Some instructional approaches reinforce internalized and institutionalized racism and bias. Teacher-centered direct instruction can create relations that rely on compliance, obedience and approval-seeking — and in a public school setting, this dynamic is often with a white teacher and students of color. We often teach English language use, grammar rules, or genre forms as something emergent bilinguals are being invited to and need to “get right” before they’re even permitted to innovate.

Instead, we need instructional approaches that teach the English language and genres as tools they can wield with as much power or more than a native speaker.

In wanting to dismantle these structures at our school, we upended the existing approach to ELA with a goal of transferring more decision-making power to students. First, we brought in a workshop model to reduce teacher talk time, shift teacher to coach focusing on student strengths, and increase student time to write.

This transition was not easy. Several teachers just didn’t think our students were capable and wanted to hold onto a teacher-centered approach with homogenized scaffolds and texts that were far far below grade level for all students — all of which serves to reinforce dependence on the teacher.

Here, I want to share an instructional strategy that has helped push us further. It comes primarily from books by Linda Rief, Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti.

Quick Writes

For my students who often do not feel ownership over the English language yet, quick writes brought low stakes analysis, fun, and inspiration to writing that “free writing” and teacher-created prompts just didn’t. But this didn’t come easily. Since we always want the students to dig into real writing immediately, and all have choice over topic and genre, studying a mentor text seemed impossible: How would we study so many? How would we choose the right mentors for all of them? 

How did we implement this with newcomers?

Inspired by the writings of Maren Aukerman, we structured the quick write lessons to emphasize student agency and discovery of their strengths. we didn’t want to teach genres as something to “get right”, but as a flexible tool that serves their purpose and audience. I wanted them to value their voices first, then how to work with a genre.

Also, the Quick Write text also often became an anchor mentor text when the class wanted to go deeper into a technique or genre analysis, or I’d use it when conferring with a student. 

1. Students Inform/Choose the Quick Write Text: I encouraged students to share with me texts they liked. For some it was videos from YouTube, for others it was songs or inspirational quotes and memes. Starting with something from the students meant they all had a way in, even if it was to discuss why the student chose it. Using text with audio, music, or video meant there was typically support for interpreting the tone. If they didn’t choose, I selected texts that were in some way inspired by what I saw they were interested in or I knew they would relate to or be inspired by.

2. Collaborative Annotations Protocol: When seeking inspiration from a text, the protocol was to choose anything — a word, a line, the tone, message, or topic — to get to writing. Often, students would identify something that spoke to them and begin writing from there. To get there, though, students followed a protocol that put collaboration first. Students are expected to learn from each other in all our core subjects, so they are comfortable with it.

After annotating, if there’s time, or in the following days, I would follow in with instruction digging into the techniques they noticed. We’d discuss what it did for us, what it seemed to be doing in the text, and then it became a reference point. (This is also why, when teaching how to identify a message or technique in a text, I have students start with where the text drew them in or made them feel something — for when I have taught strategies for the NYS ELA Regents exam).

3. Letting Their Discovery Determine the Instruction: Their first exposure to any text is to first look at visuals/text features if there are any — basically things you can notice without reading. Typically, this means they notice things like varying sentence length, interesting structure or punctuation. (This was how I ended up doing a lesson on the structure and purpose of dialogue in narrative.) And this is done in small groups annotating collaboratively.

Then they write. I don’t have them share out noticings whole class yet for two reasons: One — what hit them about the text is freshest in their mind in that moment and I don’t want them to lose their inspiration. Two — if I’m talking, I’m forcing them to process more spoken English while their short term memory is working to hold onto and transfer what they just learned from their discussion, a tool I want them to value. This is also why they should feel free to write in whatever language comes to mind first — and this cannot just a means to the English end; writing in whatever language they wish honors their bilingual identities and voices.

Sharing & Synthesis: Take Your Time

After they write for 5 or 10-15 minutes (be flexible because of time to process/work with multiple languages), they share what they wrote and what in the text inspired the writing.

As a discussion anchor, I annotate the parts they selected as they share. I can use it to plan a follow-up lesson for the next day or to help synthesize their learning as a class. (I can’t say I have the best method for this: sometimes I’d annotate the text in a different color per class section or save 4 separate annotated copies, depending on the amount of digging in we were doing).

Click here for post #2 on how we structure lessons and post 3 on how we selected texts. 

P.S. A Note About Remote Instruction

I will say this has been EXTREMELY, PAINFULLY challenging if not impossible to teach this way over Zoom during remote instruction. I don’t mean using mentor texts, but teaching in a student-driven, constructivist way. Students do not want to turn cameras on and often don’t want to talk. Many do not have home environments that allow for concentration (And neither do I in my additional mom-as-teacher role!), and many are experiencing anxiety, depression and increased stress.That is why, as I was writing this, I kept shifting back and forth between present and past tense. *sigh*

So, aside from just trying to talk to kids, I am trying to use technology like NowComment (easier sign-up process) even though I’d prefer they use Hypothes.is) for collaborative annotation and Eduflow now has a Discussion capability, which I am using for writing shares. And while I still have an open genre approach, I record 3 different lessons (just 5- 10 minutes each) — 1 for writing poetry, 1 for dystopian narrative, and 1 just a diary reflection — for their quick write. Students choose 1.