When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I would read “Little Women,” “Black Beauty,” and the “Anne of Green Gables” books, dreaming of when my first book would be published. I decided to apply my love of writing to journalism in high school and later in college, planning to major in journalism. That dream died when I realized that it required an aggressive mindset and tough outlook, neither of which I really possessed at the time. I wanted to make the world a better place, not hunt down the tragedies to be the first to report.
As I shifted gears and trained to be an educator, I realized that I could have the best of both worlds. I could make the world a better place through my classroom, and I could share my love of writing with my students. Here are some of my writing instruction woes and “whoas” ….
When I first started teaching, we didn’t have a structured reading or writing curriculum. You were given a list of grade-appropriate books aligned with “Guided Reading,” and ready- set- go…. teach literacy!! There was no explicit guidance for teaching writing. I remember the look of my 4th grade students when I assigned them a three-paragraph essay to write overnight. “Say what???” I had several parents call me (e-mail was new back then) and ask, “What’s an essay?” Frustration fed frustration during that year as my lofty dreams of essays, short stories, and poetry boiled down to teaching confused students how to write a complete sentence and create a structured paragraph. I learned- no matter what grade level, you *always* start with complete sentences. Always.
After having a baby, I was a team-teacher with a veteran teacher in 2nd grade. She taught me a lot about writing in elementary school- you have to make it fun!! Essay topics don’t inspire great writing. Creativity is inspired by having fun and being part of a supportive community. Quirky questions, touching topics, and hands-on activities inspire great writing. Writing is the most vulnerable area of education—we ask the students to put themselves out there when writing down their thoughts, dreams, and ideas. I learned to create a safe and fun environment before my students are pushed as writers.
I experienced the challenge of teaching an emotionally-disabled child in the general education classroom a few years later. I have always had high expectations of my students as writers, and I believed they could be pushed and pulled to become great writers. After getting bit, punched, and kicked by this enraged child when I asked him to complete a writing project, I learned that writing is the subject that can trigger students with behavioral disorders to act out. Yes, they have modifications and accommodations for writing instruction, but the vulnerability of the writing process needs to be analyzed and applied to each individual child with a behavior disorder. Throughout two decades I have seen well-behaved students with ADHD, autism, ODD, and OCD fly into rages and tantrums because of a writing lesson. I learned to approach writing with these children like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom.
Inspiring literacy workshops and professional developments were at their peak in the late 90’s. That was the age of whole-language literacy, and the elimination of the rigid scientific structure of phonics facilitated the freedom and inspiration of innovative literacy instruction. One fabulous training I attended was through The Wright Group, teaching educators how to create a balanced literacy program by intertwining reading and writing to support the growth of each other. The one teaching practice they hammered repeatedly throughout a three-month series of meetings: great writing starts with teacher modeling. Model, model, model. Every aspect of writing should be modeled with a think-aloud, applying the same expectations that are required of the students. Take time to share your true ideas, thoughts, and memories. Make yourself vulnerable!
The two dreaded words for any writer: editing (and) revising. It starts in Kindergarten when the excited five-year-old happily writes the next great American novel in a string of letters, and then their teacher has the *audacity* to write “real words” above them. It moves into primary grades when the teacher asks the students to capitalize words and add punctuation. “Why? My story sounds great!” Then the real tears begin in higher grades when you want them to analyze the completed story with a partner and add revisions. “How can I change my masterpiece?” My theory is that it boils down to vulnerability once again. We pour out our heart and soul into text, and who wants our innermost thoughts and feelings analyzed and evaluated? I’ve learned that finding real-life authors to share their revised and edited drafts with students help them understand it’s not personal!! Also, the most valuable revising tool ever- students shouldn’t read their own story aloud to a revision partner. Hearing your own story come from someone else’s mouth helps highlight errors without excessive drama.
Writer’s Workshop. ‘Nuff said. It’s the most powerful tool to teach writing I have used, no matter the grade level. When students are allowed freedom of content and time to create writing masterpieces, structured by writing mini-lessons and individualized goals, they develop self-discipline and develop the love of writing. I’ve seen struggling writers blossom as they hear their peers’ stories read aloud in the Author’s Chair. They find new topics to write about and are excited to share them with an audience. Haven’t tried it? Go on, take a leap, and try!
I have always been frustrated that writing is consistently the very last subject for most schools to focus on for professional development, scheduling priority, and interventions. Yet through writing, you can find out more intimate details about your students’ feelings, beliefs, and family struggles through their personal narratives. I’ve found out when a student was homeless and struggling through his journal entries!! Writing can help you diagnose students’ speech patterns and missing phonological awareness errors.
Writing is powerful.
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