I got rid of my writing class. My students are better writers for it.

Here’s how I teach writing to elementary school students now. 

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

A few years ago, as a kindergarten and first grade teacher, I was in a constant panic over the state of writing in my classroom. Nearly every one of my students was a resistant writer, and I had this deep-seated fear that I was setting them up for future failure. There I was, supposedly preparing them with all the foundational knowledge to move onto second grade, supposedly igniting their passions for the core academic subjects.  But it felt like all I was doing was pushing them away from an essential content area that they would need for the rest of their lives. 

I needed to try something radical. 

Katerina Watson (Courtesy photo)

So, I got rid of writing units and scrapped the writing period altogether. I knew that this decision was controversial and that other educators thought I was having a mental breakdown. I wasn’t. Informing my decision was the realization that writing isn’t a craft that exists in a vacuum. One would be hard-pressed to find a profession or a discipline that doesn’t involve writing. So why should I treat writing as a separate entity just because it’s what we’ve always done?

When I had a class period specifically dedicated to writing, I noticed students would complain whenever writing was required in other content areas. I’d hear things like, “Why do I have to write? This is science!” and “I shouldn’t have to write about this! We’re in social studies!” Even seeing writing on the schedule would prompt anxiety and stress in some students that led to major task-avoidant behaviors and a series of complex intervention plans.

The first year I took away our writing period was magic. There was no struggle montage or necessary buy-in to build. My students were new to my class, new to school, and didn’t have any expectations when it came to having a writing class period. They were ready to accept the reality that was in front of them.

Instead of focusing on a single type of writing during one class period per day, students write during every class period and hone their narrative, opinion, and informational writing skills all year long. At the start of the year, I set the expectation that writing is part of every content area, and they came to understand that writing makes up large parts of their academic day. 

I wish I could say that I had research backing up my decision to drop my writing period. I didn’t. This wasn’t data-driven; rather, it was driven by my fierce commitment to make writing work for my students. Now, though, I have mountains of data demonstrating my students’ impressive growth.

My students write far more than they ever did when I had a writing period. And they simultaneously understand that writing is an expectation across fields and disciplines. Part of the success is that students are writing with purpose. They’re not stuck wading through one type of writing for several months at a time. Instead, they may end up writing an informational piece, a response to literature, their opinion about a current event, and a narrative, all in one day. My students get exposure to all types of writing, and they learn to recognize genre and purpose early in the year. 

As the year progresses, I give them choices in how they respond to various learning occasions, and their answers impressively demonstrate their knowledge of the various writing styles. One of my kindergartners will ask questions like: “Should I respond with a factual information piece about what we’re learning about frogs or write my opinion to share why I think frogs are cool?” My students understand how to differentiate and recognize the various classifications of writing and can use their own judgment to choose a style that makes sense for communicating their message. 

Although I started this approach to teaching writing when I worked in larger classroom settings, I’ve found that it is just as effective in my current special education classroom, where I serve students with various learning and social-emotional needs and diagnoses.  

I remain very happy with the decision my younger self made, and writing units are not something I ever plan to bring back. These days, I get to see my first graders write five-paragraph essays in a single class period, kindergartners craft compelling theses, and students write persuasive essays that advocate for the changes they want to see in our world.  

This fall, I’m stepping out of the classroom to take on a more administrative role, in which I can begin to generalize this practice across our campus and help teachers foster every student’s identity as a writer.

Katerina H. Watson has worked in education for over 13 years, specializing in inquiry-based special education and therapeutic behavioral interventions. She is Founder and Head of School at EPIC Academy.