These days. they still sub me out a lot to host or observe professional development at other schools in my district. My two regular (and wonderful!) substitutes know how to load the daily SWT PowerPoint slide, and they know how to run what I call "sacred writing time." If we have a reading quiz or a state mandated test that day, we still do Sacred Writing Time. If it's a research day in the library, they bring their writer's notebooks with them, and they have to write for ten minutes before they are allowed to begin any other project. I never cancel SWT no matter what else is going on with the schedule.
People ask me how I grade their sacred writing. I don't...not really. Okay, it's a participation grade only. I maintain a special SWT page in my grade book that is a spreadsheet with all their names on it. On any day they don't use all ten minutes, I write the date next to their names. Every month students earn an SWT grade from me, and they receive full credit provided they have no dates written next to their names; it's an easy class work grade. If I catch them doing homework instead of writing in their notebooks, I write the date next to their name, and I have been known to rip up their homework; usually, you only have to be that dramatic one time. If they stare into space, I warn them, and I write the date next to their name on the second warning. When they are absent, I write the date next to their names, and they know they owe their writer's notebooks ten minutes and that they have to show me the entry (we write the date next to every entry) in order for me to cross off that date in my grade book. My kids' notebooks are visual, so a lot attempt to color during their ten minutes, and I say no to that; the ten minutes every day must be spent writing, and if they exhaust their topic, they must start a new one. These are the simple-to-follow rules that earn them full credit in my grade book.
I have two regular routines in my classroom that earn my kids regular points for my grade book: 1) daily Sacred Writing Time; and 2) weekly Vocabulary Activities. If you want extra credit from Mr. Harrison, you do those two routines like you're asked, but then you go above-and-beyond with them. You make them stand out. You make Mr. Harrison want to photograph them and post them to his classroom .
No matter how many resources you give them, you'll still have students entering class topic-less a few months into the school year, and you need to front-load for those kids. I used to suggest that students who knew they'd have trouble coming up with a topic every day make some lists early on. The purpose of these lists? To serve as topic banks, to serve as pages the students can consult when they need a ten-minute writing topic fast. "Make a list of ten things you would have no trouble writing about." "Make a list of five people who deserve a good telling-off." "Make a list of your friends you'd put in a fictional story and explain what would their story would be about?" These suggested lists worked; at least, they worked for the kids who took the suggestion to write them down.
I am sure a writer's notebook program can be maintained without good teacher modeling. I have worked with plenty of teachers who have very successfully implemented an SWT-like routine without ever starting their own writer's notebooks and without ever writing alongside their kids. "Do as I say, not as I do" works for a lot of teachers in a lot of different teaching contexts, and I can't pretend I've never used that philosophy myself when designing certain types of instruction. But teaching writing is special. Writer's notebooks are special. Sacred Writing Time is...sacred. When they witness me participating in the same process and when I show them what I am doing and how my thinking is developing, something magical happens between me and my students that can't simply be explained; it can only be experienced. I wish I could explain it because it's what drives me to continue teaching writing in the way that I choose to. "I've never had a teacher like you, Mr. Harrison," they have written to me so many times now in their end-of-year cards and letters, and they're right. It's because I freely share my writer's notebook with them. Sadly, there are not enough of us doing this. I write when I ask them to write.
Each fall semester, I start off the process of sharing writing by having some new summertime entries ready to show my new batch of kiddos, so they can hear how my SWT entries have begun shaping my thinking about topics that I may actually write longer papers and short poems about. I actively seek out unique ideas over the summer to explore through several ten-minute quick-writes, and I make sure to plan my summertime entries so that some time can lapse between my writings, so that my own thinking can develop in between my visits to my writer's notebook. A writer's notebook is for developing ideas, not for publishing polished ideas. A good writer's notebook needs to be messy. Mine is.
As soon as SWT time is over and we move into the day's lesson, I have students move away from their SWT partners for that day. I like my students to work alongside different people so they can hear different perspectives. I have a variety of grouping strategies I use, but with SWT partners, I also have the ability to quickly move them to one of their other two already-established partnerships in a pinch.
The purpose of an SWT partner is that each student has someone they feel comfortable sharing his/her writing with after SWT, if there is time to do so. We don't always share because there isn't always time, though it really only takes two minutes if you give each partner one minute to read something aloud from his/her notebook. There are days when kids aren't real happy with what they wrote during that day's SWT, so by rotating partners, I can always say, "Share something new you wrote in your notebook from the last week," and I can guarantee they can find something to share that they've not shared with this partner before.
Concerned teachers during my trainings and workshops ask, "What if they write about a topic that's not okay for the classroom?" At every training, I get asked this--most recently by a third grade teacher, which I found fascinating. Have third graders de-evolved since I last had a classroom full of them? My kids just don't attempt inappropriate topics. Early on, I establish the rule that SWT topics and writings must be 100% classroom appropriate, and that "If it would make my sweet grandmother blush," they don't write it down. Recently, I've begun a home-based writer's notebook that I don't show my students because it has more adult-oriented thoughts, jokes, and word-play (I wrote two very funny pages about , for example). Why did I start that notebook? Because several of my students told me they were keeping their own notebooks at home so they could write using the language of their peers. Krystal, one of these students, assured me, "We're not writing anything mean, Mr. H. We're just expressing ourselves with words we really use." And...I do trust them. These are the kids who've heard me disapprove when they made fun of former Speaker of the House, John Boehner's, last name in their classroom writer's notebook. And I told them they couldn't paste a printed meme with "D'at Ass" written on it next to their writing. They're in eighth grade, and I'm almost fifty, and they have the Internet at their fingertips; if they're keeping a personal writer's notebook at home, I know they're not writing anything too terrible in them. Plus...they're keeping a writer's notebook on their own. Author Ralph Fletcher would be thrilled that they've picked up the practice as a life-skill. Isn't that more important than stressing about their use of PG-13 language? I think so.
One student I recently graduated into 9th grade--Gerry--is a great example of how good writers need freedom to show off their best skills. In seventh grade, we write our first literary analysis essay. I know, how very Common Core of me, right? For three weeks, my students analyze Steinbeck novellas for theme, writing style, setting, and dynamic characters, then they plan a formal essay. We pre-write, draft, respond, revise, edit, publish, conference...the whole gosh darn writing process with a state-sponsored standard (or two) as our chief objective. In a perfect world, this writing workshop experience would help all students produce one of their best pieces of writing, right? Hardly. Forced writing formats, purposes, and topics don't always push a kid to discover his best writing skills. This is the essay Gerry published after our three-week writing workshop and in-class analysis of John Steinbeck: .
First: The two pieces of writing displayed here come from the same student. Which is better? Which should end up in his student writing portfolio? Common Core and newly adopted state standards push for more informative and argumentative writing assignments, and I have no problem with that. I have a personal collection of great expository assignments, and when I teach debate and rhetoric, most of my kids have a fantastic time, and they don't even realize how much writing and research I'm making them do.