Thursday, March 20, 2014

On (Teaching) Writing Well

How did you learn to write? Can you point to particular lessons? Particular teachers?  Particular assignments? When did you know you were a good writer? When did your writing achieve voice? When did you develop a discernible style?

Now that you are thinking about how you learned to write, begin thinking about how you would teach someone else to write. What lessons would you provide? What would you have students read? What assignments would you design? How would you teach voice? How would you teach style?

If you stop to think about all things that children need to know to write well, you would likely throw up your hands at the prospects of success. Spelling. Punctuation. Capitalization. Handwriting. Grammar. Sentence structure. Paragraph structure. Organization. Cohesion. Sequence. Narrative structure. Argument. Parallel Structure. Style. Purpose. Figurative language. Subject-Verb agreement. Tense. Point-of-view. Coordination and subordination. Voice. The list goes on and on. And then on top of all the skills, we must concern ourselves with the will to write. Where does the motivation come from?

I think it is a mistake to think in terms of teaching when it comes to writing. Writing well can’t be taught, but it can be learned. We learn to write by reading in a special way. Children learn to write through an apprenticeship to writers. The job of the teacher becomes to help children see themselves as members of the “writer’s club” and to create an environment where students use that membership to develop skill as a writer.

More than thirty-years ago, Frank Smith posited that children learn the complex task of speaking by “listening like a speaker.” That is to say that because children had the motivation, indeed the need, to speak, and because they were made a part of the world of speakers (a member of the speakers club) they learned to speak. Similarly, if we can make children feel like members of the writing club, Smith said, they will learn to write by “reading like a writer" (Smith, 1983).

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to observe a pre-kindergarten class full of children aged 4 and 5 in a writing workshop. After a brief lesson on shoes and the concept of “pairs”, during which the teacher, Mrs. F, skillfully enlisted the help of the class puppets, Curiosity and Bubba, the children were invited to go off and get their journals and write about their favorite shoes or whatever else was on their mind. As would be expected in a class of children this age, some children “wrote” by scribbling, others wrote by drawing, while a few combined drawing with some words they knew how to write.

One child, Jamya, combined a drawing of her favorite shoes with a string of letters and letter-like shapes. She read her story to me and while the “words” were not recognizable to me, she was able to point to each shape and tell me the story it represented. Next, she did an extraordinary thing. This 4 year-old picked up her journal, walked over to the cat puppet, Curiosity, and read her story aloud. Jamya is an author who has found her audience.

Jamya is well on her way to being a writer. She can write only a few words and letters, but her writing has voice and passion. Most importantly, she considers herself a writer with something valuable to  say and she seeks out an audience for her writing in the form of the classroom’s beloved puppet. Jamya has a great writing teacher. Mrs. F has set up a writing environment where young authors can hone their trade.

How can all teachers achieve a classroom environment where children consider themselves authors and where students apprentice themselves to other writers to strengthen their writing? I think the first step is to help students feel like they are members of the writing club, so that they "read like a writer" and apprentice themselves to skilled writers. Students are most likely to feel like real writers if they are given plenty of time to write, lots of choice in what they write about and real audiences to write for.

The Writer's Workshop as conceived and popularized by Lucy Calkins and others out of Teachers College Columbia, provides the ideal structure for creating writers. In this structure, the teacher provides instruction in the form of a brief mini-lesson, followed by lots of time for children to write and confer and an opportunity to share their writing at the end of the session.

It is easy to imagine mini-lessons that focus on the mundane "stuff" of writing: spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, etc. It is more difficult to craft lessons that focus on the qualities of good writing, but it is also more important. Good writing is less about knowing how to punctuate dialogue than it is about knowing how to use dialogue to advance a narrative, reveal a character or foreshadow plot complications. Teachers need to provide samples from their own writing and from the writing of others to show students how skilled authors craft their writing for maximum impact.

In this way, the teacher fosters the ability of young writers to "read like a writer." As more and more examples are provided, students begin to find examples of what authors are doing in books that they read and begin to incorporate these things into their own writing. Along the way, the teacher should help students find "mentor texts." Ralph Fletcher defines mentor texts as texts "that you can learn from." In other words, we want to help children find books that will guide them in developing their craft. When students find a book or author that they love, they can apprentice themselves to that author and find crafting ideas to include in their own writing.

Students then must be given lots of time to write and lots of leeway in what they write about. Just as aspiring adult writers are advised to "write about what you know", so young writers will write best when they can choose to write about those things they know well. What they know about is being a kid and everything that comes from that. They also may know about a topic that they have become obsessed with like dinosaurs or airplanes or horses or baseball. These are the topics around which they can learn their writing craft.

The apprentice writer also needs lots of in-process feedback. Feedback must be regular and timely. Feedback must also focus on the crafting of the message and not on the more mundane aspects of spelling and punctuation. Teachers can help students become apprentice writers by first focusing on assisting the student in crafting the message artfully and later helping to clean up the mechanics.

Finally, all writers, young, old, skilled and still learning need an audience. In writer's workshop the teacher and other students often serve as the audience during Author's Chair sharing time. Great writing teachers, however, need to think of broad and authentic audiences for their aspiring writers. One way is through letter writing. Students may be encouraged to write letters through an in-school post office where they can write to students and teachers in other classrooms. Letters can also be written to the school newspaper, the local newspaper, to local politicians or to school administrators.

Classroom or school-wide literary publications are another way to help children see that their writing is intended for others to read, enjoy and learn from. Magazines like Stone Soup and Merlyn's Pen provide an outlet for student writing, as do local essay contests. It is critical; however it is accomplished, that apprentice authors envision a genuine audience for what they write.

How does all this fit in with the Common Core State Standards in English/Language Arts. The standards lay out targets for what children should know and be able to do in writing. As such, although I could and have quibbled with aspects of the Common Core, they are not horrible. The real danger of the Common Core comes from being closely linked to standardized testing. Standardized tests tend to reward formulaic writing (if they assess writing at all). If the Common Core narrows the curriculum, so that children are taught to write to a standardized test prescription, then the Common Core will have done a great disservice. Those who have crafted the Common Core say that they do not wish to tell teachers how to teach. I say we should take them at their word and teach the way we know will work best for creating writers.

The teaching of writing is alchemical. It involves teachers assisting children to envision themselves as writers for real audiences, helping them discover mentors to guide their development, providing timely instruction and feedback, and then standing alongside as they spin their straw into gold.