Flexing Student Writing Muscles

How a 4th grade team created flex time to help students be more reflective about their writing once a piece is done and get better at critiquing their own writing to improve on it.

By Char Shryock,  Ohio Standards Advocates State Captain

What happens when you pair fourth graders from two separate classes, being sure that at least one is comfortable typing in a Google Doc, and ask them to collaborate on a piece of argumentative writing?  If the students are in Kelli McMaugh and Dawn Robinson’s classrooms, great writing happens.  These two teachers at Westerly Elementary in Bay Village, Ohio decided to create flex time for writing by rethinking their daily schedule.

During the first Friday flex time, the class watched as Kelli and Dawn modeled a partner discussion.  Then the students selected from 4 possible topics, Sports Teams, No Homework Policy, Lockers or No Lockers, or No Sugary Treats.  Using a blank sheet of paper, the partner teams worked together to create their own graphic organizer and a solid topic sentence.  Instead of writing sentences right from the start,  they were given 5 minutes to pick the topic, 5 minutes to generate their topic sentence and 5 minutes to brainstorm bullet points.  The remaining hour was spent using their graphic organizer and working in a Google Doc to write a first draft.

The following Monday, the teachers split the pairs up, creating small discussion groups. The groups were able to look at draft paragraphs shared on Google Docs one at a time.  For each draft, they discussed how they would decide if it was a good paragraph. With the teachers as facilitators, the kids generated a checklist of characteristics including a hook, middle organization, transition words, and closing sentences.  With each draft, they refined their thinking about their checklist.  The end result? Because all of the drafts were included in the discussions, students saw a wide range of paragraphs within their combined classes.  Kelli and Dawn heard comments from students that included, “ I am going to work on hooks” or “I need to use my reference sheet for transitions more”.  All of the students thought concluding sentences are hard!

Kelli McMaugh shared her reflection after the first set of flex writing times, “ I was excited because they were completely engaged in looking at the pieces. Because they were looking at a variety, a range, they could see that everybody had things to work on. It was authentic because I wasn’t teaching what to look for, they picked it out,organization, using specific sentences.”

She also reflected on how the writing flex time has helped her to use class time in a more powerful way, “I feel like so often they get their writing done, it takes a week to grade, and they don’t care anymore. It is so much more valuable to see it Friday then Monday, the take-away was much stronger. It was evident that at least half of them needed some additional teaching on transition.”

Both Kelli McMaugh and Dawn Robinson are continuing to refine their own thinking about how to best use the flex time.  They both agree that giving students time to collaborate and reflect on writing has given their students the opportunity to become stronger writers.

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