Friday, May 13, 2016

Bridging the Gap by Lesley Roessing: A Review

Mark Twain famously said, "Write what you know." Very sound advice for a would be writer. When we are teaching children to write, however, giving them this advice can be both scary and unhelpful. Years ago, after an unsuccessful conference with a young writer, I wrote this poem that I think captures the problem.

                                                           Writer's Block

 I am staring at this blank paper
Because I have nothing to say.
                 "Write what you know", says the teacher.
I guess I know nothing today!

As teachers, we must find ways to help children access what they know, value what they know, examine what they know and shape what they know into a piece of writing. In other words, we must build a scaffold on which children can build a memoir from their memories. For teachers looking for such a scaffold, and who wish to make memoir a central part of their writing instruction, I highly recommend Lesley Roessing's book, Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core. Roessing speaks from long experience and deep knowledge. She is a former high school and middle school teacher and is currently the director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and lecturer in the College of Education of Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia. (Full disclosure: Lesley is also a former graduate student of mine and I am uncommonly proud of the great work she has done.)

One "gap" referred to in the title is of course the achievement gap and Roessing makes a persuasive argument that since memoir writing delves into a student's personal memories, all students come to the reading and writing lessons with sufficient background knowledge to be successful. But memoir writing is also a way bridge other gaps including the gap between reading fiction and non-fiction and the gap between reading something and writing something. According to Roessing, "memoir elevates the topics on which writing is based and, in so doing, elevates writing." For those concerned with where memoir fits into the Common Core State Standards, Roessing, as she suggests in the book's title, says that "through writing memoir, writers discover their own passions and convictions, leading them to choose more effective argument topics" and by reading memoir, students learn to "support their claims with logical and relevant evidence."

The heart of the book is a thoughtful and thorough plan for introducing students to memoir, gathering memories, reading memoirs, drafting diverse memoirs and analyzing and publishing memoirs. Roessing provides teachers with a guide to scaffolding the reading and writing experience for students to ensure student success. One key element of this scaffold is helping students to read memoir in a special way, to read memoir like a writer of memoir. In other words, sample memoirs provided in the book, work as mentor texts for students' growing understanding of the genre. Roessing wants the students to, in Frank Smith's term, "read like a writer" in order to bridge the gap between their reading and their own writing.

The instructional design suggested in the book, reflects Roessing's thorough understanding of best practice and the book provides clear direction and suggested resources for each step in the design. I think classroom teachers would find the design helpful, easy to follow.

  • Exposure - including suggested read alouds
  • Teacher Model - Guides the teacher in demonstrating the strategy
  • Scaffolded Practice - helps the teacher guide student work
  • Independent Student Practice - student samples are included in the text
  • Reflection
Appendices at the end of the book provide suggestions for read alouds and mentor texts, suggestions for student reading and a series of black line masters to support the various lessons in the book. Teachers could use the book as a guide for a complete unit on memoir, or select key lessons from the book to enhance their own writing units.

Busy classroom teachers need practical suggestions for writing instruction that are rooted in sound instructional practice and which promise to be engaging and successful with diverse students. With Bridging the Gap, Lesley Roessing has more than filled this need. 

I will give the last words in this review to author and writing teacher extraordinaire, Barry Lane, who wrote the introduction to this book.

When students start to write their stories, when they start to value their experience, something happens that cannot be measured by any test or quantitative assessment...I call it passion, and that is the one thing that will create a lifelong writer.