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Teaching Middle School Writers by Laura Robb Review

teaching writing 

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I have hit the ground running with my professional development Books To Read (#BTR) list starting off with Laura Robb’s “Teaching Middle School Writers.” Even though I am a reading teacher, I am not sure how you teach reading without incorporating writing. My goal for the upcoming school year is to figure out how to best do it. Truth: I do not think my current model is the best. But reading this book has allowed me to fine tune, plug holes, and create a game plan for what will work best in my classroom for my students and their needs.
This book covers a lot and is an easy read with ready to go strategies and lessons. It even includes a DVD of resources! 
Robb starts out by looking at research. Research that she and others have performed to understand the reasons why middle schoolers write and the gaps between personal writing and writing they do at school. This spoke to me on many levels because I am a firm believer that research and data MUST inform instruction. It is the why you are doing what you do (also because my degree is in psychobiology so I get all tingly pouring over research).  The research shows that middle schoolers are writing outside of school and educators need to tap into what gets them to do it:
1. choice
2. collaboration
3. personal/ relevant to their lives
4. technology driven

1st Takeaway

I have been fortunate that thanks to Donors Choose, I have been able to slowly add Chromebooks and IPADS into my classroom. I do have 8 desktop computers, but my district requires either the READ 180 program or IREADY program so my desktops are normally reserved for my students to get their usage in.  The added Chromebooks and IPADS have allowed me to increase the level and use of technology in my classroom with apps such as PicCollage, Padlet, and all the resources Microsoft now has for education ( I will blog later on my recent MIE training and certification).
Next year, my goal is to have my students blog and share ideas and book reviews. If you have any experiences with this such as site suggestions, please share in the comments below. I’m thinking of either Edublogs or creating a Google site.  I want students to be able to blog at school and at home- whenever the inspiration strikes them! I do not give homework except to read so this added feature will be a hassle- free method to keep students learning even at home. Robb dedicates an entire chapter on 21st century digital literacies where she makes suggestions and provides examples of how teachers use them in their classrooms.

2nd Takeaway

Writing plans are a foundation for writing well. Of course many of us teach students to brainstorm and plan, but how many students execute? Reading Robb’s book made it also dawn on me something that I haven’t been doing: different writing genres require different writing plans. Throughout her book, she provides examples of writing plans from literary analysis, journals, or analytical writing plans. Noah needed a plan for the ark, they need a plan for their writing.

3rd Takeaway

Maybe instead of using rubrics to grade, use Writing Criteria. Rubrics tend to be focused on the negative (such as lost points for not having proper capitalization). Students should be a part of developing the criteria that will guide what they include in their writings and SHOULD be based on what was taught. If you have instructed in small/ whole groups about satisfying endings, then that should be a criterion but if there hasn’t been instruction on transitions then that shouldn’t be a grading criteria but now a part of your “Need, Plan, Teach”. In addition, the students can use their writing criteria to self-edit and peer edit. This saves you much needed TIME because “students use the criteria for a piece to reread, revise, and edit before you read the draft to give feedback and a grade” (pg. 225).

4th Takeaway

Our goal is to create independent learners- be it independent readers or independent writers). Kylene Beers in my most recommended book, “When Kids Can’t Read" discusses the name Struggling Readers and to rephrase to Dependent Readers. Students vary on their levels of dependency and we must build their independency by modeling and scaffolding them. It takes time and they might move from being dependent on you to help them with a topic to ending the year on being dependent on you to help them edit, but that is ok. They are moving and transitioning.
One way that she suggests to help our students develop independence is by conferring. “Conferring with your students is the ideal opportunity to scaffold, revisit a lesson, and reteach to unconfused students on a lesson” (pg. 259)
Robb gives suggestions on how to make conferencing happen either scheduled or what she calls Making the Rounds where she goes around a couple a times a week in an unscheduled fashion to confer and support students. During conferencing she suggests to talk less and listen more. I KNOW I MUST CONFER MORE! This is one of those holes that I must plug in the classroom because I cannot let this opportunity escape me from being able to meet my students where they are and help guide them towards independence.

5th (most important) Takeaway  

As a former literacy coach in the fourth largest school district meaning I have been in hundreds of classrooms and worked with dozens of teachers and if there is one takeaway I would impress upon my readers it is this: Your instruction has to be based on something more than “I saw it on Pinterest”, “the teacher next door does it”, or even “the pacing guide says it”. Robb emphasizes this point when she says “students writing inform instruction” (pg. 98). How else will I know what mini-lessons to do unless it is student driven. If my students do not understand basic parts of speech, how can I move on to sentence diagramming or a lesson on strong verbs if they cannot even spot the verb in a sentence? Donalyn Miller in her much loved book, “The Book Whisperer” discusses the wallpaper in our classrooms as those practices that we do just because. If you are a new teacher or a veteran, spend time to think about what guides the work that we do. Just like doctors, our methods have to be sound, precise, and methodical.
teaching strategy

Last little ideas Robb delves into throughout her book:
1. Cooling off period between drafts
2. Separate revising from editing
3. Reading out loud for editing
4. Big 10 Revision strategies
5. Self-evaluation

If it is not apparent then let me say it quite clearly: GET THIS BOOK! Reading, writing, language arts teachers. Easy and worthwhile read and what I like best, I can have lessons to do right away.


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