Saturday, February 26, 2011


"So what do you think we should do tomorrow?" the fourth grade teacher asks as we consider the next day's writing workshop. He glances down at the plan we made three weeks earlier.

We are two days away from the big event (which shall remain nameless) and writing instruction has reached what feels like a fever pitch. We have written and written and written to prompts- one pagers, four pagers, narrative, description, persuasive, favorites…The kids have done it all.

"I don't know," I respond, "Let me look at today's writing and think about it tonight."

That night I read through the stack of 30+ four-page (ok, many three page) essays. The prmpt was to write about something they had learned to do.
  • A remains enamored with Robert Munsch. Every day he does some weird twist on the Munsch theme, repeating phrases, putting his own name into Munsch's stories, adapting Munsch's stories just a bit so that he can call them his own.
  • K writes a beautiful story about his older sister (who passed away in a car accident 18 months ago) teaching him to ride his bike. Midway through the story, however, he switches narrators from first person, where he is telling the story, using the pronoun I, to third person, where he uses his name as a character in the story.
  • M loves dialogue. The piece she wrote about learning to cheerlead is so dialogue heavy that it's hard to follow what is going on.
  • Many of the other students are also using dialogue. Reading through their work, I decide that teaching kids to punctuate dialogue is somewhat like teaching long division. There are a million different ways you can get it not quite right.
  • Yesterday, during our skills block, the teacher reviewed contractions. Today R writes yes, ye's.
  • We have also been reviewing nonfiction text features. Today Q decides to use subtitles instead of transitions in her fiction piece.
  • Z and P both write pieces that are absolutely beautiful for about a page and a half- great lead, dialogue, rich details. Then, evidently, they get tired or run out of time, and cram the middle and end of the piece into one paragraph using none of the tools that they have displayed earlier.
  • K writes about learning to play the saxophone with his mother. The piece rolls along beautifully for about a page, to a point where K is talking about one of the songs he and his mother taught themselves to play. At this point, for whatever reason, he decides it would be a good idea to include the full text of the words to the 16 line song.
  • S, who is one of the best writers in the class, writes a three paragraph conclusion. Basically she just repeats herself, juxtaposing the sentences in three different ways.
So what am I going to teach them the next day? I riffle through the stack of papers again and decide to get up early and think about it in the morning when I am fresh. By the next morning, I have decided. I will teaching them nothing.

We have written and written and written all year. We have taught and taught and taught all year. At this beginning of the year, these kids usually produced about a half of page of text. They didn't know anything about a lead or a conclusion. They didn't write with details or dialogue They didn't use paragraphs.

And now they are using all of those writers' tools. Granted, there are a lot of approximations. It's not perfect. But they are experimenting, and growing and writing their way towards becoming proficient writers. And basically, their growth as writers has been phenomenal.

And so, during the mini-lesson, I tell them that. I leaf through the stack of papers, acknowledging all of the good stuff I saw last night. I tell that every single kid wrote to the prompt. Most kids gave their work a title. I read them three different kinds of leads. I share several really terrific details and examples of dialogue. I admire the circular endings that several kids have chosen to use.

And then, I review how to punctuate dialogue. And I send them back to their seats. To write. To experiment. To grow. To learn. Because that is what writers do.

And if they are not ready by Tuesday…


Tamara said...

Thanks, Carol. I needed that. I know much of what Monday's writing conversation will be now.

Nanc said...

Hysterical, is what I thought and of course beautiful too. Approximations.... our lives in and out of the classroom.

Mary Lee said...

Your "big event" is way earlier than ours. We've got until the first week of May to try to hold on to authenticity. And our state legislature did away with the writing portion -- too expensive to grade. Because what's important after all. Hey, that's a good question to ask the state legislature right now, as they systematically kill our unions and our profession: What's important, guys?