Article #2
The Writing Block
Cheryl M. Sigmon

Questions keep popping up on the mailring lately about the Writing Block of the 4-Blocks Model. So, this week's column will focus on aspects of that block that may help to make implementation smoother. Let's see what folks are asking...

How much time is needed for the Writing Block?

Each of the four blocks of this model needs a minimum of 30 minutes daily. Writing Block will take approximately 30-40 minutes daily. You're likely to find that the more confident your students become as writers, the more time you're likely to need. Don't, however, extend beyond this time. Your students need to know that it's okay not to finish a composition in one sitting. They need to learn to return to the same composition the next day to extend that piece of writing.

How do you get students who haven't had many writing experiences to write for sustained amounts of time?

In the very beginning, especially when students haven't had the frequent opportunities to write, you will need to start with smaller amounts of sustained writing time. For example, after you model your lesson, you'll set a timer for 10 minutes of writing time for the students. At the end of those ten minutes (which, of course, in the beginning will seem like a long time for kids who don't see themselves as writers), tell the kids they have three choices for the next 5 minutes:

  1. keep writing if they'd like to finish something
  2. stop and share what they've written with a friend
  3. stop and illustrate what they've written
Students enjoy the options and the responsibility that comes with choices. As time goes by, you'll find more and more students choosing the option of continuing with what they're writing.

What are the basic components of the Writing Block?

This block is similar to a Writers' Workshop approach to writing. There are three segments that should be included in each daily block of approximately 30-40 minutes. First, the teacher will model his/her own writing for the students, including a quick edit (using the Editor's Checklist) and a mini-lesson on some writing skill or strategy. This first segment usually takes approximately 10 minutes. Second, the students will write at their desks at whatever stage of the writing process they choose. Some will be starting a first draft; some will be continuing a piece from the day before; some will be meeting individually with the teacher for a final edit before publishing; and some will be publishing and illustrating their pieces. The students will write for about 20 minutes when they are comfortable with the task of writing. The third segment of the block--one that unfortunately gets omitted in many classrooms--is the sharing time, which takes about 5 - 10 minutes. That's when a couple of students get to share in the Author's Chair what they have written. There are also variations of ways that the class members can share with one another.

What's the best way for teachers to model their own writing?

Teachers should sit at an overhead projector, closely simulating how students will sit at their desks to write, and write their compositions on a lined transparency. Using lined transparencies similar to whatever type of paper the students are using is best! That can be achieved by copying the paper, whether half-and-half or regular lined or first grade, in your copy machine and onto a transparency. For those teachers who have color printers, you may reproduce a nice color transparency with the blue and red exactly like that used by the students. The closer your model can simulate the student's position, paper, etc., the more effective your model is likely to be. That's the reason, too, for using the overhead while sitting in a chair and facing the students, rather than standing at the blackboard with your back to the children.

Teachers should not try to create models of writing that are so exemplary that students feel they can never achieve what the teacher is writing. Teachers should write about ordinary things. One main intent should be to show students who are emergent writers that writing is telling--and that everyone has something to tell. Students will love best your stories about your real life--your baby's first experience eating pudding, your dog's antics, your husband's or wife's pet peeves, what you did when you were their age, etc. This is a chance to share some of yourself with your children and for you to set them at ease about writing.

What else do I need to know about the modeling process?

Talking and thinking out loud as you write are absolutely critical! What you think out loud and how you share that thought process are just as important as what actually goes on the paper. Many kids have no idea how to make the choices that a writer makes as he navigates the page. You must help them understand how to do that, starting with how to choose a topic to write about--"Now what do I want to tell you about today? Let me see... I could tell you about how my car wouldn't start when I left school yesterday...or I could tell about my husband's birthday party that we celebrated last weekend...or I could tell you about my cat's trip to the vet on Monday. Yes! That would be a funny story to tell about!"

You will want to model the use of the many resources that you have available for them in your classroom, especially the Word Wall and any theme or topic charts you might have hanging. "Oh, I can spell ‘because' correctly since it's on the Word Wall." "The word ‘orange' is right there on our chart of colors, so I can spell it correctly." You should always expect them to spell the Word Wall words correctly, even on their rough drafts. That's the purpose of having it visible at all times and of spending so much time working with those high-frequency words daily.

At some time, you need to model what to do if you have "writer's block," since we all get that occasionally. Give the students some strategies for finding ideas to write about when they're stuck. One morning you'll say something like, "Gosh, boys and girls! I just can't seem to think what I want to tell you today. Maybe if I look around the room at the pictures, or if I look outside and describe what I see, or if I look in my journal at the idea brainstorm list that we've made...". They'll soon catch on about what they can do when this happens.

Talk as you continue to write, making decisions about what the title will be and how to decide that, where you'll start writing on the paper, how to "stretch-out" words that you don't know how to spell, and where to put punctuation. Let the students know that rough drafts don't have to be perfect. You'll do a quick editing job (using the Editor's Checklist) at the end of the piece, just enough to make it more readable. Let them know that there will be a more thorough editing if that piece is selected to publish.

What kinds of mini-lessons should be included in the modeling?

Some of the first mini-lessons you'll want to include in your modeled writing will be the basics that will go on your Editor's Checklist. Most of those items will be the conventions of writing--simple grammar and mechanics: capitals letters at the beginnings of sentences, end punctuation marks for each sentence, a title, misspelled words circled, etc. Teachers should always strive, however, to move beyond simple conventions to teaching more about compositional elements. A list of mini-lessons used by teachers with whom I work is given below for your reference:

  1. Actual class procedures for the Writing Block.
  2. Rules for the Writing Block made by the teacher and the students.
  3. Words that author's use such as draft, publish, illustrate, revise, edit, proof, dedication, etc. (Introduce only one a day.)
  4. Correct conventions of grammar and usage (parts of speech, subject/verb agreement, etc.).
  5. When to use capital letters.
  6. Punctuation marks and how they're used.
  7. How to set a scene (setting).
  8. How to combine sentences for sentence variety.
  9. How to develop ideas.
  10. Different genres of writing (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, mysteries, fables...).
  11. How writing can have a particular voice.
  12. Examples of good writing and styles of various authors.
  13. How to add to a story.
  14. How to change a story.
  15. Using synonyms to make writing more interesting.
  16. Creating an interesting lead sentence.
  17. Staying on a topic.
  18. How to write a letter.
  19. How to take notes.
  20. How to write up an interview.
  21. Making a brainstorm list.
  22. Writing riddles, jokes and rhymes.
  23. Writing news articles.
  24. Using student writing as a model (Be careful to use only students' good examples in the class or they may hesitate to share.)
What kinds of topics should I assign students during the Writing Block?

This is the really great part--YOU DON'T ASSIGN THE WRITING!!! You will teach your students that they have many things to tell about from their everyday lives. You'll be modeling daily that it's the everyday things you want to hear about. You'll sometimes model writing different genres--stories, "how-to" expository pieces, directions on how to get somewhere in the school, a thank-you note to the cafeteria workers, and many, many more types of writing. Occasionally you may need to guide them through a piece of focused writing, a piece of research or a letter; however, you will need to trust that students will write best about what interests them most. Set a risk-taking environment and allow them to build their confidence. Just because you're not assigning all the topics and not guiding them through all the stages, doesn't mean you're not "in control" of the classroom.

There's still so much to talk about for the Writing Block: How do I get started with the Editor's Checklist? What goes on an Editor's Checklist? What do I do during the individual conferences with students? How and when should we publish our work? What different ways can we share our writing? When is it appropriate to have the kids peer-edit their work? BUT, THERE'S ALWAYS NEXT WEEK!

4 Blocks Goodies