End of Year On Demand Writing

It’s Tuesday. Time for Slice of Life writing with Two Writing Teachers. Thank you  Tara Anna Dana Stacey,   Betsy  and Beth for providing this space for our writing.  Join us every Tuesday to read or write a slice. You can find more  here. 
11454297503_e27946e4ff_hI had this idea to have my students write final on demands to see what they are walking out with. Granted there is summer and they will lose a little before they walk into 6th grade, but a final on demand at least will be a benchmark of where they are at this point.

The information and opinion units were still fresh in their minds. We did work in both domains during May, so most students knew what the genre required and could approximate the writing. I was pleased to see what they had held on to. Narrative on demands, with a unit at the beginning of the year, was another story. It was …. abysmal. So many started out… One day.. or, I am going to tell your a story…, or When I was in fourth grade...I wanted to cry. All of what I thought they had was not so. It looked nothing like the post assessment on demands that followed the unit.

You’d think that narrative writing work would be embedded within all writing.  Every unit of study we teach students to tell micro stories to illustrate their ideas. And they did sort of. But it seems for my students, who are really writing novices, just holding on to the purpose and structure of the various genres is about all they can manage. They wove a bit of narrative into their opinion work, but not enough to get them through a narrative on demand.

With one real teaching day left in the year, I decided I couldn’t just let them go on to middle school without trying to discover why the narrative went so wrong. I had theories I wanted to test. Why narrative was such a stumbling block. Was it because they forgot how narrative goes, or because they couldn’t do it. I decided to show them the narrative mentor text and ask them to compare it to their on demand narratives.

As I passed out the mentor text, I heard, “Oh!” and “Start with dialogue.” and “Can I re do this?”

Inside I thought ok. They just needed a reminder. I just haven’t done enough of this.

We met on the carpet and I asked them what they noticed.



Internal thought.

It’s only a short period of time.


The problem is solved in the end.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. In fact these ahas have been taught to these students since they were in kindergarten. I didn’t mention that, I just wrote their responses, and said hmmm.

They talked about what to do next. Many wanted to re do. I released them from our meeting area as soon as they were ready.

One student stayed. He sat there and after about 5 minutes got to his desk. And then he sat there, looking at his paper. I gave it some more time and then I asked how it was going.

Him: Not good.

Me: How so?

Him: I don’t know what to write about. It’s hard to do this on demand.

Me: Say more.

Him: I always go back to the same old stories, the time when my brother was born, the time at Disneyland, my birthday party. I don’t want to do those same stories.

Me: What about what you wrote for your on demand last week?

Him: But that was just about all the fun I had, there was no problem.

Me: Hmm. (Actually there were problems he just didn’t see them.)

This student knew what elements he needed. He didn’t want to do the same old thing he’d done in the past and he couldn’t fit the present moments with his writing needs.

Another student sat with a page filled staring into space.

Me: How’s it going?

Her: I’m trying to add in more detail about how I felt here. It’s hard.

Me: Yeah. I know. Keep it up.

Another very creative student just sat and stared at a doodled on page.

Me: What up?

Her: I just don’t have anything to write about. It is hard to come up with an idea and just write.

Me: Hmm.

She didn’t write anything in the end. Maybe just a bad day.

After all was said and done. The majority of students showed they could do the work. For some, my brief conversation showed me they knew what to do. They knew what was required and that is what stopped them. For some finding an idea was overwhelming. They wanted a story, but nothing appeared.

The true understanding of how all of this writing stuff works seems to take time and lots of practice.

Is narrative writing harder?  Does it take more of us? Do we need to do it more often?

What are you finding with your on demand writing assessments?





16 thoughts on “End of Year On Demand Writing

  1. When I read posts like this, I wish you were right across the hall and we could have this conversation after school!!! I love that you thought and decided that they needed this on demand writing and I love, even more, that when you saw students struggling your first thought was WHY and you regrouped with a mentor text and more teaching! And you did all of this with one day of school left. You see them and what they need! On demand writing is tough and I love how you wandered and supported as necessary. I personally find narrative writing the most challenging and I struggle with so much of that…wish you had been my teacher! 🙂

    • Oh Michelle, I feel the same way about being across the hall from you! While I can’t share the daily things that happen, sharing in this amazing space is wonderful. Thank you so much for your comment and the posts you share on your classroom life!

  2. This sounds like a conversation we have had at school A LOT! I don’t know if I think narrative is necessarily harder than informative or persuasive. For me, it’s getting the kids to INDEPENDENCE on any genre. We have written and written and written, used mentor texts, rubrics, plans, etc. They do really well with a little pre-drafting coaching, but when they have to do an assessment, it’s not always so pretty. I keep thinking of that line, ‘It takes a lot of slow to grow,” it’s from an old Eve Merriam poem. I wish both you and Michelle were at my school so we could have these conversations in person!

    • Very good point about independence and the Eve Merriam poem. I also wonder about the the developmental side of our students. What are they really ready to do on their own. Thank you for your input. The comment is the next best thing to being there. Maybe someday I keep thinking I will sit down my friends I “talk” to on Slice of Life Tuesdays!

  3. What a way to end the school year! Reflecting on everything that you have learned, and still working with students. I find narrative very difficult for students to master. At least for my older students find informative writing much easier.

    • I wonder as students grow older they get too critical or self conscious of their small moments and that’s what stops them. Thanks for the input!

  4. I wonder if it’s something about “Is this the right story?” or “Is this story worthy of telling?” I struggled with narrative writing last summer at the TCRWP Writing Institute and had actually forgotten how much I hated writing narratives until I had to produce one. Since then I have been writing narratives that are less painful, but I really don’t like them any better. I have just made my list of small stories bigger so that I have more choice.

    The teaching and the on-demand at the end of the year were so critical! Every day is so important and I love that you are still focused on student learning and creating that student independence. The kids will continue to work on the bridge between “knowing steps/moves in their heads” and “crafting their story”. It’s not yet automatic – not executive control!

    Remember to celebrate all that they CAN do!

    • Thanks so much for your input! I thought of you as I wrote this! This year the middle school my students feed to is starting the TCRWP Units of Study. I am so excited that their years of elementary school work will be continued. Hopefully more will grow to move further along that bridge of understanding.

      • I have sixth grade teachers who will also be continuing the work of my 5th grade team. I am so looking forward to “bridging understanding” and continuing to figure out “when do they know what they know?”

  5. Time and practice…and patience. I know exactly what you mean, Julieanne – it can be a bit despairing to invest all that time and then read hastily done narratives. But, they know what to do…you’ve helped them internalize good writing habits, and that reminder is just the gentle push they need.

  6. I enjoyed hearing your own conferring with the students, Julieanne. At our school, we don’t do any testing, kids just write, in all kinds of ways, so I am a little stumped as to advice. My one thought is that conversations in the group may help. We think that different kinds of ideas flow when one tells a story (a narrative), so giving students a chance to share all kinds of experiences may help them find a topic, & a way to create the ‘twist’ at the end, or the problem solved. I’ve modeled this by choosing the overall theme (restaurant experiences, vacations, food, fights with siblings or friends, etc.) then letting a student begin to tell. Then I and the group ask questions to gather the details. Those are the ways that writers often work, asking questions. I love that you were still sharing thoughts on writing to send your students off with a bag full of ‘how-tis’!

  7. I appreciate this Slice of teaching – I think we all feel this way at one time or another – like we’re not sure our teaching ‘stuck’. Don’t be hard on yourself, narrative writing is tough, tough, tough. Bravo to you for going back and making a final effort! That’s great teaching!

  8. I dread on-demand writing, both as a writer and as a teacher. When I have to write, my mind tends to go blank. When my students write, I keep worrying, and am sad when the result doesn’t match what I know they are capable of doing. Fifth graders are still young and creative writing is challenging. The students need layers of teaching and practice, and sometimes it takes time until the learning surfaces.

  9. For us, it seems that narrative is a positive because we do so much of it. The informational and opinion is what we are weak in. I ditto what everyone else has said and I commend you for doing this so late in the school year. I really like Fran’s advice about focusing on what they CAN do – although that is hard sometimes when what they can’t do is screaming at you! I also agree with Michelle about teaching across the hall! Wouldn’t that be a dream world!

  10. I love that you are one of “those teachers” who teaches right up to the very end! I had the same thoughts today about narrative writing. “Shouldn’t they be doing narrative all the time by adding little stories to hook the reader and make the writing interesting?” And I really loved the part where you brought out the mentor text and the light clicked back on and all the good teaching you had done in the past was remembered and accessed in their brains. I enjoyed reading your thinking. Thank you for sharing!

  11. Perhaps the pressures of the end of the year on demand writing combined with narrative writing is just like that of the “final cumulative exams” of the high school years to come! When we ask them to draw together all the knowledge they gained over the last nine months and connect it with dialogue (with correct punctuation), emotion (often hard to express clearly) and action (hard to compete with visual examples they have seen and experienced in movies and games) the expectations have been set very high. I agree that celebrating the “CAN” is so very important. After all we are ALL works in progress. Two steps forward and one step back. I have yet to become the writer I would love to be. My list of “books to read” seems to grow quicker than the list of “books I have read”. There is always laundry to do, weeds to pull and dishes to wash. We are a work in progress. Just like our students we need cheerleaders and coaches along the way to set us back on our feet and remind us of all we have gained thus far on our journey. Your carpet chat and your words of encouragement were just what they needed! 🙂

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