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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Quality vs. Quantity...How Do We Best Teach Our Youngest Writers?

I was schooled by the work of Lucy Calkins.  When I first discovered The Art of Teaching Writing (as well as The Art of Teaching Reading) during my graduate work at NYU, my thinking about teaching writing changed immediately and intensely. 

As a reluctant writer (and reader) as a young student, the workshop model made so much sense to me.  And when I first saw this type of writing instruction in my student teaching placements (a first grade class and a fourth/fifth grade looped class) in the New York City public schools, I was blown away.  These students were truly excited about learning about writing, talking about their writing, studying authors of great writing, and sharing their writing.   They LOVED writing and while I moaned and groaned when my teachers used to say, "It's time for writing!” these children moaned and groaned when their teacher said, "Put your notebooks away.".  It was incredible to me and very exciting as an "almost teacher" venturing into the world of literacy instruction.

Lucy's text became my bible as I implemented a reader's and writer's workshop into my own fourth grade classroom and I saw my students LOVE writing just as the students in my student teaching did.  It was magical and also very rewarding as a teacher who, as a student, dreaded writing. 

As I continued my "classroom teaching" and began my "teacher teaching", my ideas about the workshop and Lucy evolved.  I think this is healthy.  I think this is necessary.  I think this is what we, as teachers, need to do to be considered professionals and serious thinkers.  Yet as I travel across the country in my consulting work, I have encountered teachers in the primary grades who have debated me on the following point:

"Young writers should finish the task of the day (the teaching point/minilesson) and then start a new piece.  This is what Lucy says.” 

Their idea is based on their belief that Calkins believes that young writers, when "done" with their daily work, should grab a new piece of paper and start something new.  Anything new.  That this will build their writing stamina and keep them interested in writing.  That for them to stay with one idea for a longer period of time will bore them or turn them off to writing in general. 

So then I picture in my mind a writing folder with papers strewn all over the place.  Papers that have some pictures and some words on them but are never really taken to the next level.  Papers that become something to keep them busy during writer’s workshop.  And so I ask myself, “why?”.  Why would teachers just ask their students to keep writing and writing and writing when most of those pieces will just stay in a folder and/or get stuffed into a backpack and thrown out at home?  There has to be a better way to build their writing stamina. 

I have seen Kindergartners and first graders generate a number of ideas, choose one and then stay with that one important idea for weeks.  They do have more to say about the rollercoaster ride they rode with their father for the first time.  They can organize and draft the beginning to their All About book on Great White Sharks and create a table of contents for the start of their book.  They will add more vivid verbs, onomatopoeia and alliteration to their poems about the sounds and sights of spring.  They know how to edit their piece to make sure that they have capital letters in the right places in the final draft of their List and Label book.  They love to create a thoughtful About the Author page, title and dedication for their story about a dinosaur who feels left out at school because he has spikes on his back when all the other dinosaurs are "spineless". 

I have seen it happen and never have the students gotten bored, disenfranchised or turned off.  It still amazes me, just as it did 11 years ago during my time at NYU, when first graders take one idea and stick with it for weeks to produce a piece of writing that is deep, thoughtful, powerful and beautifully crafted.  I KNOW it can be done and WANT it to be done more.  My wish is that teachers of young writers will give this process a chance.  That they will stop asking our youngest writers to just keep producing pieces to keep them busy but rather ask them to produce pieces of writing that really help them to understand the power of the writing PROCESS. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Picture Books for September..Beyond Chyrsanthemum

I LOVE Kevin Henkes and I LOVE his book Chrysanthemum.   I used to read Chrysanthemum every year during the first week of school when I had my own 4th grade classroom.  But kids know Chrysanthemum as they hear it every year, in every class, in every grade.  And kids want something other than Chrysanthemum as a way to talk about meeting new friends and building a community in those first few weeks of the school year.  

And just as much as I LOVE Chrysanthemum, I also LOVE finding NEW books that get me excited about September and meeting new friends and building a community that stands for tolerance, respect and working together. 

I saw Ann Marie Corgill last spring at a conference on Long Island and was inspired by her enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge of all things literacy. The day of the conference she talked about great books that she used at the start of the school year to get to know her students, make them feel comfortable and build a community of learners who valued reading, writing and each other.  In this recent blogpost from her site, she lists, "10 Picture Books That Help Us Face Life's Challenges". After seeing her I went out and bought Cynthia Rylant's All in a Day.  Below are my NEW favorites for September...

Nasreen's Secret School

Mr. George Baker

All the World

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

The Okay Book


The Little Yellow Leaf

The Paperboy

The Peace Book

And it begins...

Today begins the start of my blogging adventure! 

I hope that this blog is a place where educators, parents, administrators, policy makers and anyone concerned with literacy and the state of education can come to learn, share and get excited about the teaching of reading and writing.  Please leave feedback as a way to continue the conversations started here or feel free to begin one of your own.  Please also share this blog with others who you think might benefit from the discourse presented. 

I look forward to learning from one another.