August 09

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Ideas for Teaching Writing A Book Review by Carrie Rodusky

“Since we don’t know who young writers are going to become, when they are writing we should let them be whoever they are.” John Warner

This quote may be finding its way into my upper elementary classroom this year; not only as a message for the students but also as a reminder to me, their writing teacher.  I am always on the lookout for some meaningful professional development books to read over the summer, and Why They Can’t Write Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities by John Warner gave me lots to think about. “Kill the Five-Paragraph Essay?” Can we really do that? John Warner speaks from the college level and admits he does not have experience teaching any younger than that. However, many of the points he makes and suggests are true – like shout it from the rooftops true – make writing meaningful; the IDEA is the basic skill of writing, think about the process NOT the product, focus on experiences, encourage independent thinking. These are just a few of the ideas that he discusses in the book that we can use to help our students change the way they approach and think about writing. In order for this book to be worth the read, I needed to see if I could apply it to my upper elementary students and all of the things I need to incorporate with my standards and curriculum. So, I decided to reflect on my past years teaching writing and  how I used or could see using some of the methods in this book to help our younger writers:

  1. The IDEA is the basic skill of writing, NOT sentences. True! And yet what do we do when so many of our students still cannot write a complete sentence in 5th grade?  I set the tone at the beginning of the year that writing can be fun: It does not have to be torture; It is not necessarily always paragraphs with 5-8 sentences;  Spelling matters but is not the only thing that matters and yes, we will work on punctuation, but later. Instead, we use writer’s notebooks from day 1 (another suggestion he makes in the book) to foster freewriting, creative writing, doodles, and brainstorming. Students are allowed and encouraged to cross things out, draw arrows, and just write. I love the book What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada and illustrated by Mae Besom for creating a spark. The kids love this book and last year my 4th graders actually clapped at the end of a reading. This year I am also going to use Idea Jar by Adam Lehrhaupt when I start the year.  This is not to say that we do not talk about sentences and paragraphs and grammar, but imagine if you just wrote your heart out and then a teacher ripped it apart for subject-verb agreement or no capitals? Instead, I then take the kids in small groups or one on one for conferring and modeling skills and strategies. Teaching grammar and spelling in isolation is just not effective and is something I continue to work on within the expectations of the standards and school.
  2. Make writing meaningful. The author asks us to think about the conditions under which we do our best work. It is a fact that kids today are continuing to lose interest in school in alarming rates. Students today have so much baggage. School should be a safe place where they can explore their curiosity and where we as teachers create favorable learning conditions. Last year, my 5th graders were working on autobiographies. I remember one of my students commenting that she was going to love that assignment because she loved talking about herself; it was easy as she was an expert on that subject. In my experience, kids did better when they were emotionally connected to the piece or assignment. Now, that is not always going to be possible, but why not ask for student input? Give them choices within the realm of the standards you have to cover. Last year I had a class work with their buddy class of younger students to write nonfiction books about animals. While my students did not necessarily care about sharks or cheetahs, their buddy did, so they now had a purpose and audience and they did some of the best work I had seen all year.
  3. Read like a writer! YES!!! How often did I preach that readers become better writers and writers become stronger readers.  The author suggests asking the question “How Do I?” as a way of analyzing text both for structure and genre.  I am making it a goal to really use mentor texts more next year for each type of writing we explore, even if it is just a passage from a chapter book. I also am going to find a spot in my classroom where we can dig into authors who really show the type of writing we are working on. It can be a challenge to get students to connect the two. Reading and writing should compliment each other, especially in our elementary and middle school classrooms.
  4. Grades should be replaced with self-assessment and reflection. The author talks in more detail on grading in the book and again he is coming from the college level. I am sure as educators we all have our opinions on grading. I see how it adversely affects my students and even my own kids. It is always all about the “A.” Therefore, many of our students and sometimes even teachers get too wrapped up in the product rather than the process. Grading writing is so subjective! I am really going to streamline my rubrics next year for writing assignments. I want my students to have more reflection, peer input, and self-assessment tied into their grades that I am required to give.

 

As the book ends the author lists the 5 goals we should be aiming for and the last one is beyond relevant, “Give teachers time, freedom, and resources to teach effectively.” How true and how sadly often overlooked. I would say go to your team or principal for discussions on ways to help improve reading and writing.  I also recommend this book. It gives some food for thought. Will I give up teaching five paragraphs? I don’t know, but I do know that my hope is for the students to leave my class with a love for reading and writing, or at least something close to that and if changing the way I I present writing in class helps my students get to that point, then it is worth thinking about.

 

Carrie Rodusky has been teaching since 1996. She is currently an upper-elementary language arts teacher in a suburb 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.  You can find her (with almost no posts) on Instagram @carrierodusky