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by Barbara Mariconda
Your class has just finished an intensive unit on tall tales, or perhaps an author's study. You've read numerous examples of vivid, powerful writing, discussed these, pointed out the salient characteristics, listed the aspects of story that really brought them to life. All in all, an extremely rich, satisfying, language arts experience. So motivating, in fact, that you decide a terrific culminating activity would be to have students use what they learned as a jumping off point for creating stories of their own. Give the children an opportunity to apply the stuff of good writing to their own writing - using literature as the jumping off point.
Your students begin the writers' workshop with a little less enthusiasm than you anticipated. Some students get off to a great start, but are "finishing" fifteen minutes later. They seem resistant to revision - after all, they're "done." Others spend an inordinate amount of time "thinking" about what to write about and cannot seem to put pencil to paper. Another student has visited the pencil sharpener about seventeen times, grinding the offending pencil into a stub. Meanwhile, some students, claiming to be involved in a "peer conference" are disrupting the class with chatter, another is "illustrating" while another is reading the latest Harry Potter book, looking for inspiration. Still other students launch into creative, but rambling tales that become near epics, from which a successful conclusion seems impossible. A number of students have their hands raised, or approach your desk, all wanting your attention and input at the same time. You have a knot in your stomach and are overwhelmed by the sense that things are spiraling out of control. Three weeks later you've managed to conduct individual conferences with only a handful of students; you're needling, redirecting, challenging, and somehow it doesn't seem as though much progress has been made. The luster has gone out of this project that seemed so bright at the start. The students are bored, you're frustrated and most everyone in the class looks forward to being done with it.
Does this scenario sound familiar? What exactly is it that can bridge the gap between great literature and its application to student writing?
The answer is twofold -- skills and a practical methodology that works in the real world of the classroom.
There is a common misconception that if we read a lot, talk about what we read, and then provide plenty of outlets for writing, that in the process, good writing will emerge. Truthfully, for the extremely well-read, self motivated, or innately gifted writer, there is some possibility of this. However, for most students and teachers, something is missing. Simply encouraging students to engage in "free-writing" followed by a conference is not enough to produce a community of strong, enthusiastic writers. What is missing are specific instructional strategies designed to teach the specific skills inherent in powerful writing!
During the whole language era, the idea of teaching discrete skills took on a negative connotation. Somehow, practicing specific writing skills seemed to suggest "basel-izing" the writing process. This was unfortunate, because, in all art forms - in music, theater, the visual arts, and in writing, powerful communication is delivered through carefully honed skills. For example, a talented pianist did not become proficient by simply sitting down and "just playing." A skilled teacher will provide the young pianist with age appropriate, stimulating pieces of music, as well as scales, arpeggios, and exercises to strengthen the fingers and build dexterity. The student learns how to read notes, hear pitches, and learn musical expressiveness through carefully planned exercises and etudes. All of this "skill-work" does not hamper creativity; rather, it provides a vehicle for the successful expression of creative, personal musical thought, sentiment, and intention. In other words, the skills disappear in an invisible support and delivery system that informs and empowers the musician. The same thing is true in writing.
What are the skills necessary to inform and empower good writing? In narrative writing (writing characterized by a main character who experiences a significant event or problem, within a setting, who grows or changes in the process), the skills necessary to shape and support a story are as follows:
- an entertaining beginning that draws the reader in and gets the story
rolling; - powerful elaborative detail that focuses on story critical characters,
settings, and/or objects;
- a sense of suspense or anticipation which builds story tension, and inspires the reader to read on;
- a single, significant main event (problem, adventure, or life-changing experience); and
- a conclusion which draws the main event to a close and an extended ending which demonstrates how the main character has grown or changed.
Once the basic skills are identified, educators need to have a practical, effective methodology for teaching these skills. The methodology needs to be based on solid educational theory and needs to be proven successful in the real world of the classroom. During an instructional improvement program at our school (Mill Hill School in Fairfield, CT) designed to improve student writing, we developed a methodology for the delivery of these key writing skills for our students in grades 2 - 5. The methodology involved whole class instruction, delivered minimally twice a week for 30 - 45 minutes. Whole class instruction provided consistency and assured experiences for all students, that was often lacking in the teach-on-demand scenario common in the writers' workshop conference model. There are also many other benefits associated with whole class instruction. These include a greater level of directed conversation between students about writing, and opportunities for the class as a whole to benefit from the writerly conversations.
The whole class instruction looks like this:
1. INTRODUCE/DEFINE SKILL through the use of literature. (Middle grade novels provide the best examples of all of the key skills.)
2. MODELING - The teacher models the skill in isolation, asking productive questions and "thinking out loud" as an author. (The quality of the questions you ask will determine the quality of student responses. This also is the most powerful method of building vocabulary.)
3. GUIDED PRACTICE - Provide students with an opportunity to practice the skill you've modeled. This is a "before and after" revision exercise. Circulate and offer suggestions, share strong examples and excellent attempts.
Steps 1, 2, 3 are repeated numerous times before step 4: Application.
4. APPLICATION - Students apply the skill to a process piece or a timed prompt.
*Most important step!
This methodology made the teaching of writing more manageable, provided a common vocabulary for writing, ensured a greater level of objectivity and accountability, established a powerful reading writing connection, and ultimately nurtured a community of confident, enthusiastic writers. In fact, during the five years we spent developing the specific skill lessons and delivering these skills through the methodology described above, our narrative writing scores for our fourth graders on the Connecticut Mastery Test improved dramatically:
YEAR Percent of students at goal:
YEAR 1 47%
YEAR 2 65%
YEAR 3 75%
YEAR 4 81%
YEAR 5 92%
These results were not limited to Mill Hill School. In Wilson's Mills School in North Carolina, as well as in districts in Rhode Island and Alberta Province Canada, to name just a few, when this approach was used consistently, similar results were common. More importantly, students began to become confident, enthusiastic, lifelong writers, and teachers began to feel successful and fulfilled as the facilitators of a practical, effective instructional program that gets results. Eventually, the lessons and methodology became available through an educational consulting firm and publisher, Empowering Writers.
So now think back to the frustrated, disillusioned teacher and class first described and imagine how her scenario would be different using the Empowering Writers methodology.
About the Author
Barbara Mariconda is the co-founder of Empowering Writers, an educational consulting and publishing firm specializing in
Writers offers comprehensive, practical, teacher-friendly workshops that empower educators of children from grades K - 8 to teach narrative, expository (informative), and persuasive writing in new and creative ways.