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Slice of Life 19: Standing on the Shoulders…

This morning, nearly 100 educators gathered on the first morning of their spring break—on a morning they should have been sleeping in—to talk about writing.

I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t known much about the Six Traits of Writing until the last year or so. I had heard it mentioned in conversations at the writing project, and I had seen the term posted here and there in my reading and research. But more often than not, underneath any workshop or book description related to the Six Traits were the words “Grades K-6” or “Grades K-8.”

It’s not that there isn’t a lot to learn from my elementary and middle school colleagues. Actually, it’s the opposite; many of the changes I’ve made to my classroom—anchor charts, classroom libraries—are standard in most elementary and middle school classrooms. But I think like most teachers who already have little time to devote to PD, I try to focus on the PD that seems most directly and immediately applicable to my own teaching situation.

This year’s PAWLP Spring Mini-Conference focused on “Writing for the 21st Century.” As I rode up the elevator and read the sign, I thought about the appropriateness of that title. I think when most people think about writing instruction for “the 21st century,” they think about digital writing. They think about the digital tools, websites, apps, and programs that are all the education buzz these days. They think about the ways that digital platforms have changed the way students write and the way teachers teach writing.

Yet although the environment may have changed (and continues to), writing is still writing. And what made effective writing in 1863 when Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg address or in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail is still what makes effective writing today. King didn’t have Google or blogs; he wrote his letter with nothing more than the paper and pen he had in his jail cell.

Today’s mini-conference was about what makes writing effective in the 21 century which, it turns out, has very little to do with technology. Instead, Dr. Jolene Borgese’s keynote address was a welcome reminder about the Six Traits of Writing—a reminder about the importance of writing process, of putting the decision-making power of writing into the hands of our students, of finding ways to better assess and confer and empower.

During the keynote, Jolene spent a few moments reviewing the history of the teaching of writing, some of it, I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t know. She talked of James Britton, whose research on fluency and form paved the way for the venerable Don Murray, whose research on authentic, real-world writing helped shift writing instruction to the process-driven approach we use today. With the Six Traits, we now have the power of common language to talk about writing with our students, to help them think through and make decisions about their writing in much the same way real-world writers do all the time.

Later in the morning, we were able to Skype with Vicki Spandel, whose book Creating Writers has quickly become one of my go-to books on the teaching of writing. Vicki’s passion for not just writing but for students – and for putting students’ first – was inspiring. Allow students to find their voice, express their ideas, give them the time, space, and tools, she told the audience. Yes, yes, and yes.

slice of life

This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 300 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit


  1. What a glorious day you must have had. I’m jealous. Donald Murray, Donald Graves, Shelley Hawthorn, Lucy Caulkins and Katie Wood Ray – there are so many writers of whom we stand on the shoulders of. I’m so glad your PD included the history of these writing process teachers. We should be forever grateful for their work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lynnedorfman

    Sure hope you are putting this slice on as well. Great summary of PAWLPday! I thought it was fabulous, too! Like the friendly, conversational tone here.

    Liked by 1 person

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