Growing Writers Through Authentic Teaching Practice
When writing is taught from the perspective of 'what' to write rather than 'how' to write, the pedagogy tends to become isolated. Discrete genres end up being taught. A set amount of time is frequently given to each particular genre and as a consequence,learning silos are created. These specific gnre studies are often referred to as units of work. Student choice is greatly diminished and writing frequently becomes somewhat perfunctory. Under such approaches student voice is sacrificed to assuage the need for the teacher to manage the writing task. Establishing a neat and tidy writing environment overrides other considerations. Such an approach flies in direct opposition to the ideal of 'independent writing.'
What follows are remarks such as. 'Today girls and boys we are all going to write an information text.' This approach lessens the chances of a teacher being either informed or surprised by the writers in their care. It frequently results in writing that is devoid of energy. The young writer comes to view writing as an assignment given to them by an adult in order to keep them busy. Writing becomes a somewhat joyless exercise. The task is owned by the teacher.
' A general goal of school is to engender a love of reading and writing.'
Ralph Fletcher, 'Joy Write.'
Writing is a messy beast to teach. Of that there is no doubt. However, it is also a joy to teach when young writers find their purpose and voice. What the teaching of writing requires is educators prepared to invest in growing writers. It requires teachers who are risk takers with high expectations of themselves and their student writers. It is in teaching the processes involved in writing, and showing how writing best works that the secret to growing engaged writers truly lies. Young writers must be given regular opportunities to practice making decisions if we want them to see what writing can deliver. Writing is essentially a problem solving process. Providing the inexperienced with regular opportunities to practice this is therefore essential for success. A community of writers will only flourish where trust and high expectations exists.
To quote Fountas and Pinnell:
'The writer has a purpose in mind and selects the genre accordingly. You may want to tell a story that will communicate a larger meaning, you may want to inform or entertain; you may want to persuade people to take action on an issue that is important to you. It is important to recognise that effective writers do not write in a genre just to practice it. They choose the genre that will best convey the meaning they intend. Of course teachers introduce new genres to students so that they learn to write in those genres, but the ultimate goal is establish a repertoire of genres from which they can choose. It is important to establish the desire to write in a genre by making it interesting and enjoyable.’
The teaching of text features and structures of various genres must be modelled to student writers, but the choosing of topic and mode should remain with the writer. When students are given the opportunity to read and examine different kinds of writing, they are strategically placed to make informed choices regarding the purpose for their writing. Writing therefore, becomes an authentic activity where the writer makes decisions appropriate to a wide range of real life provocations. The student writer thinks about a potential writing idea before deciding which mode best suits that particular topic/idea/project. The teacher continually supports the writer through mindful and explicit teaching incorporating writing craft as well as writing's recursive processes.
In this scenario genre takes on a real significance and the writer gets to make a more sophisticated decision regarding what is appropriate.
Asking questions such as:
'How do writers generally write about this topic?
'How do you want your writing to look like?'
'Which genre do you think will best suit you here?
will challenge the writer to consider their options.
But what about curriculum mandates?
Teachers often tell me they must teach certain genres but this is what the Victorian Curriculum states for Level 6 for Achievement Standards.
'Students understand how language features and language patterns can be used for emphasis. They show how specific details can be used to support a point of view. They explain how their choices of language features and images are used. They use banks of known words and the less familiar words they encounter to create detailed texts elaborating upon key ideas for a range of purposes and audiences. They demonstrate understanding of grammar and make considered choices from an expanding vocabulary to enhance cohesion and structure in their writing. They also use accurate spelling and punctuation for clarity, provide feedback on the work of their peers and can make and explain editorial choices based on agreed criteria.'
Interestingly choice is mentioned in at least three places in this statement and genre is not mentioned at all.
In classrooms where writers are trusted and supported to make decisions about their writing and their teachers mindfully and explicitly teach them about a range of text structures and features the actual range of writing evidenced is quite diverse. -More diverse and authentic than when writing is tightly controlled.
I recall in my own classroom I would regularly see the following writing bubbling up. It gave me immense joy to see my students commit to the types of writing they had chosen as being worthy of their investigations.
Poetry (various forms)
Jokes and Riddle Books
Picture Story Books
reviews of books, movies
Fiction Narratives- mysteries, sci-fi fantasy, realistic fiction
Letters to the editor.
I recall two Grade 3 writers who regularly got their heads together to write poetry on the classroom floor. They became known as the 'Floor Poets' and across the year produced an anthology of poetry. It was not the only writing they produced, but it was writing form they found most met their needs as writers. It gave them a writing identity. As teachers our role is to grow writers, not control them, not hinder their development.