Turning Readers into Writers by Carrie Rodusky
I stumbled upon this rock while walking my dog through the woods. It is about to be a creative writing prompt for my upper elementary students. Who knows where it will go.
As an ELA teacher I have to find a way to include reading, grammar, language, and writing in a 60 minute timeframe everyday. Some days it flows effortlessly and others I struggle to find the balance. I love teaching reading; doing book talks, getting deep into discussions with book clubs or themes or character debates. I can easily spend the whole hour on that alone and quite honestly my students would probably agree. However, when it comes to writing, it is so easy to feel like running for the hills. Our writing curriculum goals in the upper elementary grades look something like this: four writing pieces a year; personal narrative, persuasive, informational, poetry. This may look different as far as timeline and ideas, but in general, we teach the concept, how to write topic sentences, paragraphs, juicy introductions, grammar, transitions and so on. I cannot speak for all, but, here is what I typically see for the first draft:
“Hi, I’m _____________ and I am going to tell you about…….” or
“Hi! Do you like _______? Because I do and…… “
And endings like….”Thanks for listening! Bye!!!!”
I do lesson upon lesson of catchy introductions and we use our favorite authors to compare examples, We look at formats and practice how to end with strong conclusions. Yet, this is ultimately what many students turn in. It is like a pep talk to myself everytime we embark on a writing project. It is hard for students to understand the writing process. They really do not get why writing once is not the draft you will turn in for your final grade. Edit? Revise? Why? We can text with ease and it does not matter if you misspell or misquote when you have emojis and typing “thx” is totally acceptable. Again, it is enough to make a writing teacher want to run.
What about freewrites? Kids can usually produce something pretty interesting when they can choose their own topic. I don’t grade those freewrites, but instead offer suggestions and advice if they ask. Freewriting is great and keeps their ideas flowing. But I still found they were not developing their writing skills and their IMAGINATION. Where was the creativity? How was I pushing them to dig deep in their writing just like I make them dig deep when we are reading? I was finding that they could write beautifully when it came to poetry and figurative language. They could write humorously and with emotion when I used a funny sentence starter. How do I harness those skills and get them to love writing at the same time?
While it is in no way a new idea to write from a picture (it is a great way to teach observations versus inferences), it was just what I needed to try to boost my students creative and independent thinking, which would then hopefully translate to creative and thoughtful writing. It started with a fairytale-like mushroom I found back in the fall when out picking apples. I snapped a picture and projected it up on my screen that Monday. We started with some observations, but I quickly guided them to their writer’s notebooks. I told them they were going to write a story based on this bizzare mushroom. It took some time, there was lots of staring and many questions (But how should I start? How long should it be? Do you want paragraphs?) My answer was consistently, “Just write.” And eventually they did, What I got in return was the start of something fantastic. There was figurative language, (I did not even require it!) and organization, and revisions ( all unprompted!)
The students look forward to my walks with my dog and are excited when I tell them I have another wacky picture for writing. I do not put limits as I am trying to get them to take ownership of their writing. Of course there are a few who write two sentences and claim to be done. When those instances pop-up, I casually remind them that we still have time left in class, so they can choose to see if it needs anything else; most times they end up going back into their story. Honestly, as they have been practicing this type of creative writing throughout the year, I usually have to stop them with the offer that they can continue the next class period. Since January we have been using The Creativity Project on a weekly basis. That book has changed my class and their enthusiasm for writing for the better. (One of my fifth graders just told me that that book and the prompts we have used from it are her favorite things we have done this year.) It is of course important to teach format, and grammar rules, and punctuation, and sentence structure. But what I am finding is that when I incorporate these creative writes along with the other writing assignments, their writing is developing and becoming more well-rounded. It is also keeping them motivated to read. They like finding authors who write in a similar style to their own. They want to explore humor and mystery if that is the kind of story they want to write. They ask for help with editing and want to write more than one draft. These are the strategies they need and they are doing it independently.
As the end of the year is upon us, they will use the stone face picture above to write a narrative or a biography. (I have ideas for both in my head. We will see!) Then, they will go back through the many rough drafts and prompts in their writer’s notebooks and choose one of their stories to publish for a final grade. This way they are invested in their story, their style, and how they can make it better. We will review all of the writing fundamentals from the year. We will offer the time to read-aloud and share their work, because what good is writing with your heart and soul but having nobody hear the words? These are exciting to pour through as a teacher, and these are the writings that help me see who needs help with different skills. I can’t wait to hear and read what they come up with for this last picture prompt. This summer I will not only encourage my students to keep reading, but to also keep writing. Imagine what wild and weird things are waiting to be found!
Carrie Rodusky has been teaching since 1996. She is currently the fourth and fifth grade language arts teacher and 4th grade social studies in a Catholic school outside of Cleveland, Ohio. She loves all things reading and can be found out under the trees on a summer day with book in hand. She hopes all kids will identify themselves as readers and still tries with her own teenagers. She will read “Wild” and “The Secret Life of Bees” every year without fail.