Monday, February 23, 2009
Once your students are writing regularly and displaying some stamina for the task, you may find yourself asking the questions –
What happens now?
What should I do to most effectively move their writing forward?
What do I say to them when I join them for a writing conference?
It is easy to look at a student’s writing and immediately jump on the mechanical aspects and teach into that. The surface features of the writing are so obvious, but they remain just a part of the teaching whole that we need to respond to as we build a knowledge base regarding our student writers.
It is important for your initial response to any student’s writing to be directed towards what they have done well in the piece under consideration.
You may find that many of your writers will develop writing pieces that contain multiple ideas within the one piece of writing. The writing may lack a clear focus.
To assist students you could consider one of the following strategies:
Using a published piece or a student exemplar, where the writer has remained focused on the one topic, have students identify the strategies used for staying focused. Encourage students to then rework their writing using the same strategies as seen in the mentor text. An alternative could be to write a new piece that is focused on the one topic or idea.
Share a piece of writing you have completed and talk through your thinking, highlighting how you kept yourself focused on the topic and developed your idea.
If one of your students needs help with this issue of focus, you could enlist the participation of the class or a small group who could ask questions and offer suggestions. The assisted writer could make notes with your help and then use these ideas to further develop the writing piece.
Helping Writers Find the Emotional Self
Some young writers will produce writing pieces that tell only the external story –what happened, what they saw. However, they fail to tell the internal story – how they feel or what they thought. You may show before and after samples of writing in which this inside/outside strategy is used. You may choose to model this for them in a personal narrative of your own.
What’s Important Here?
Sometimes student writing fails to demonstrate or recognize what’s important. All the events are given equal attention or emphasis. To assist your student writers to develop a sense of what’s important, choose a short text that your students are familiar with and have them identify the parts where the writing clearly demonstrates the importance of certain events.
Here are some other issues that may emerge at the beginning of the school year.
The Challenge of the Blank Page and the Blank Look
Remind students to use their lists/ topics as a writing ‘spark.’
Suggest that thye think about what is happening in their lives right now that is making them happy, sad, frustrated, worried etc
Remind them to think about others stories they have heard recently that might relate to their lives.
Encourage the rereading of earlier pieces to see if there is more that can be said. They may also look for ideas that connect to the earlier piece of writing.
‘I’m Finished” -Stamina/Endurance runs out after just a few lines
Encourage the student to talk about their writing. Help them to notice that they have more to note about the topic.
Have the writer talk to a writing partner who has endurance –someone who could help them to focus.
Remind them of the expectations of their writing community and encourage them to persist
Same Topic, Different Day
Encourage the student to write about the topic in a different way.
Encourage the student to discover different things to say about the topic
Encourage the student to add more ideas to their topic lists
Increase awareness of the range of ideas other writers in the class are exploring.
List- like Entries day after day
Talk to the student about what is really important about the ‘list of events’ and assist them to choose one to write about.
Have the student work with a partner and compare entries to delve into events with greater detail.
Share notebook entries that approximate the kind of writing you want to see from the writer.
Use sticky notes to assist the student to ‘tease’ out ideas that are important to include in the writing piece.
Students Use Their Notebooks Ineffectually or Inappropriately
Continue to show them examples of appropriate use
Reinforce the notion of the notebook as a place to collect, experiment, and explore writing ideas.
Tell them what you expect!
Student Choose Topics to which they have little knowledge or connectedness
Engage the student in a conversation about the items on their topic/ideas lists in an effort to identify those ideas that might be more important, or to which they have a stronger connection or knowledge base.
Encourage the student to talk to other students about the kinds of things that are providing a ‘spark’ for their writing.
The No Nonsense Guide To Teaching Writing Judy Davis and Sharon Hill, Heinemann, 2003
What a Writer Needs. Ralph Fletcher, Heinemann 1993
Mentor Texts -Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-6
Lynne Dorfman & Rose Capelli, Stenhouse, 2007
Ask your students to choose up to five random phrases from a book they are currently reading or from a series of favourite books, should these be available. The criteria for choosing a particular phrase would be its appeal as an example of good word use, or it may be that the words chosen assist them to make a connection to an experience in their own lives. This would assist them greatly when writing a personal narrative.
Ask them to then choose one phrase that appeals above the others and use the chosen words somewhere in a writing piece. –at the beginning, within the body of the text, or at the end. Before asking your students to try this, I suggest you try it yourself. Here is my attempt:
My chosen phrases from three sources:
She leaned forward earnestly searching out my face (In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje)
The gears crunched and the truck wheeled onto the main road (Heart Songs, Annie Proulx)
Dragonflies hovered above the pool. (Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko )
EXAMPLE ONE -Discovery the Pool
The bushland behind our house held many surprises. We loved to explore it whenever we could. It held no fear for us, or lat least no fear that we spoke of. On once occasion we followed an overgrown stretch of track that lead to a clearing. As we moved forward we noticed a large grey concrete pool filled with what looked like swamp water. We later discovered that what we had stumbled across was the town’s long abandoned swimming pool. As we circled gingerly around the concrete apron, peering into the murky depths, dragonflies hovered above the pool.
EXAMPLE TWO -Nana and the Coat
The prospect of going into the city with my Nana was exciting, and so was the prospect of wearing my new coat. The fact that it was summer time and quite a warm day didn’t seem to worry me. I really wanted to wear that coat. Nana tried to explain that wearing my coat was not a good idea. “It will be too hot. You should wear your coat on a cold day. Leave it home”
As we stood at the front gate, I listened carefully to her words, and then began crying. “But I want to wear it Nana!”
She leaned forward earnestly searching out my face. “Okay,” she said. “You may wear your coat, but you must wear it all day.”
EXAMPLE THREE - The Trip in the Old Truck
The gears crunched and the truck wheeled onto the main road. What a messed up machine it was. Rattling shaking and hissing down the road. I sat uncomfortably in the right hand passenger seat while David drove. The truck was a wild beast, lurching and leaning throughout the trip. David worked hard to maintain its direction. I worked hard to overcome my concern. The gears crunched loudly each time he tried to change up or down. A cry of pain perhaps...
We were hauling a load of beef to a series of Melbourne butcher’s shop in the early hours of the morning. In the back of our minds we wondered if the old troubled, truck would last the journey.
Okay, now it's your turn. Good Luck...
Monday, February 16, 2009
I was at that time enjoying a meal and engaging in what we writers call, - people watching. Studying human behaviour is both fascinating and instructive. It provides great fodder for the writer within.
A German woman entered the restaurant and was immediately seated at the next table. She then spent almost fifteen minutes ordering from the menu in an attempt to avoid ‘spicy food.’ I wondered if she had merely stumbled into the restaurant, without noticing that it served Indian cuisine? She laboriously worked her way through the extensive menu, exhausting the efforts of two waiters, before finally settling on her order.
Displaying admirable patience and understanding the waiting staff had guided the hesitant diner towards some sort of decision making. They were a tag team of sorts, changing when the dithering diner slipped into one of her several, silent pondering poses. There was to be no spice in her life!
I found myself unable to remain long enough to see if the selections she eventually arrived at, met the stringent criteria she had set. I left somewhat dissatisfied with the lack of closure to my observations. As I returned to the bustling street, I was left only to speculate. But I had fun with the possibilities.
At breakfast the next morning I observed a woman travelling with her personal tube of Vegemite. I wonder where it fits along side fried rice and other Thai breakfast options?
Decisions, such a part of living, such a part of writing…
If you have experienced this feeling, you will have greater empathy for your students and the feelings that sometimes overwhelm them as beginning writers. They often have a broad idea regarding their writing but have little idea where, or how to begin. They want to produce something that effectively conveys a message, but remain unsure of how to begin the process.
We need to recognize that it is at this point we can provide meaningful support to allay their writing anxieties.
Teaching students how to think of something to write, provides a way forward. This prewriting stage is the time for students to think and develop ideas- to find the words they need to move forward. It is a time for each writer to identify their respective writing pathways using such strategies as brainstorming, mapping, talking, reading and drawing,
It is during the Pre-writing period of the writer’s workshop lesson that teachers can provide much needed support to prepare students for the writing to follow.
Consider the following:
Allow time for talk. This will enable students to articulate and refine their writing intentions. It will allow them thinking time and an opportunity to rehearse their initial words.
Allow beginning and developing writers to speak the words of their opening lines to a partner as a means of finding their ‘voice.’ For some students it may help them if they draw/illustrate prior to writing. Some students are more able to write after they have drawn a picture or a map. Without the drawing activity, they may have limited words to describe what actually took place.
By reading a text, and relating the reading to their writing, ideas begin to flow as connections are made to a time and place similar to the situation depicted. The student may relate to the character in the story, or know someone with similar characteristics. Reading engages student and gets them thinking. They may wish to imitate the writing style of another author. They may choose to adopt the structure of the language even though they are writing about a different type of event.
Teach them about the various types of leads or introductions that are available to them. Encourage them to collect great examples of leads as a stimulus to their own writing.
Students can brainstorm a random list of topic related ideas in small groups, alone, or with the whole class. Brainstorming is a thinking strategy that needs regular practice to realize its potential for learning. Opportunities to develop such thinking should not be confined to merely generating writing ideas alone. Brainstorming assists thinking across all curriculum areas.
Mapping or clustering is a more organized way of harvesting ideas related to the theme or topic under consideration by the writer. The student thinks of ideas that are associated with the topic. Each idea is linked to the main idea with arrows. Single words and phrases can be gathered to get ideas flowing.
Each of these ideas can be used to prepare students for meeting the challenge of the blank page. Whilst it may be far more expedient to merely provide students with formulaic writing prompts and sentence starters, -this only entrenches dependency. Teaching students how to ‘think’ for themselves is a skill for life not just writing. When teachers foster thinking, they set learners up to be successful. Under such conditions the young writer is more likely to discover the essence of what they are wanting to say. When young writers begin to use these strategies independently, we no longer hear the mournful cry – “I don’t know how to begin…”
Friday, February 6, 2009
It is therefore critical to show them how to think and act like writers. In this way they will develop behaviours that will help them to be more watchful and aware of their world and the writing that can spring from their interactions.
Connect With The World - Look, Listen, Learn!
Essentially, writers need to keep their eyes open. They need to look, listen and be ready to learn. Sometimes a subject finds you. You may just happen to be walking down the street when something quite extraordinary takes place. – like the time I was travelling on the New York subway and a guy entered the carriage wearing full medieval knight’s regalia. My mind immediately began to speculate –Where did he come from? Why was he dressed in this fashion, Where was he going? If we model these types of wonderings and observations and demonstrate how such experiences feed our writing ideas, our students are receiving powerful support.
Construct A Life Map
Another strategy to encourage thinking and the generation of ideas is to ask students to draw a life map. The map can be constructed across a double page of their writer’s notebook. Starting with the day of their birth, students document significant events for each year of their life. The map then becomes a kind of topic list. Another variation is to develop a more traditional time line.
Making lists is a great way to generate ideas for writing. Here are a few ideas to suggest to your students, Don’t forget to encourage them to develop their own lists.
Things that are prickly
Things that are slow
Things that upset you
Things to do on a rainy day
Things that make me smile
Things I want for my birthday that cost nothing
Things the world doesn’t need
Things I couldn’t live without
My Important places
Favourite –books, movies, food etc
The consistent message your students need to hear is that ’ it is difficult to be the best writer you can possibly be unless you read a lot.’ They need to read across a range of genres- books, magazines, newspapers fiction/non fiction, poetry/plays.
Talk to people
Conversations are so important, not just in the classroom but everywhere you go. Show your student how you engage in talk and how it helps you clarify, understand and deepen your knowledge about so many things. Listening is also a vital skill to develop. Effective writers are always eavesdropping for snatches of rich conversation to use as dialogue.
Do Some Gathering
Artefacts, treasures, trinkets, mementos, all add to the writer’s working file of ideas. Collect tickets, photographs, facts, snatches of conversation, quotes. Encouraging students to do some hunting and gathering is a great way to stimulate writing ideas.
You’ll never learn to ride a bicycle looking at pictures of one in a book. You need to climb on the bike and start practicing. It’s the same with writing! Students need to practice writing regularly. Writing at school and beyond is important to writing development. Exploring thoughts and feelings will usually provide a host of writing ideas.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Then to add to my confusion I noticed she was reading a comic. Not something you see all that often. But, it wasn’t just an ordinary comic, oh no. This cheesecake eating, athletic looking, middle aged female was reading a Phantom comic. She was a fan of the ghost who walks. This behaviour fell way outside the group norm. The ghosts of my own childhood reminded me that I stopped reading Phantom comics at approximately twelve years of age. It was a reminder that we should always expect the unexpected. I should have investigated further. Maybe she was wearing a phantom ring?
Sometimes a simple observation can trigger a strong connection...
As the start of another school year dawns the question arises –How do I most effectively engage my students in authentic literacy experiences?
How do I encourage them to become life long readers and writers?
It is important to remember that during the summer, many of them have not consistently engaged in reading and writing. For some, virtually no time has been spent on such pursuits.
How do we rebuild their literacy muscles? How do we build their stamina for these critical literacy experiences?
In these early days and weeks when students re enter school, building personal relationships should be priority one, -finding out what defines them as literate beings. Students need an opportunity to talk and think about their reading and writing intentions. Some may need to draw, sketch create maps etc to further stimulate their thinking about potential writing ideas.
It would make sense to have them create lists of their individual writing ideas and then discuss why they included certain items on their lists. Such conversations stimulate thinking and help to clarify ideas. Using Nancie Atwell’s idea of identifying each student’s writing territories is a great way to launch writing in the classroom. Atwell defines territories ‘as the range of things I do as a writer.’ It includes the genres that one has written in, subjects one has written about or would like to write about and the potential audiences for writing.
Asking young writers to think about and document their respective territories provides them with a place to go when they need to think about what they might like to write. Territories are the broad parameters of their writing. They form an ideas bank.
Once your students have brainstormed their writing territories they should be encouraged to talk freely about the items listed. It may further assist students if you partner them up provide turns at reading their lists to each other. They may be inspired by an idea mentioned by their partner and this can be added to their list.
Atwell believes that teachers need to create their own Writing Territories list which they can share as a model for their students. It should include ideas, obsessions, experiences, itches, aversions, feelings, -in fact anything that influences your writing. Then think about the many forms your writing will take – and add these to the territory list. Finally, consider the many different readers to which writing will be directed. After-all, we write to be read, so the various audiences are important to this end and should be listed. By modelling the writing territories list, teachers provide a clear path for students to follow, as they prepare to launch their writing efforts.
My territories would include:
Poetry –how to make it less daunting for teachers and students
Rhubarb and tomatoes
Songs that speak to me
My summer observations
My childhood memories, particularly time spent at Lake Road
My ongoing obsession with lists
My memoir pieces for Sara and Cooper
Education –what is happening to our public schools?
Travel adventures and dreams
Sporting triumphs and tragedies
New York memories
Public transport woes and other frustrations
Photography and art
Writing in cafes
Writing territories are often broad in nature. It is when students begin to identify a topic/issue for writing, that more specific items should be listed. At this point we move from territory to topic.
E.g. Territories – Pets
Topic – My dog Boo loves to go to the beach
Once a topic has been identified students need to be shown how to list those details they may wish to include in their writing. Such list making assists the writer to organize ideas and create some structure for the writing to follow.
My list for ‘Boo at the Beach’ might include such matters as:
The futility of chasing seagulls
Retrieving the tennis ball
Swimming in the shallows
Scampering along the shoreline
Socializing with other dogs
The secret ingredients in this launching process are –thinking, listing, sharing, talking, organizing, and planning. By honouring process, we will ensure a better product is produced. These ingredients need to be present so that we can set about igniting writing in our classrooms. They are the vital spark.