Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Focus on Writing

One of our fabulous 4th grade teachers at Willow Creek attended a workshop by Gretchen Bernabei that focused on STAAR Writing. I hope you will find her insights helpful in planning your writing instruction. Gretchen Bernabei's tips are helpful for all classroom teachers, not just those in grade levels with the STAAR Writing Test.  However, Gretchen does seem to understand the different demands of the test and how we can help students find success.To learn more about the STAAR Writing format, check out this handout from Gretchen's website: STAAR Genre and Format. Also, her website,, is fully stocked with additional free resources and information.

A Focus on Writing

In the fall, I had the opportunity to attend a Gretchen Bernabei workshop focused on STAAR Writing.  I found her ideas to be simple and refreshing.  Too often the minute details of the writing process are overwhelming, even intimidating, to teachers and students. Students struggle to see themselves as successful writers and the idea of creating a full page piece seems impossible.  

11 Minute Essay

Gretchen’s approach using the 11 Minute Essay, gives students an immediate sense of ability.  While it is not a polished piece, it is a great start.  I was excited to take it back to the classroom and pleasantly surprised with the writing my students produced in such a short amount of time.

The idea of the 11 Minute Essay is for students to be guided through their writing in individual sections using a prompt (G.B. refers to using her Lightning In A Jar). For the first minute, students reflect and write their idea/opinion/thought about the prompt. They only have 60 seconds, so students must get straight to the point. When the timer is up, students take a deep breath and think about a story connection (this might be a book they’ve read, a teacher has read to them, or any story they’ve heard that relates somehow to the prompt). Students have three minutes to make the connection, explain it, and write it down. Time’s up, take a deep breath! The next three minutes are spent writing about a movie connection (this seems to be a favorite in my class). And for the last three minute section, students take a deep breath…and make a personal connection to the prompt. In the workshop, we made a history connection but I found my students struggled to connect and we have since opted for the personal connection instead.  Finally, the last 60 seconds! Students take a deep breath and spend their final minute reflecting and connecting their writing back to the prompt. The first several times we did this, students were flinging their hands in the air from “writer’s cramp” with smiles on their faces! In 11 minutes (15 if you count the deep breaths and thinking in between sections), students write close to ¾ of a page or more.  They were thrilled and felt successful.

Here is a handout that MISD created walking through each step of the 11 Minute Essay.

Gretchen Bernabei has a plethora of ideas to use to extend and polish the 11 Minute Essay such as “pitchforking”, AAAWWWUBIS!, “lasso and brand it”, and BaDaBing Sentences.  These and many more, are easy to incorporate and can be found in her resource Fun-Size Academic Writing for Serious Learning. Gretchen also has a website with many of the tools used and additional resources at

Check out these books by Gretchen Bernabei:

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