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Break Down the Walls, and Some Reasons Why You Should Engage Students in a Secondary Day of Writing

This post was written by NCTE member and Secondary Section Steering Committee Assistant Chair Tiffany L. Rehbein

 

Every school year, I find myself looking for ways to break down the classroom walls—metaphorically, that is.  

In 2015, the NCTE Annual Convention theme was “Promoting Responsibility, Creativity, and the Arts of Language,” and I presented a session with two uber-talented NCTE members—past president Beverly Ann Chin and Sarah Ressler Wright, a board member for both ALAN and the Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts. Our session, Looking Within and Reaching Beyond: Persuasive Writing In and Beyond the Classroom, examined practices for students to take their writing and learning beyond the classroom. 

That year, presenter after presenter shared ideas and lessons around ways to break down the classroom walls to engage students and share student voices outside the traditional classroom. 

During the three years since that conference, I have approached my planning with this big question in mind: In what ways might I engage the community in student learning?

Since that time, I have attempted to answer that question. Three years ago, the Wyoming State Museum collaborated with my English 10 class on a research project. The next year, my seniors took part in a downtown Writing Marathon (made famous by Natalie Goldberg’s advice in Writing Down the Bones and used widely in writing project sites around the nation). That writing experience turned into a prewrite, as the same students completed a spring assignment examining community issues and offering solutions.

This year, I reached beyond my classroom and invited other educators to help me break down walls. From that venture, a day of writing was established.

This is not something I accomplished on my own. Last July, our Wyoming Writing Project team met at co-director Amy Spiker’s house to enjoy her new coffee bar. The warmer weather did not deter us from brewing a variety of Keurig coffees as we brainstormed ideas for the upcoming school year.

It was determined that for years Wyoming teachers had scored writing for Scholastic’s Art and Writing Awards competition. Wyoming students, though, had not entered the competition for a number of years, so we asked ourselves: How can we make this happen?

We learned right away that we needed a larger writing tribe and a narrower focus.

While we initially entertained the idea of a statewide day of writing, using social media and other virtual means to connect everyone, we decided to keep it more manageable, so we narrowed it to a secondary day of writing, with Writing Project teacher consultants Den’ja Pommerane and Danielle Wood and I using writing from students in our classes.

The Secondary Day of Writing was held in early November, so one of the teachers’ first writing units in the classroom focused on fiction. Because students were writing with the purpose of entering a national competition, Scholastic’s writing categories were used (critical essay, dramatic script, flash fiction, humor, journalism, novel writing, personal essay and memoir, poetry, science fiction and fantasy, and short story). This is when our writing tribe expanded.

We organized the Day of Writing around breakout sessions focused on a specific genre. We reached out to the community to find experts in each genre who would be willing to teach a minilesson, then provide time for students to write, revise, and confer during their breakout.

This was one of the most important ideas for Wood, a middle school educator:

“It would not have been as successful as it was for these students had I not had the support of other educators and community members ready to workshop ideas with students, explain the essential elements of the various submission categories, and show students that writing exists beyond the walls of Laramie Middle School.”

Students chose three different sessions throughout the day. The hosts served everyone lunch onsite, concurrently with an open mic reading for students, session leaders, and educators.

So, why might you consider sponsoring a day of writing?

Pommerane, a high school teacher, said the following:

“The Day of Writing provided an opportunity for me to see my students make connections with other writers outside of Laramie High School. I think that, at times, we put on blinders when it comes to writing in the classroom. The school bell rings, class begins, and this is where we write for 50 minutes. We pack up our notebooks and move on to the next class. Taking the writing somewhere else, on a day that was outside of the repetitious school day, allowed students to see you can take writing anywhere, anytime.”  

Wood added that the day of writing “really brought a new perspective on the writing process and publication opportunities.”

Other reasons to sponsor a day of writing emerged from student evaluations: 

  • To promote fiction writing. Often, this is an overlooked area of writing in middle and high school classrooms.
  • To support students as they write and revise for a national competition. It is exciting for students to write with the belief they might be recognized nationally. In fact, two Wyoming students—one from Laramie Middle School and one from East High School in Cheyenne—earned a Silver Key (one of Scholastic’s Regional awards).  
  • To provide an authentic writing audience. Winning work went on to be evaluated for publication in Scholastic’s Best Teen Writing [a publication found each year at NCTE’s Annual Convention.]
  • To engage in writing with students. Pommerane said it very well: “They needed to see me outside of school in the trenches, chewing my pencil, scratching my head, fighting writer’s block, feeling scared and vulnerable about the words I put on paper.”
  • To foster a willingness to learn more in class. Students said this experience made them more willing to try writing in new genres, analyze texts more closely, and connect with a larger community.

If you are considering hosting your own day of writing, here are some tips to remember:

  • Create a hashtag. Use social media to your advantage. Use it to promote your event and find ways to share student voices and continue to break down those walls.
  • Reserve everything as early as possible. Find your writing space and reserve it. The University of Wyoming was our host site, and an admissions representative welcomed the students with tote bags and lanyards.
  • Identify your writing tribe and contact them for commitments. We provided a lesson plan template because not all of our breakout session leaders were teachers.
  • Prepare release forms. You will need parental permission and release forms to post student pictures and writing online.
  • Arrange for transportation. Decide if you will need buses, and review your district’s policies on transportation and associated forms and paperwork.
  • Capitalize on all the great things happening in your area. Research existing writing groups, local writing projects, and creative writing departments at your school, community college, or university. Find your writing tribe, because they will help!
  • Be thankful. You cannot express your thanks enough to people spending their time with you and your students on a Saturday to make this a special experience. We provided lunch and small gifts of appreciation to say thank you.

For us, the Secondary Day of Writing is not an isolated event. This summer, the Wyoming Writing Project will sponsor a summer writing camp. Students who attend will be invited to the Secondary Day of Writing and the open mic to read their best work from the camp. This year’s Secondary Day of Writing will precede NCTE’s National Day on Writing, which takes place October 20.

If you want to engage in a smaller event, I invite you to join us online. Follow our hashtags #SecondaryDayofWriting and #wyowrites on October 13 and #WhyIWrite on October 20.

Or consider creating your own statewide or regional day of writing to celebrate student voice and choice, as you break down your own classroom walls.

 

Tiffany L. Rehbein is assistant chair for NCTE’s Secondary Section Steering Committee and serves on the leadership team for the Wyoming Writing Project. She has taught for more than 13 years and is currently the AVID Coordinator at her high school; she also serves as a district-level instructional coach for AVID. She is in her second year of teaching a district course to secondary teachers, focusing on reading and writing strategies. She writes a Core Grammar blog, where she shares writing and grammar activities with teachers. Tiffany is a recipient of the 2008 NCTE Leadership Development Award. She feels that listening, sharing, and collaborating are essential skills for educators and leaders.