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The Heinemann Fellows: Kate Norem on Supporting Purposeful Student Writing

Kate Norem is a Heinemann Fellow with the 2014–2016 class, and has been an educator for ten years. In today's post, Kate asks how to create a writing classroom that supports and extends purposeful writing.

By Kate Norem

Last May, my students Margaret and Bernie bounced up and down in front of me begging, “Is it okay if we bring our book home over the summer, work on it, and then bring it back to school next year?” Later that week, I noticed Maria sneaking her writer’s notebook out to recess. As much as this made my heart flutter—as much as I wanted to tell myself (and my administrators), “I did it! I made them fall head over heels in love with writing!”—the hard truth was that the writing my second graders were pleading to work on was not writing I had assigned. It was not writing I had spent hours planning and we had conferred about every day in writing workshop.

Maria was secretly writing a play to give me as a wedding gift. Bernie and Margaret were creating an “Encyclopedia of Bacteria” for our school library. Katelin and Lulu were making advertisements and business proposals for a dog-walking business, and Lucia and Cici were writing a song about composting to convince their classmates to be environmentally responsible. These very different pieces of writing were creative, ambitious, and highly motivating, and I ended the school year wondering, “What is it about them that hooked some of my most reluctant writers?”

What is it about these creative pieces that hooked some of my most reluctant writers?

In June, I had the honor to travel to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and meet with an extraordinary group of educators from across the country. Our task as Heinemann Fellows was to question, to share, to wonder. Three thousand miles from my classroom in Seattle I had the time and space to explore my question.

As I reflected and talked with my colleagues, it became clear that the writing pieces my students had worked on had two things in common:

  1. They were the students’ idea. I hadn’t assigned or planned the writing they had pursued in those final weeks of school.
  2. They had a meaningful and authentic purpose: they had an audience and would live on after the students completed them. The students were crafting real writing that meant something to them personally.

Could I replicate this type of writing experience in my classroom as my primary writing curriculum? How would this change impact my teaching and my students’ learning? How would I balance the students’ need for instruction with their desire for autonomy and purpose?

This year I am exploring this action research question: “What purposeful choices can students make that impact the quality of their writing and what teacher moves best support these choices?” Ultimately, I hope to create a writing classroom that supports and extends the kind of writing Maria was sneaking onto the playground and Margaret and Bernie wanted to work on over the summer. I am eager to discover what happens when I merge purposeful instruction with the student-driven writing that promotes my students’ motivation and engagement.

Although I am a teacher-researcher each and every day, I have never undertaken an “official” research project before. Where will it lead? I am both terrified and energized by the possibilities, and I invite you to join me on the journey.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Kate Norem is a fourth grade and second grade teacher at the Bush School in Seattle, Washington. Her action research question asks: "What are the differences between a genre-driven writer and a purpose-driven writer?"

Follow Kate's progress on Twitter @kate_norem.

Visit the Heinemann Fellows page.

Posted by: Digital EditorPublished:

Topics: Heinemann, Heinemann Fellows, Student Writing, Writing Workshop, Kate Norem

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