volunteer and Help – Invite students to do some research and write an informational piece about a way they can volunteer or help others in need during this time. Some ideas for helping are listed in these articles in The Washington Post, Time Magazine, and The New York Times. Share each piece with the rest of the class. Encourage your students to read each other’s pieces and take action on one of them. 
  • Conduct Community, Essential Worker, and Helper Interviews  – Invite students to interview a community member, essential worker, or community helper whose lives have been impacted by COVID-19. Have them use what they learned from their interview session to write an informational or all-about piece about the person they interviewed. Share the final drafts with the school community or a local news outlet to build a more knowledgeable and empathetic world.
  • Share the Facts. – Given the plethora of social media and digital communication about COVID-19, it can be difficult to figure out what is fact and what is hearsay or fake news. Guide students toward reputable sources of information, such as the the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration. You might also share this article in the Smithsonian Magazine (excerpts or the whole article) to help students learn to sort fact from fiction about the virus. Then, have students write what they have learned about COVID-19 in an informational piece to share with their friends, families, and community.

Procedural (How-to) Writing

  • Teach Someone How to Play a New Game – Being at home means finding ways to entertain ourselves. Help one another by writing a procedural piece that explains how to play a new card game, or a backyard game, or even a computer or video game. Make sure to include the objective of the game (not just “to win” but “to be the first to get rid of all your cards”, etc.) and provide examples, photographs, and/or illustrations to clarify the steps you describe.
  • Share a Favorite Kid-Friendly Recipe. – Many homes are taking the opportunity to involve children in their daily household tasks, particularly cooking. Create an online class cookbook but having students write up their favorite recipe. 

Creative Writing

  • Write a Short Story – This is an opportunity for children who love writing fiction to use the narrative skills they may have learned from personal narrative units or short story units. If they have difficulty coming up with a short story idea, have them try the story starters from Scholastic. Older students might find the character motivation generators on RanGen a fun way to start writing a story.
  • Create a Graphic Novel – Encourage students to combine multimodal literacy and storytelling skills by creating a graphic novel. See Scholastic’s Graphix Guide to Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens and the Wikihow page on creating a graphic novel for resources and ideas to share with students. cholastic’s Graphix Guide
  • Let the Poetry Flow – Poetry can be an incredible outlet for the emotional intensity of living through a pandemic. See our entry from last week for ideas and invitations for inspiring and guiding students’ poetry writing from afar.

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Quick-Writes and Daily Writing:

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s Keeping a Notebook video series

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuZ7EMD9jTpwnd6SIdCflnw/videos

Jason Reynolds’ Write.Right.Rite video series

https://guides.loc.gov/jason-reynolds/grab-the-mic/wrr

The New York Times Daily Writing Prompts

Teaching Tolerance – Truth to Power: Writing Letters for Change

https://www.tolerance.org/classroom-resources/student-tasks/do-something/truth-to-power-writing-letters-for-change

ALA I Love Libraries – Writing an Op-Ed Piece

http://www.ilovelibraries.org/school-libraries/how-write-and-place-op-ed-piece

The Washington Post – How You Can Help During the Coronavirus Outbreak

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/21/how-you-can-help-during-coronavirus/?arc404=true

TIME Magazine – How to Help–or Get Help–in the Coronavirus Pandemic

https://time.com/5809221/coronavirus-how-to-help/

The New York Times – How to Help in a Pandemic: Ask Before You Donate 1,000 Pizzas

World Health Organization

U. S. Centers for Disease Control

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

U. S. National Institutes of Health

https://www.nih.gov/health-information/coronavirus

U. S. Food and Drug Administration

https://www.fda.gov/emergency-preparedness-and-response/counterterrorism-and-emerging-threats/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19

Smithsonian Magazine – How to Avoid Misinformation about COVID-19

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-avoid-misinformation-about-covid-19-180974615/

Scholastic Story Starters

http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/story-starters/

RanGen Random Character Generators and Writing Prompts

https://www.rangen.co.uk/

Scholastic – A Guide to Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens

http://www.scholastic.com/graphix_teacher/pdf/Graphix%20Teachers%20guide.pdf

Wikihow – Create a Graphic Novel

https://www.wikihow.com/Create-a-Graphic-Novel

References

Warrington, A. (2017). Katherine and Randy Bomer, NCTE’s 2017 outstanding elementary educators in the English Language Arts. Language Arts, 95(2), 87-93.

Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.