W is for (teaching) Writing

June 9, 2015

W is for (teaching) Writing.hand-writing-md

I love to write and find it easy to express myself in writing. However, for most children, writing is neither intuitive nor easy to learn. This is especially true for ESL students. The population I have been dealing with, which is not only an ethnic but also socio-economic category, tends to have difficulty not with learning the social language, but the knowledge and use of experiential vocabulary. If they are reluctant readers, their knowledge of many things and the vocabulary associated with those things will suffer. Even avid readers do not always find it easy to put their thoughts down on paper.
When I started teaching, much of the writing being taught was still stuck in the formulaic 5-paragraph essay that I had seen my school-aged son bring home, and which was emphasized because it was the way to score higher on standardized tests writing assessment. It was mostly non-fiction: for a long time, we scarcely ever had children write creative stories because they had to learn how to write factual essays (expository), descriptive narratives, and persuasive essays.
The introduction to this type of essay introductions includes a “hook” – something to attract the reader’s attention followed by stating one’s topic and 3 main ideas. The conclusion has been basically taught as a restating of the main ideas and ending with a sentence to provoke further thought or stating an original thought based on the main ideas.
The three body paragraphs consist of a main idea and three supporting details. So there were three main ideas and three details for each, very predictable.
In between paragraphs as well as between supporting details, transition words needed to be used: First, second, third; first, next, last; also, in addition, besides…
The writing generated from this formula was often stilted and boring, basically a copy of what the student had written on his graphic organizer with no attempt to make it more interesting – because he hadn’t been taught HOW to do that.
The best writing my students produced was when they were allowed to free write or write about a specific prompt called a “quickwrite”, for example, what they did on a snow day. Very creative writing was generated from this. I published some of these short pieces in the newsletter I sent home to parents every couple of weeks.

Last Friday we had an unexpected surprise – a snow day! Write a short story that tells how you found out about the snow day, how you felt, and what you did that day. Use details to make your story interesting!

We didn’t had a shovel so we used a hammer
By a 5th grader in my ESL class
Last Friday when I went to sleep I heard noises outside hiting my window I woke up I looked through the window and I woke up my little sister, A—.
I told her It was snowing outside we went outside with my dad and measured it
It was 10 inches and got higher. My dad and my sister and me went outside and shovel
while my dad was shoveling I played snowball fight with A—.
My dad said to help him but we didn’t had another shovel so we went to the walgreens and snow shovelbuy.  A— and I went outside a made a snowball and put it in the refrigerator
but then we threw it outside. All my sisters went outside and we were talking.
I threw a snowball at my older sister, L— and An—.
When I went to my Grandpa’s house I helped them shovel but their was one problem.
They didn’t had a shovel we tried and tried to find some thing .
My uncle has this thing I don’t know what it’s called. My aunt got a hammer me and my hammeruncle and aunt started laughing but it wasn’t bad it really took off the ice.
My whole family started playing snowball fight. This is how we had fun last friday.

In Friday it was snow
By a 4th grader in my ESL class
(Note: I rewrote this as a poem, conserving the cadence & word choice, but correcting the spelling. It seemed to fit a poetic structure.)
Last day in Friday it was snow and I felt happy because it was beautiful.
I did in the snow I did snowman and
I did snow ball because snow is fun and the snowblacksnowflakes
felt me happy because I felt that the snow is cold
because when it was snowing I told to my sister
Look snow!
Then I got outside in the snow
I did in the snow
angel because it was soft
and me and my friend we was laughing because it was snow a lot and a lot
and I play with my cousin because I felt happy with her
and I did with my cousin that we did the snow man together a the snow
was white and I felt that the snow was a ice
and when the snow is ice is so hard and is cold
that you even can’t not get it
I did with my sister snow fighting.

Cleaning Cars in the Snow
By an ESL third grader
Last Friday I wake up and it was snowing. I told my mom if we were going to school and she told me to knock on my friend’s door and she said that were not going to school. I went back and told my mom that we were not having school because it was snowing and windy. What I did in Friday was I went outside and play. I made a snowman with my Dad, my sister and my friend not my mom because she was making food for breakfeats. We even cleaned my two cars. One is color Baby Blue and the other one is color Gray. We blue cardid not clean my friend’s car because we cleaned my cars. Then gray carI went inside because we were finished cleaning my two cars.

In education, every couple of years, someone will write a book about teaching reading, vocabulary or writing that becomes the definitive ‘answer’ (for a few years, at least) to the problems teachers have teaching these subjects. So after formulaic writing came:

6 Traits (later updated to 6 + 1 Trails, which added “presentation” as the +1, or 7th trait) of Writing:
The 6+1 Trait® Writing Model of Instruction & Assessment comprises 6+1 key qualities that define quality writing. These are:
• Ideas—the main message
• Organization—the internal structure of the piece
• Voice—the personal tone and flavor of the author’s message
• Word Choice—the vocabulary a writer chooses to convey meaning
• Sentence Fluency—the rhythm and flow of the language
• Conventions—the mechanical correctness
• Presentation—how the writing actually looks on the page
The teacher is expected to focus on one trait at a time, modeling it through literature, teaching techniques for using it, and letting the kids write with that trait in mind. In the workshop model, the teacher conferences with each student individually about their writing and suggests improvements. If a grade is taken for each of these writings, it should only be based on the one trait students were supposed to be practicing.
See web site http://educationnorthwest.org/traits/trait-definitions for further information and descriptions of each trait.
I was excited! I thought the six traits would be a fun and effective way to teach writing!
However, as an ESL teacher, I remained frustrated. I liked the traits, but found that we often got stuck on the first couple and other things got in our way before we got to all of them. But that wasn’t the main problem. There have been many books written, including books of student activities, to help teach each of the traits, but our English learners were still having a lot of trouble. They were still relying heavily on the formula, negating Trait 3 (voice), and struggling with word choice and sentence fluency. Many teachers were still stuck on the 5-paragraph formula also. Their rationale was that students had to learn how to write using a formula first, and later break out into something more creative. I found that often, they themselves didn’t like or know how to write well, or at least they didn’t know how to teach it well. I fell into the latter category.
Many of my students had so many issues with conventions – always the first things we tend to look at, especially with students whose native language is not English – that these were all we had time to work on together. If they exchanged their writing with a partner, whose job it was to read it and suggest improvements, the partner generally focused on matters of convention: capital letters, periods, spelling, indentation of paragraphs, use or lack of use of transitional words – things that were part of the formula that they had learned and could understand.
Developing “sentence fluency” and “voice” were the hardest for ELLs to incorporate intogirl writing-frustrated their writing. They were writing in a foreign language, not the one in which they were most expressive, so how could they find that special “voice” or develop a good sentence rhythm?
Sometimes their writing would be charming with its unnatural constructions and unusual spelling (like the samples above). I saw “voice” in many of their unique ways of expressing themselves in their second language and I even told them to use Spanish words occasionally to add “flavor”. But this was generally when we were doing creative writing, such as fictional stories, personal narratives, or poems.
        Last weekend it was extremely cold weather and it was 0°F. At school we have inside recess a lot of times. When I came home cars were cold, frozen, and could not work. I was watching TV and the TV turned off because the snow was going to the wires. Because of the snow it is freezing cold. I don’t like the cold.
We couldn’t spend too much time on this – it was more important that they learn to write boy writing-unhappyexpository essays to do well on standardized tests.
On the other hand, some students wrote so incoherently that I could barely understand what they were writing about. Even their illustrations might not be particularly enlightening.
Then along came Lucy Calkins – the new writing “guru” for educators.
My first exposure to Lucy Calkins’ methodology and philosophy was when I taught briefly at a dual language school (mentioned in an earlier post – see Peace Place) in Chicago. She starts each of her min-lessons with a dialogue with the students, which can sometimes be lengthy – but it makes sense. Her philosophy is to allow students more freedom to explore their creativity and “voice” while writing, making it pleasurable instead of a boring chore.
She advises teachers to demonstrate each mini-lesson with an excerpt of real writing, something she can get excited about and the students too, especially if they have already read it!
The first kind of writing Calkins suggests is a personal narrative, which is to be expected – it’s the student’s own experience, telling it in her own words. What happens is that many students think back on an experience and then retell it as a very general recounting of their entire day, or entire vacation, something like: “I went with my family, my uncles and aunts, cousins, mom, dad, brother and sisters to the Wisconsin Dells. We went to the water park. We went on the water slides. We had fun.”
So she suggests that to get kids to focus on only one event or incident is to compare it to a watermelon: A “watermelon story” is very big and has few details. It’s usually boring. Watermelons have black seeds scattered throughout and that is how a personal narrative should be – focus in on a “seed story”. Teachers put up posters of watermelons with seeds in them, and students copied this drawing into their writing journals.

watermelon_colour_pencil_drawingThe visual seemed to work well. The students could see how big the watermelon was compared to each individual seed, and although each seed might contain a fascinating story, their job was to pick only one and tell everything they could about it. The watermelon was their vacation to Wisconsin Dells, while the seed was the time when the writer and her cousins went down the water slide and splashed into the water – what was that like? How did you feel? Use descriptive words, your feelings, all your senses if possible. Did something unexpected happened? How did your feelings change?
This model produced some great stories and even the most reluctant and least-confident writers at least were able to come up with a creative idea, even if they had trouble developing it.
One of the best stories that came out of that third grade class was a boy’s description of playing hockey. He was passionate about hockey at the young age of eight, and had

Children aged 6-8 playing hockey
Children aged 6-8 playing hockey

already been playing it for three years! He took the reader onto the ice and inside the head of the author/player by telling play by play what happened – who did what, how he handled each play, etc. It moved along fast with some internal chaos, just as a hockey game would. This kid had never thought of himself as a writer until I praised him to the skies about his hockey narrative!
This is the stuff of good stories and a chance for students to be creative. Maybe some will love writing as I do! Yes, students will probably continue to learn the formulaic 5-paragraph essay, but thanks to Lucy Calkins (and others), that isn’t all there is.


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