Teachers for Teachers | It’s Monday! Close Writing – Teaching Students Where to Look, But Not What to See #IMWAYR
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It’s Monday! Close Writing – Teaching Students Where to Look, But Not What to See #IMWAYR

In chapter 1, the author, Paula Bourque, writes, “It is my hope that through this story you will help your students discover where to look but not what to see” (9).

As soon as we read these words, “where to look but not what to see,” we paused. In only eight words, Paula captured the essential mission of writing teachers.  Our job as writing teachers is to foster each student’s writing identity and help them develop a repertoire of techniques and strategies to use independently.  Our job is not to fix their writing; it is to help them discover their voice and the power of their stories.  “Where to look but not what to see” are words we want to remember, as they are the essence of teaching writing.

Throughout this text, Paula shares practical ways to bring these eight words to life.  Through vignettes, she takes us into classrooms to see teaching in action.  We loved reading these stories and noticing ways to teach students how to step back from their work, study their writing, and set their own next steps.  Paula’s “how-to” charts after each vignette summarize the teaching technique, making it easy to try out these new ideas with students.  Here are several strategies and techniques from Close Writing we are excited to explore with teachers and students:

1: Teach Writers How to Read Their Writing:

Paula teaches students how to read their writing from different authorial stances, and she calls these stances, “Read for ME” and “Read for YOU” (20).

She explains that when we first teach students to read their writing, they need to read it for themselves – Read for ME.  As they read, they ask themselves:

  • What am I really trying to say?
  • Do my ideas flow and connect well?
  • Do I like my word choice? Could I say something better?
  • Does my writing make sense?
  • How does this writing make me feel?

Next, she teaches students to reread, but this time they try to see their writing through the readers’ eyes – Read for YOU.  Students learn to set aside their ideas and really listen for what the reader might experience:

  • Can I read this through your eyes?
  • Do I have enough details so you can visualize?
  • Are there any places you might get confused?
  • What else might you want to know?
  • Have I made it easy for you to read?

When students reread with these different stances, they learn that rereading their writing is a way to honor their work.  Rereading isn’t about finding mistakes; rereading helps writers make sure their writing says want they want it to say.  Taking the time to teach these two authorial stances, and giving students opportunities to practice, sends an important message to writers – their writing matters.

2. Let Students Discover the Patterns of Quality Writing

In chapters 4 and 5, Paula shows students how to study a mentor text, rather than solely using mentor texts as teaching tools in her lessons.  We love the reflection Paula shares about her planning process. “When I spend hours poring through books, searching, thinking, analyzing, reasoning, evaluating, and then the students interact with those materials for three to five minutes, I have to wonder, who has done most of the learning” (54).

Paula, we couldn’t agree more, and we love the question you pose to alter your instruction: “What if I planned some opportunities for our students to discover those patterns of quality writing that emerge in the books they love?” (54).  This question is essential!  Putting kids in charge of “the discovering” gives them more ownership over their learning. When students notice and wonder about the choices an author makes, they are more apt to try out these strategies in their writing because they “discovered” it.

Paula explains that using student writing as mentor texts also makes applying new strategies more accessible for students. She says, “Sometimes the gap between published authors’ work and student work is so wide that students cannot bridge it” (61).   She urges us to continue to share high-quality children’s literature with students and read aloud student writing.  When we use student writing as mentor texts, we elevate our young writers and give students models they can emulate.  As student writing skills progress, they can study more sophisticated texts.  Once they know how to study a text, close reading becomes an essential part of the writing process that students can use independently.

3. Setting Goals

We love the way Paula teaches students how to read their writing closely to set their own learning goals.  Sometimes Paula shows students how to reread with just one lens.  Instead of reading everything in their writing, they delve into one part to see what you can notice.  Other times she shows students how to take a “wide lens” and look at multiple pieces of their writing.  Both of these processes show students how to notice patterns in their work, reflect on how the particular strategies are working, and to try new writing techniques.  Once again, the process of self-reflection puts student in charge of their learning.

4. Taking the Pain Out of Editing

So many students see editing as something they have to do when they finish a piece.  But Paula helps students change this mindset and makes editing a part of everyday writing.  She weaves quick editing lessons throughout her teaching and makes time for editing many times a week.  Rereading your writing becomes a daily task, rather than a daunting task you must complete when you finish a piece.

From teaching students how to edit with their ears, not their eyes, and showing students how to read their writing backward, Paula shares many strategies to teach students how to edit their work.  We love the example Paula uses to explain the gradual release of responsibility process in editing.  She begins by pointing out what a student needs to fix, then tells the student to look for specific conventions.  After editing with scaffolds on many pieces, students are more successful editing their work independently.  The chart Paula created describing these steps is one to keep by your side when helping students who have difficulty editing their work.

You won’t want to miss the final chapter in this book.  Paula interviewed several authors about their writing process, and she shares these interviews with readers.  These interviews will help young writers understand that the strategies they are learning are also used by writers they admire.  We can’t wait to read aloud these interviews during writing lessons.

Thank you, Paula, for taking us into so many classrooms with you.  We love learning alongside you and the teachers in this book.  This text is filled with new ideas to help students become reflective writers who can discover important insights about their work, and more importantly, discover important insights about themselves as writers.


Check out the Stenhouse website to get a free preview of the book and to see a video of Paula talking about Close Writing.

  • Avatar
    Posted at 20:45h, 05 February Reply

    This books is interesting to me as a writing teacher. I teach most of what you have outlined. It is great advice. My only issue is editing as you go. The problem I see is most students come to college with no clue there is a difference between revising and editing. If the focus in those early stages is on fixing grammar, most students never move past it. The ones that are willing are more hesitant because they feel they have put so much time into editing, they have difficulty letting go and being willing to make significant changes. I teach students to be free of grammar concerns. Obviously, if something stands out, fix it. Focus instead on content, organization, development, and such. Why fix grammar mistakes on content that is evolving and may be remove completely? Most grammar issues are smoothed out by the end. However, I teach short cuts for how to fix the glaring ones. I have to work so hard to get my students over the grammar focus hurdle. As a result, my experience has taught me that grammar as you go is not optimal.

  • Avatar
    Linda Baie
    Posted at 23:55h, 05 February Reply

    Though I’m no longer teaching, it feels like this is a book I would have embraced. I love “Our job is not to fix their writing”. As a lit coach, I did try to convince teachers that they were not the editor. It worked sometimes, but teachers told me that parents wanted to see “perfect” instead of seeing students progress in their own revision and editing. Such good points are made here!

  • Avatar
    Jane @ Raincity Librarian
    Posted at 01:16h, 06 February Reply

    This sounds so fascinating, I honestly can’t ever remember having lessons like this in school – all I remember are red pen marks all over my work, pointing out endless mistakes, really discouraging! I’m so glad to see this kind of teaching that strives to give kids skills and confidence, rather than just specific knowledge.

  • Avatar
    Myra from GatheringBooks
    Posted at 03:00h, 07 February Reply

    What wonderful, sound advice right here. Should work for my graduate students too who are writing their thesis!

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