By Melissa A. Butler, Pittsburgh 2nd Grade Teacher
"Why is this writing good?" "What makes this phrase so interesting?" "Why do you think this author said the words in this way?" These are the sorts of questions my students are asking and answering during writing workshops this year. Though certainly not a new idea, studying the work of experienced writers through the use of “mentor texts” and focusing on writer conversations have nonetheless been enlightening for me and my second grade students this year.
I have always been a passionate teacher of writing - it is what I love best. What I love most about teaching writing is that every year (in fact, every month, every week, and every day) I feel like I am teaching the artistic process of what it means to be a writer for the very first time. To me, this is the essence of good curriculum - it is alive. It is a process that is unknown until it is achieved through dialogue between students and teacher.
This year, more than ever, I feel that I have lived up to the phrase teach the writer, not the writing (Lucy Calkins). This credo, if you will, when embraced as a curricular assumption in the planning of writing workshops, truly does encourage an amazing writing community.
What are some ideas for writing workshops that seek to embrace the curricular assumption of teaching the writer, not the writing? Here are just a few...
TEACHING WITH MENTOR TEXTS
Select some good books, both narrative and informational. They should be books that you love and books that your students have already enjoyed and studied as readers. Talk about the authors and how they wrote their books. What can you find that makes the writing splendid? Onomatopoeia? Alliteration? Repetition? Interesting word choice? Unique beginning or ending? Unique word formation? Strong character development? Rhythm or rhyme? As you and the students point out places in texts where writers have used particular writing techniques, name the techniques and label them with post-it notes or highlight the passages with highlighter tape. Students will begin to go back to these mentor texts as models for their writing. Students will also soon be able to go through their favorite books and label elements of splendid writing style with post-it notes or highlighter tape all by themselves.
STUDENT WRITING CONVERSATIONS
When students talk about their writing, they typically want to tell you what it is about, not how it is written. Sharing subject matter is important, but we want to get children to talk about their writing in more sophisticated ways. If encouraged, students will begin to talk about their purpose as writers, their audience for each piece of writing, and the techniques they use as writers in order to reach their audience. After teaching effective writing techniques using mentor texts, teach children to have similar conversations with each other about their own writing. In order to encourage this sort of “writing workshop conversation,” you can set up specific paired sharing times for students to share their writing in this way. You can pose specific questions or tasks for the sharing sessions, such as: “I want you to talk with your partner about why you are writing your story—what feelings do you want the reader to feel?” or “Try to find as many elements of style as you can in your partner's piece and label them with post-its. Be ready to name the elements and give examples.” Once children are experienced at this sort of writing conversation, you can leave the conversation agenda up to them! Teaching how to have good writing conversations is well worth the time and energy—children soon teach each other and routinely go through revisions with every piece of writing!
ONE-STEP-AT-A-TIME WRITER CONFERENCES
When I first started teaching, someone gave me writing workshop advice: “Ignore the chaos in the room and just kneel down and work with 2-3 students each day.” I did it. There was a lot of chaos, but I managed to teach 32 young children how to be writers. Though I have perfected my methods during writing workshops and found ways to minimize unwanted chaos, I still live by the same basic writing workshop philosophy: teach young writers one by one in short writing conferences. It works. The key to good writing conferences is to focus on the writer and her crafts, not the content of her writing. When you sit down next to a student and begin the conference, focus on what the writer is doing, not what she is writing about. For example, is the student selecting a new topic? Planning her ideas? Writing a beginning? Trying to end the piece? Adding details or images? Trying to stretch out a moment in a story? Working on creating action? Whatever the child is trying to do as a writer, that is what you teach. Keep it simple and focused. If we as teachers go through the entire piece of writing with the student, fixing spelling, pointing out capitalization and punctuation errors, explaining where things do not make sense, we are not teaching the writer at all. In fact, if we do this, we are not even teaching the writing, we are doing the writing. This sort of conferencing will not help the writer the next time she tries to write a story, essay or poem.
Writing is a complex and creative process. It is not about answering prompts, composing a set number of sentences, or having your paper “corrected” to match some formula. Writing is about selecting topics, having a purpose and an audience, identifying superb writing crafts, and discussing with others what makes your writing splendid and effective. Children learn to do these sophisticated things as writers by having challenging conversations about what it means to be a writer. These writing conversations can take place through mentor texts, with other students, and between teacher and student. When children are taken seriously as writers, they are empowered as writers. Children begin to see their writing as something more than an “assignment.” Their writing becomes a way to reach outward, to say something, to challenge people's thinking. The result is that students come to see their writing as more than a reflection of the world; they begin to see that, through their own words, they have power to change the world.