One of the biggest challenges that I face as a writing teacher is how to structure the pace of the class. How can I keep things moving, but still give students time to explore and revise? How can I give students plenty of time for writing, but still teach standards-based lessons? How can I focus my time on providing the feedback that matters? How can I ever get anything done?
Well, I don't have all of the answers, but I have found some routines and procedures that work for me.
Quick writing conferences: Students don't read what you write on their papers! I remember feeling a sense of irritation as students looked at their graded work, squinted at my carefully composed comments, put the papers aside, and merrily continued writing in the same way.
My written comments didn't mean much to them. But our conversations have meaning. When we talk about a piece of writing, I can ask questions, give input, hear the student's point of view. Sometimes our conversations lead to the student realizing that more is needed. As one boy was reading his poem aloud today, he stopped and said, "You know what? I'm having trouble reading this. Let me go back and work on it some more." Wow! This was so much more worthwhile than if he had just handed in his poem and I had written comments on it.
I don't have a special conference place, as some teachers do. Instead, I wander the room. Sometimes students raise their hands or come over to see me, but sometimes I just drop in on writers. As we talk about a piece of writing, sometimes neighboring students will chime in and offer their comments and viewpoints. We start chatting about the piece of writing, and the whole process becomes relaxed and fun. Usually our conferences are fairly short, just about 3 minutes or so.
Student writing coaches: I have also realized, though, that there are times when my voice is not what students need to hear. Then I call for a writing coach. "It seems as if ___ needs a writing coach. He's trying to find an ending point for his poem about bubbles. Is there anyone who can work with him to do this?" Then I allow the student to choose his writing coach. With fourth graders, I always give the writing coach a very specific task--not "Work on this piece" but "Find other words for twirl."
The best writing coaches are not always the best writers. Often, it's best for students to work with another writer who has struggled with a problem or worked on a detail.
Meaningful, worthwhile background work: The key to making it all work is the journal writing that I started way back at the beginning of the year. Students always have something else that they can be writing. This way, when they are finished with a project, they can drop back into their journal writing. Some students have long stories that they have been typing on the computer for weeks and even months, taking time whenever possible to add to this relaxed, no due-date work.
Reading what others have written is another great option. By this point in the year, I've accumulated several binders full of finished stories, poems, and reports that students have written. They love having the opportunity to read and comment on their classmates' work.