Purpose-Driven Writing: How Planning Differs

Before you read this, reflect on the last time you wrote something other than a lesson plan, letter of recommendation, cover letter, feedback for a student, or a check for a bill. When have you sat, pen in hand or fingers hovering over keys, wondering how to start: where is my thinking at? How do I want the reader to react? Or how to continue: Is this the right word? I know there must be a better one…None of this is feeling right or sounds like me.. Maybe I should scrap this thing completely. This is so frustrating? Oh now I’m flowing! Nope, stuck again… Ok… not bad… now how to end?

Every time I am about to write an angry text to my husband, these thoughts pop to mind lol.

But seriously, you know what I mean — real writing that does not have a form you can just google an example of. When you are really exploring a thought and aren’t sure yet where you want to go with it but you can taste what you want to say.

One thing many teachers will state as a goal for their students is developing their ability to communicate effectively, even passionately about subjects they took time and effort to explore and understand. We want the best for our students even while we differ over how we see accomplishing this, and these differences matter enough to discuss them.

In a purpose-driven writing class, we limit certain types of choices made by teachers while expanding others, to maximize the choices made by students. What does this mean?

Well, first of all, we define purpose-driven writing as a workshop approach that flows from students determining (through a process of discovery and decision-making) a purpose, an audience and a genre. Lesson plans focus lesson on specific outcomes that can be measured by the end of a period and more about how days flow and build on each other in search of students meeting goals.

As a teacher, you will focus more on how to manage the multiple spinning plates (I like relying on technology like Google Classroom, Flipgrid and Evernote for keep up with kids I don’t get to conference with) than about receiving uniform pieces of writing that are easier to grade, frankly. Your expertise with teaching on the spot (including contingent scaffolding), in a way that is responsive to each student’s purposes and needs, and your ability to listen to kids will be essential and will grow. This will be one of the reasons you’ll never go back to the old way again.

This can be a year-long pedagogical approach or begin with a trial unit, as it does take time and effort to become comfortable breaking with old ideas and taking on new ones.

First, on the teacher end: how does the planning differ?

Ideally, you are not choosing the genre. You are teaching lessons that teach into finding one’s own passions and interests. At first, you might get a lot of notebook entries that feel like journal entries or lists with seemingly-mundane subjects like riding the subway, arguments with parents, or taking care of siblings.

This is ok because the focus at first is not about production; while we do pivot much of the lessons around the writing process/recursive “cycle”, the instructional priority is always on discovering a purpose for writing and how this typically requires days of brainstorming. Even students who readily choose a topic can be encouraged – either through a lesson that uses them as an example or through a 1:1 conference — to try the different decisions an author can make, all of which depend on their purpose.

We teach how most writing is a lot of drafting, problem-solving and revising, rather than as distinct phases, although we do teach how there are distinct actions writers take for both. This book by Deborah Dean is a great resource for lessons ideas within each of these.

Sample early lesson ideas:

  • brainstorming using word/quote/image prompts. Linda Rief also has a great book of texts that can be used as “genre” or “topic” mentors
  • modeling how you start your own writing
  • gallery walks of different genres (either annotated by the teacher with text features the teacher has taught or will teach)
  • examining writers notebooks (available via google image search)
  • If you teach students with low literacy skills, teaching legitimate genres that require less reading and writing of texts can be good to introduce as models first: infographics, cartoons, memes, etc
  • Although it is not entirely reflecting a purpose-driven approach, the text 180 Days has some great lesson ideas and shows how a narrative unit could start by allowing memoir or fiction, allowing an entry point for teachers new to choice within genre.

Lesson ideas then come from student work:

  • We are going to do a “Before/After” look at this student’s text.
  • We are going to examine a challenge this student had and what they did to move past it.
  • Here is a common sticking point I’m seeing, and I want to have us all practice some actions we can take to resolve this.

I don’t typically encourage graphic organizers unless they are simple things like T-charts because we are teaching students to write without us. To conform the forms they see to their thinking/purpose/audience rather than the opposite. I have seen teachers use them by modeling with them as tools and then leaving them as options in the class, but always ask yourself if the tool’s purpose is to get students to complete something /make life easier for you (not a bad thing, but shouldn’t be the default purpose) or does it teach something they can do another way once they try the GO? Do you feel it’s required because what you are showing is actually too far above where they are now and you might be trying (unconsciously even) to skip certain steps in their process that can feel time-consuming or boring? Is that process (like figuring out what to do about writer’s block) something all writers experience and thus should be explicitly taught?

In place of graphic organizers, mentor texts really can fill a lot of the need. With newcomers, you will want to either provide (or work with students to find) mentor texts in their language or mentor texts that use a lot of images, as mentioned earlier). Mentor texts don’t even have to be read in their entirety — some have great openings or use of dialogue or use of metaphor in an argument, or anecdote in an informational piece. Some show how to cite evidence. Some are poems with lines that grab us we want to write a verse in response. Creating a collection of these — annotated for your lessons and/or student access — is essential and should be part of the initial planning stages, even though you will add to them as you go forward.

This will seem strange and possibly antithetical for how some of us view teacher roles and expertise, but I promise you it is not about undermining teacher expertise, but repositioning it. In fact, the more you know about genres, reading, writing for your own purposes, etc., the more dynamic this class can be.

In fact, teachers whose strengths stem from a love of writing and who deeply enjoy conversing with and getting to know their students and developing classrooms full of trust, risk-taking and emotional exploration and growth, will love this approach.

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