The Responsive Writing Teacher: A Hands-on Guide To Child-Centered, Equitable Instruction
By Melanie Meehan & Kelsey Sorum
In The Responsive Writing Teacher, Melanie Meehan (an elementary writing coordinator and educational blogger at the magnificent Two Writing Teachers) and Kelsey Sorum (a kindergarten teacher) provide a broad perspective of what it means to be a young writer and what it means to teach them as a writer-teacher. What excites me most about this title is how it drills down into perhaps the most important aspect of all teaching, but particularly writing, that of responsive teaching.
As we do with all our write-ups, I will review the book using the 14 principles of world-class writing teaching (Young & Ferguson 2021).
- Build A Community Of Writers
‘An important element of culturally responsive teaching is that students see diverse representation within the classroom environment and its resources. What message will students see about themselves and the world when they look around?’ (p.95)
The authors explain early on that there are a number of ways in which we can be responsive to the needs of our young writers. These include:
- Academic – ensuring new skills and content match students’ abilities and goals
- Linguistic– ensuring language(s) used in instruction and in the classroom environment are accessible and inclusive of home languages
- Cultural – ensuring a diverse representation of authorship and within the content of texts
- Socio-emotional – ensuring a safe and supportive environment for taking risks and overcoming challenges in the writing process
For Meehan & Sorum, building up children’s writer-identities forms a major part of building a loving and safe community of writers. They share a number of practical ways in which teachers can support and invite children’s funds of knowledge and funds of identity into the classroom including:
- Producing ‘identity webs’
- Inviting children to interview one another
- Writing ‘I am…’ poems
- Producing multilingual books
- Creating writing posters and resources which authentically reflect traditionally underrepresented learners
- Inviting children to co-construct the posters and resources that are used in the classroom
- Selecting mentor texts which reflect children’s funds of knowledge and identities including multilingual texts
- Participating in class writing projects and writing alongside learners
- Treat Every Child As A Writer
As the title suggests, this book’s biggest strength is its focus on responsive teaching. Meehan & Sorum provide a treasure-trove of advice on ensuring your writing classroom is as equitable as possible for all apprentice writers. In particular, they offer tools and resources for ensuring English language learners have equal access to writing and being a writer.
- Read, Share, Talk & Think About Writing
‘Students often have great insight into what makes things challenging for them.’ (p.20)
What’s striking about the authors’ practice is how they bring children into the conversation about what they need to learn most and how they then teach the children how they can do it for themselves. For too long, asking children what they need instruction in has almost been seen as cheating. However, Meehan & Sorum powerfully and convincingly show how teachers can invite their learners to read, share, talk and think about writing with them. This includes advice on how to undertake student-driven planning, goal-setting and assessment.
- Pursue Authentic & Purposeful Class Writing Projects
‘Adapting writing [projects] so that they align with students’ interests contributes to a stimulating writing environment and positively affects the quality of student writing.’ (p.40)
Throughout the book, Meehan & Sorum show how you can move from predetermined units to writing projects that are authentic and purposeful. For example, in chapter two, the authors share valuable questions teachers should ask themselves when teaching a class writing project.
Before a project:
- What will the class do?
- How can they do it?
- What strategies can help?
During a project:
- What are the class not doing yet?
- What might be getting in the way?
- What strategies might help?
After a project:
- Where can the class go from here?
- What aspect of this work is particularly engaging for them or can be expanded upon?
- Pursue Personal Writing Projects
While the authors share examples of how we, as writer-teachers, should pursue our own personal writing projects, they don’t consider within this particular title how such time could be made for children to do the same.
- Teach The Writing Processes
‘Knowing how writers write is as valuable as knowing what they can write’ (p.18)
Meehan & Sorum provide really valuable tools for collecting information about the writing processes and writing behaviours of your class. As we know, teaching young writers about the writing processes is one of the most effective practices a writer-teacher can employ. The authors also make the case that to teach about the writing process, teachers must consider and perhaps even diagram their own writing processes.
- Teach Mini-Lessons
‘Responsive plans are made from a place of knowing. No curriculum writer, no plan maker knows the writers in a classroom like the teacher does. A responsive writing teacher crafts instruction that aligns with students’ developing skills.’(p.49)
Throughout the book, the authors share what must be one of the most important questions we can ask our apprentice writers: What helps you learn? The authors then share what you can do with the answers. In addition, they show very practically how you can use your own writing to teach high-quality and responsive mini-lessons.
- Be Reassuringly Consistent
It’s exciting to see Meehan & Sorum advocate for the reassuringly consistent routine of a contemporary writing workshop approach. Through such an approach, they explain how students are provided with high-quality instruction. They are then afforded significant amounts of time for writing and given the opportunity to talk and share their developing compositions with others. Finally, they acknowledge the powerful relationship between reading and writing.
- Balance Composition & Transcription
While it’s insinuated through their mention of revision and editing checklists and their discussion around the explicit teaching of the writing processes, the authors don’t go into much detail about how teachers can ensure a balance is kept between teaching about the compositional aspects of writing and how teachers can get students to focus on transcriptional accuracy. I suspect teachers would like to know more about how this is achieved by the authors in their classrooms.
- Set Writing Goals
One of the things that always impresses me about American writer-teachers is their ability to see their classroom as a ‘third teacher’. And so it is with Meehan & Sorum who provide a whole chapter on how ‘charts,’ posters and working walls can bring an accessibility to teachers’ writing instruction. Through different types of charts, the authors show how they can not only set children challenging and achievable writing goals but also show them how to achieve these goals successfully. They suggest the following types of charts:
- Genre charts – share the typical features of a certain text-type.
- Process charts – detailing the processes writers go through during writing time.
- Strategy charts – show how you can use and apply a certain skill or literary technique.
- Reference charts – a visual reminder of something the children will need to do time and again.
- Checklists – help children keep track of their progress towards set goals.
- Goal-setting charts – help learners know how to achieve a certain writing goal.
- Pupil-Conference: Meet Children Where They Are
While no specific advice is given on how to conduct pupil-conferences, I would argue there are already plenty of texts out there that do that brilliantly. Instead, this text shares a vision in which all aspects of writing teaching are open for ‘conference’ and discussion.
- Be A Writer-Teacher
‘Demonstration texts that are intentional and explicit keep students at the forefront – representing, engaging, inspiring, and inviting young writers in.’ (p.143)
Both authors strongly advocate for the writer in ‘writer-teacher’. They make a compelling argument that teachers who write grow (p.144):
They suggest that teachers mirror and participate in class writing projects throughout the year as well as immerse themselves in their own volitional writing projects for the benefit of both themselves and also for the children they serve.
- Literacy For Pleasure: Connect Reading & Writing
‘Mentor texts provide students with inspiration and examples of writing elements specific to each genre. Making thoughtful choices about the texts for each unique class of writers is paramount, considering the content, language, and representation within the text and in the authorship. Such decisions can increase the connection children make with texts and authors; the connection children make with each genre; and the connection children make with themselves, as growing writers.’ (p.113)
Meehan & Sorum ask two important questions when it comes to the reading/writing connection:
- Who are the writer-teachers students need to see and learn from?
- Whose stories do students need to hear?
There is also an important distinction made between using a mentor text and using mentor texts. The authors rightly suggest that children should see a variety of mentor texts from a variety of authors (including their writer-teacher and the texts of other students) and that these texts should match the sorts of things children are trying to achieve within a class writing project.
- Interconnection Of The Principles
In conclusion, Meehan & Sorum provide teachers with much to think about in terms of equitable and responsive writing teaching. By reflecting on the wisdom shared within these pages, teachers would be perfectly placed to create a passionate, supportive and loving community of writers who write with pleasure, purpose and power.
Review by Ross Young. Ross runs The Writing For Pleasure Centre and helps convene the United Kingdom Literacy Association’s Teaching Writing special interest group.
- Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2021) Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice London: Routledge