Sunday, February 20, 2011


On Friday, Mary Lee had an amazing post about thinking out of the box. If you haven't read it, hop right over to Year of Reading and do it now. Really. Be sure to take the six minutes to watch the video. It's amazing.

Mary Lee's video and the accompanying poem gave me a new lens for thinking about an event that had occurred on Thursday in a class that I was working in:

I've been fussing a lot lately about how important it is to have a solidly grounded, theoretically based teaching philosophy and to make curricular and pedagogical decisions based on those beliefs. In a few less words, "I believe X, so I do Y." When I do that in my own teaching life, that's when kids learn best. Take this situation from last Thursday, for example.

I am working with the fourth graders on writing fiction, specifically, writing fiction to a prompt. Many of my students come from homes where lots of stories are told, but few come from homes where many stories are read aloud. I try, then, when I write narrative, and particularly fictional narrative with kids to read them lots of great stories. One of my favorite authors for this is Robert Munsch. Munsch was an oral storyteller before he was a writer. Munsch's work is sophisticated enough that older kids enjoy the content, and his writing style is easy for them to imitate. Munsch draws heavily on the the traditions of oral storytelling, e.g. things that happen in threes, events that repeat three times, repeating phrases. Because he uses these tools so masterfully, they are easy for kids to recognize and duplicate.

A. approaches at the end of independent writing time. He is a sweet, sweet guy, an English Language Learner, who is super eager to please. When he came to fourth grade, A rarely wrote more than a paragraph. The writing was simple, the language was simple, and his use of conventions was simple. A is a kid who has really taken off as a writer, however, in the past few month. He regularly writes two, and occasionally even three well-developed pages during writing time. He knows how to use several different leads, including a question, a sound effect and what we call "setting the scene." He uses what we call "rule of three" (have three events, add three details to make a picture in the writers' head/give three examples to support your thinking). He can write dialogue, and punctuate it pretty close to correctly. He knows how to end a piece without saying, "And that's the end of my story." Most importantly, he can evaluate his own work, and tell you what he has done well, and what he wants to do on the next piece of writing.

One thing I know about A, however, is that he is not usually a writer or learner that grasps a concept or technique on the first try, or often not even the second, or third. Usually A needs to approximate, get feedback, approximate again, get more feedback, approximate, and get more feedback. It takes him four or five or ten tries. A is persistent, however, and eventually, he gets the hang of whatever we are working on.

Today, A can't wait to show me what he has done during writing time. The prompt was to imagine you woke up with a new body part, e.g. antlers, or a giraffe neck, or wings. A. has taken Robert Munsch's story, PURPLE, YELLOW, GREEN, about a little girl who begs her mom to buy her markers, first washable markers, then smelly markers, then indelible, never wash off until you're dead and maybe even longer markers, and basically inserted his own name into it. He's used Munsch's details and even his language. He tells me that he is going to have himself draw bunny ears on his head, but at this point, he is almost two pages in, and has not yet reached the prompt. That's a teeny bit of a problem given that the assigned length for this story cannot be any more than four pages.

We are at the point in the year where we have four teaching days until kids have to be able to show that they are proficient writers. And when I look at A's piece, my heart jumps into my throat. A four page piece that has not hit the prompt after two pages is probably not going to cut it. I take a deep breath. I remember what I believe. I try to practice what I have preached.

First, I acknowledge what A has done. "Wow, A, you really loved that Robert Munsch story that we read today, huh? And you have used his ideas and his words in even your own work." A beams from ear to ear and has to read the piece aloud to me again, just so I can get the full effect of Munsch's words in his story. I make myself breathe deeply again, then I try to honor A's approximation, "I love how you listened during the mini-lesson and how you used Robert Munsch's thinking to help you write your own story." A is still beaming, and again has to read me several lines lifted pretty much directly from Munsch.

Then I provide feedback to push A forward. I gently remind him about the prompt we are writing to. He tells me that he is going to use Robert Munsch's markers to draw bunny ears on his own head and talk about what a day would be like with bunny ears. "Ohh, I get it," I say. "That's a great idea." We talk a little about balance, and about how the beginning probably can't be quite as long as Alex has made it, and about how the people who grade prompted writing need to know pretty quickly that you are writing to their prompt, and then A., still smiling goes back to work some more on the piece. He is still incredibly pleased with his efforts, and I'm not totally sure he has heard anything I have said. I'm thinking he will draw the bunny ears on himself pretty soon, but either the piece will be four pages and be totally beginning heavy, or he will have a six or seven page story, that's way too long for a prompted writing.

I make myself take a a few more deep breaths. And try not to think about how much more teaching will need to go on before A. is proficient at using this technique vs. how many days we have left before he needs to be proficient. A is becoming a proficient writer. Whether it takes three more days or three more weeks or three more months, I need to keep doing the same things Don Graves taught me to do a hundred years ago. Listen to the writer. Celebrate the message. Honor the approximations. Think about the one thing that will help the writer move forward. Teach that one thing. And then send the writer back to learn from his/her writing.

Teaching should not be about trying to cram children into little boxes. Teaching should be about celebrating who children are as learners, and honoring who they are becoming. However long it takes.


Lauren said...

Thank you for sharing A's writing process. I struggle with the same question: honoring the student's pace and experience vs. someone else's definition of what and when proficient is and should be.

Katie Dicesare said...

I thank you Carol as I benefitted from your reflection today. I can so relate to your experience an appreciate reading the reminders of Donald Graves.

Mary Lee said...

Just getting here. Sorry. One of those months. LOVE this reflection. Especially this:

"Whether it takes three more days or three more weeks or three more months, I need to keep doing the same things Don Graves taught me to do a hundred years ago. Listen to the writer. Celebrate the message. Honor the approximations. Think about the one thing that will help the writer move forward."

(word verification: "mylitype" You are "mylitype.")