One of the best parts of my job is working with students in their classrooms. It's also one of the hardest parts of the job because usually, I focus my energy on the students who are struggling and striving. By the time students get to third or fourth grade, they have fairly well-established understandings and beliefs about themselves as writers, and this makes me sad. In this morning's slice, Clare Landrigan wrote about first-graders who questioned why she addressed them as "readers." Likewise, I see many, many students who do not see themselves as writers.
We need to change that.
Today, I worked with a group of four fourth-graders who are just beginning a unit on informational writing. We integrate information writing with social studies, so they had some topics about Connecticut history to choose from. Rather than choosing a topic that would require a lot of research, I asked each of them to choose a war they knew something about. We'd write fast and create a shared piece-- each section would be about one war. Three of the four boys knew a lot about wars, so they were able to get started with their writing right away. With the nudge of some transitional words, they each wrote several sentences about a specific war. While they were off and running, one of the boys shook his head and indicated that he didn't know a thing about any of the wars. I asked him a little about the Revolutionary War, and he teared up, unable to provide anything of substance about it. "How about just war?" I said, trying to do some damage control and stop the tears. "What do you know about wars? You can write a section just about what was is in general." He perked up, and he managed to write a fair amount with plenty of also's, another's, for example's, therefore's, and this is important because's.
I share this because at the end of twenty minutes, they produced an informational text with sections, different types of information, transitional language, and a plan for an introduction and conclusion--in fact, they were excited enough about it that they told me they'd work on the beginning and ends tomorrow before school--and...they were excited about their writing. "I never write this much," one of them said. "I didn't realize I had so much to say." Three of the four boys felt great about what they wrote, and my teary friend admitted he felt better. Sometimes, I have to settle for better.
Their work wasn't perfect; it was an approximation. However, it's hard to teach kids to write if they don't write. Somehow, we have to make the work seem doable so that we can celebrate and enjoy the energy that feeling confident and competent brings. Sometimes I wonder if those feelings are right up there with audience and purpose. Thoughts?