Writing is Elemen‘tree’: A Visual, Auditory, and Tactile Framework for Navigating the Writing Process

Lyndi Maxwell, PhD


This article describes how teachers can use manipulatives, visual aids, and poetry to help students navigate a process-approach writer’s workshop.  The workshop is presented as being analogous to how a squirrel navigates an oak tree, as the squirrel represents the writer, each part of the oak tree represents a stage of the writing process, each acorn represents an element of writing, and the harvested acorn collection represents the finished piece of writing.  A rhyming verse accompanies each stage serving as a reminder of what each stage entails.  The workshop includes the following six stages: 1) rehearse; 2) write; 3) receive; 4) revise; 5) publish; and 6) share.  Each stage is discussed individually in terms of: 1) writing activities; 2) an example of how to apply each stage to whole-class interactive writing; and 3) an example of how one student applied each stage to his own work as he transitioned from interactive to independent writing.


     “I’m done!” “I already checked it.” “Nothing needs fixed.”  Writing time seemed to sound an alarm of restless third-graders hurriedly making these claims.  Discouragement would immediately set in, as I knew it wasn’t “done”, they hadn’t “checked it”, and a lot of things needed “fixed!”  I wondered why, even after modeling and interactively writing our way through the writing process, students consistently struggled to retain and execute it.  It was spelled out so clearly and sequentially to me: 1) pre-write, 2) write, 3) revise, 4 ) teacher conference, 5) edit, and 6) publish.  Where was the disconnect?

Eventually, the work of writing research pioneers such as Don Graves (1983), Nancy Atwell (1998), and Lucy Calkins (2003) illuminated my mistakes.  I had not made writing the predictable, recursive process that students needed.  Instead, I had expected them to take leaps and make assumptions that, without explicit instruction, guided practice, and specific feedback, are not developmentally realistic for third-graders.  Specifically, I had expected them to read their own writing, find fault within their own writing, and revise it into something that was “good enough” for me.  They had no conceptual understanding of the writing process, and I had been conflating my “teaching” writing to their actual “learning” of it.  In reality, our “writing process” looked more like this: 1) student writes something, 2) reads it to me, 3) I edit it and return it, and 4) students neatly rewrites draft, having produced a final piece that showed no noticeable growth from the original one.  It had become to feel more like my grade than theirs, and problematically, I had allowed it to become more of a transaction rather than the transformation I had envisioned.

My students needed writing instruction opposite of what I had been giving them.  They needed to write within a systematic framework to understand that writing is not a transaction, but a transformation in which they see their thoughts and ideas take shape and unfold.  They needed to understand that writing is enhanced through social interaction via peer conferences, teacher conferences, and also through individual reflection.  Most importantly, they needed to experience the sense of pride that comes with seeing how far one’s writing has progressed.

While the writing workshop I implemented is derived from the seminal work of Graves (1983), Atwell (1998), and Calkins (2003), it supplements their work in that it provides students with a predictable, comprehensive visual display of the writing process.  Moreover, it combines visual, auditory, and tactile modes of learning (See Figure 1).  For instance, students visually see each stage of the writing process, which provides a sense of comfort and understanding of where s/he has been, where s/he is currently at, and what s/he must do in order to progress to the next stage.  Students benefit from accompanying rhyming verses, which signify the writing expectations at each stage, while they also move a squirrel around an oak tree as a representation of oneself progressing through each stage of the writing process.  Please note that the intent here is to guide students in understanding the stages of the writing process, rather than an in-depth how-to guide to enhance the quality of students’ writing.

The purpose of this article is to share how in a rural Midwest, general education classroom  I implemented a process-approach writer’s workshop complete with the aforementioned visual, auditory, and tactile components to guide twenty-one third-grade students through the writing process.  A research and theory section first underscores the importance of early childhood writing and briefly describes the workshop’s theoretical framework.  This is followed by a description of the workshop’s conceptual model, and proceeded by the “Writer’s Workshop” section, in which the following six stages are discussed: 1) rehearse; 2) write; 3) receive; 4) revise; 5) publish; and 6) share.  While it is understood that the writing process is recursive rather than linear and not every student will progress through the workshop in exactly the same manner, in the interest of clarity, each stage is discussed sequentially in terms of: 1) the writing activities; 2) an example of how to apply each stage to whole-class interactive writing; and 3) an example of how one student applied each stage to his own work as he transitioned from interactive to independent writing.

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Dogmatism and Teaching Writing

Alexandra Glynn

The great writing textbooks seldom prompt aspiring writers to be certain. The ancients assumed that they would already be, so there was no need to discuss it. The moderns deride certainty. But how many times have writing teachers had to correct an “I think that the political atmosphere is…” by deleting the “I think”? And put a question mark in the margin next to “People generally believe in my opinion that we are all…” and the like? Fish states that the advice found in books like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which he sums up as “write short sentences, be direct, don’t get lost in a maze of piled-up clauses, avoid the passive voice, place yourself in the background, employ figures of speech sparingly” is helpful only as it relates to a purpose (37). So people learning to write need to know what their purpose in writing is, and what their audience is. But it is also true that the problems of long sentences, indirectness, masses of vague clauses, and the like, come from writers who are not certain of what they think, or what they are trying to argue.

Wayne Booth once illustrated the need to address root causes when he wrote of a man he worked with who had taught composition many years and who was “incapable of committing any of the more obvious errors that we think of as characteristic of bad writing” but yet this gentleman “could not write a decent sentence, paragraph, or paper until his rhetorical problem was solved.” In this particular instance, the rhetorical problem was that the gentleman had to find “a definition of his audience, his argument, and his own proper tone of voice” (139). Once he was able to be sure of even a few important things, he wrote wonderfully.

Nowadays, as mentioned above, a rhetorical problem is the lack of certainty. The creeds that laud lack of commitment are found in all intellectuals from French philosophers to Samuel Beckett, and even T. S. Eliot says, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time” (510). Thus the emphasis in writing studies in on exploring and being creative, not on understanding and repeating to others that which is true. Susan Sontag, writing about Roland Barthes summarizes his style as confidently asserting yet it “insists that its assertions are no more than provisional” (427). Not many people can be so unsure and still write well.

The problem of lack of sureness also comes at least partly out of the celebrated romantic ideology that “the act of composing is a kind of mysterious growth” that comes from the great well of wonderful things that is in each person (Young 132). Forsyth, in The Elements of Eloquence, notes this truth about the romantics that they celebrate the individual’s creativity above all else. He also says there is a notion out there that if “somebody learns how to phrase things beautifully, they might be able to persuade you of something that isn’t true” (4). So, I might add, the beautiful phrasing is left to the demagogues, hucksters, and charlatans who are unafraid of persuading people of that which is not true. But whether lack of sureness is from an over emphasis on celebrating the creativity that is in each of us, or if it is from a commitment to the truth that there are no truths, it seems to me it is still an issue worth discussing. I think perhaps even a student’s desire to cheat comes from being assigned a certain controversial topic about which one is not at all sure of anything.

In terms of teaching writing, when the dominating ideology is that we are never allowed to settle on an assertions and be sure of them, the teacher is to design “occasions that stimulate the creative process” (Young 133). What results, it is widely thought, is always worthwhile, good, and should be agreed to by all, even if it logically contradicts that which comes out of someone’s own well. Now, this can make for interesting compositions, all this creativity and experience-arguing, but is that the only possible way to teach writing? People are reasonable, or assumed to be, and when presented with two incompatible truths they don’t all automatically weave leis and dance around the oak tree celebrating diversity of thought. Mainly students get confused. And their confusion is reflected in how they communicate. They cannot write a thesis statement because they don’t think anything is true for sure. Alternatively, as writing teachers constantly see, they write four theses statements in one paper. Continue reading

Infographic-Making Activity

Infographic-Making Activity

By Michael MacBride

[pdf version here: MacBride-Infographic-activity]


To encourage the use of charts, graphs, maps, and other infographics in student writing.

Approximate Time Required: 30 minutes

Materials Needed:

  • A computer with access to the internet and access to the video “Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories” available a number of online locations, including: https://vimeo.com/53286941 or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-84vuR1f90
  • It also helps if the class has access to a computer lab, or their own laptops, but this can be done as a handwritten activity also.


Just as photographs can convey complex ideas efficiently, so too can graphs, charts, maps, and other infographics. Students tend towards citing statistics and cluttering their writing with attempts to regurgitate difficult source material. Though summary and paraphrase should certainly be encouraged, having students create a graph, chart, map, or other infographic is a creative way to encourage them to employ the skills of summary and paraphrase without their realizing that’s what they’re doing. In order to create a unique infographic, students need to have conducted research and have the ability to understand what they’ve read and find a pattern (or sense of organization) in the material. Not only are these infographics insightful and useful to liven up student projects, but they are also deceptively complex to create (but very rewarding when completed).

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Five ways in which high-quality literacy instruction can increase student interest in our content areas

“Five ways in which high-quality literacy instruction can increase student interest in our content areas”

By: Kelly Birkett

[pdf version here: Birkett-FiveWays]

Each year, on the day after Labor Day, the invasion begins.  We stand in the hall next to our classrooms at the sound of the warning bell, and feel the adrenaline rush through our veins as we hear the sound of excited chatter of our new students.  It continues to pulse through as we go through a checklist in our heads — are the seating charts finished? Is the bulletin board bright and colorful enough? Will our students actually get something out of our classes this year?  I know on that first day I think about the successes I have had, and I also reflect back on things I’d like to change.  I would like to fix those days when I felt like I would get more response out of a jello mold than my students.  In my first sentence I referred to the arrival of the kids as an invasion, and what I meant by that was it was an invasion of student robots.  They come in each day to sit at their desks or lab tables, and proceed to meticulously take the notes that I give them, or do the lab activity that I give them, or work on a project that I give them.  Yes, it is very teacher-driven, so, what happens when they actually have to…wait for it…READ something?  If our students are only doing enough class work to just get by, the likelihood that much of what they are reading from a disciplinary text is being absorbed into their eternal long term memories is, well, not very likely.

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Building Literacy in all classrooms

Building Literacy in all classrooms

by Melissa Brandt                   

[pdf version here: Brandt-BuildlingLiteracy]                   

As new teachers embark on the challenge of the classroom, they are given a barrage of guidance: be nice to students, but not friends; care, but be firm; establish rules, but let the kids work out the procedures; incorporate high-quality literacy, but keep it interesting. It’s enough to send the faint of heart running for the hills. There are plenty of resources available to help guide teaching in appropriate rule setting, but what about the incorporation of literacy? The good news is that there are resources for literacy challenges, too. Answers that will help keep kids learning without sacrificing interest in any content areas. In fact, all of these challenges can be accomplished through a change in mindset, an understanding of disciplinary literacy, and an inclusion of literacy techniques in a classroom setting.

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The “Write” Track: Effectively Leading Your School to Incorporate Writing in Every Classroom

The “Write” Track: Effectively Leading Your School to Incorporate Writing in Every Classroom

by Dr. Jennifer Simpson

[pdf version here: Simpson-TheWriteTrack]

Currently, 42 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the Common Core State Standards (NGA).  Minnesota adopted the ELA standards, but not the math. Within the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, there are specific writing standards that have been a traditional focus for the English teacher. In addition to this, writing standards are provided for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. This shift from writing typically being an “English classroom issue” to preparing all content teachers to teach writing is an issue for administrators specifically at the high school level. Additionally, administrators and teachers must strategically plan how to give writing instruction more time and focus each school day. A high school example of writing across the curriculum, and how to implement the model are described to offer some suggestions for leaders who want to focus on writing.

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Featured Article–Implementing Tabletop Gaming in the English Classroom: Promoting Literacy through Interactive Gameplay

Implementing Tabletop Gaming in the English Classroom: Promoting Literacy through Interactive Gameplay

by Mike P. Cook, PhD, Ryan Morgan, and Matthew Gremo

[pdf version here: cook-implementing-tabletop-gaming-in-the-english-classroom]



Table-top gaming, at its core, is simply a term used to refer to any social game that is traditionally played in person around a table. Over the years, the term itself has become an umbrella for all forms of board games, but in gaming culture it is most commonly applied as a label for various role-playing systems. While the concept of a role-playing system may seem like a rather complex idea to fully comprehend, it can most easily be explained as a traditional game that has been stripped of all of its fluff and niceties in order to exist as a system of bare-boned mechanics, which govern gameplay. The entire history of the characters within the game, as well as the entire story and how those characters interact with it, is created and executed by the players themselves while operating within this system of overarching rules and mechanics.

The onset and initial popularity of roleplaying systems can most easily be traced back to the 1974 publication of the original Dungeons & Dragons. Since the inception of the original D&D, however, a myriad other systems have spawned under the same guiding principal of creating the structure by which players could relate and interact with their own stories. One of the most popular of these systems was released by Paizo Publishing in 2009 under the title Pathfinder. While the system itself was a fairly direct reflection of one of the many modern versions of D&D, it varied in two very important ways. First, the system itself is more accessible, as some of the more complex and troublesome mechanics of the original D&D systems have been stripped in order to facilitate more streamlined gameplay. Second, and perhaps most important, Pathfinder offered free digital publication of all of its materials. While Paizo did, and still does, publish vast tomes of rules and mechanics for the Pathfinder system—in the same vein as D&D—all of the materials are available for free online to any player interested in engaging with the system. Because of these two very important differences, the Pathfinder system became the springboard by which our new roleplaying system could be created and implemented in the ELA classroom.

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My Not-Quite-Scientific Composition I Experiment

My Not-Quite-Scientific Composition I Experiment

by Jeanette Lukowski

[pdf version here: Lukowski-My Not-Quite-Scientific Composition I Experiment]

Although I have been teaching college writing courses non-stop since I first entered the classroom as a T.A. in 2001, and have taught for a number of universities and community colleges in both Minnesota and Wyoming, Fall 2014 was the first time I taught an online class. I wasn’t exactly avoiding teaching online… I was just never told to do one until my annual contract was renewed in Fall 2014—with the caveat that I teach an online Composition I course.

In all honesty, I dreaded teaching online. “How am I supposed to put all of what I do,” I said to my mother over lunch, running through a short catalog of facial expressions I use in the classroom, “into a box?” Continue reading