Thursday, November 27, 2008

When the Going Gets Tough

As I got to thinking about reading and writing workshop, I realized it’s not a lot different from a marriage.

September is like an engagement. You’re filled with optimism. It’s a new class, a new year, a new beginning. Everybody is excited and can’t wait to get started.

October is the wedding. The big event arrives: Children’s book baggies are filled with just right books, their notebooks are decorated. You have officially launched their reading and writing lives. It is a beautiful affair.

November starts out with the honeymoon period. You’ve got your kids reading independently, working in guided reading groups, you’re trying out shared reading, they are writing in their writer’s notebooks every day. Workshop feels like a well oiled machine until…

… one day in the middle of November when it doesn’t. You suddenly realize there’s an English Language Arts assessment coming up in January and you’ve got to finish that unit on magnets in Science and there’s a project on Native Americans sitting on the back table, and don’t forget Math. There’s a test coming up on that in March. And what about parent teacher conferences and report cards? Oh, then there’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukah, and Kwaanza.

We all long to go back to “the way it used to be” when the going gets tough. When you find yourself wondering why you ever wanted to do reading and writing workshop in the first place, remember to ask yourself if the cookie cutter paragraphs about “What I am Thankful For” were really better than the poem Thomas wrote about his walk in the woods and the memoir Kayla wrote about the last time she saw her grandma? Was it better when the whole class read the same book and Margie, Karen, and Dylan sat in the back fiddling with their pencil because they couldn’t really read it? Or is it better that kids race to show you an expression that Amelia Bedelia would use in a book that wasn’t Amelia Bedelia?

Like a good marriage, reading and writing workshop take a lot of work. The struggle is part of the deal.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Beware of the Verbal Red Pen

Using a red pen to correct papers has become something of an educational taboo. We don’t do it because we know that nothing deflates a learner more than a paper that comes back all marked up screaming at a child, “I can’t believe the mistakes you made!” We’ve all moved on to less severe colors and mind what we write on children’s papers so to keep children motivated to learn.

I recently had a reading conference with a young boy. It started innocently enough, “Tell me about what you are reading.” The child complied and shared his excitement about reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The day’s lesson was about fluency so I decided to ask him to read a short bit of his book to get a handle on what he did and did not already know about fluency. As he began to read, his voice was flat and unenthused. I worried. Does he understand this? So I directed him to notice a word that had been written in capital letters. I asked him if he knew why the author would do such a thing. He gave me a blank stare that clearly indicated he did not so I went on to explain how writers do that for emphasis. I told him that when writers want a reader to say it really loudly in their head, they use all capital letters. He accepted that explanation and dutifully went back and read it louder. He read on and came upon a couple of words that he did not know. We talked about strategies for decoding unfamiliar words. Again, I worried. Does he understand this? Our conference continued and this boy continued to disregard all he had learned about paying attention to punctuation cues and reading with expression. We addressed other words that came up that troubled him and by now, I could ignore the question burning in my brain no longer. DOES HE UNDERSTAND THIS? So I followed that line of thinking. “When you read this what do you see in your mind?” The young boy looked directly at the picture on the page and described the drawing the illustrator had made. There was no longer a question in my mind about whether this reader understood this book. So, I made yet another move. “You know, when readers aren’t understanding what they read, they have an important decision to make. They have to decide whether they will keep reading this book and try really hard to use their fix-up strategies to make sure they are understanding or they have to think about abandoning the book and going back to it after they have had more practice reading in books that are just-right for them.”

As it turned out, this young reader decided to abandon Diary of a Wimpy Kid for now. But after this conference, I am left wondering what he really learned. I tried to teach so many different things: why authors use capital letters in their writing, how to sound out words that you don’t know, how to pay attention to punctuation cues that tell you how to read it with expression, how do you know if you are understanding, AND when do readers abandon books. Yikes, talk about conference overload!

I liken this conference to the red pen marks on a paper. In the same way that red pen stops the learning because it says too much and deflates the learner’s confidence, so too does a conference that teaches too many things. In hindsight, I would have been better off to have made a note of my concern, stuck with fluency instruction, and revisited this reader again the next day. In the end, I think he would have learned more about becoming a better reader. Ultimately, that is what we want for all of our students.

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Helping Children Revise Effectively

How to revise effectively is one of the most difficult things we teach young writers. It requires children to go back and think more about what they have already labored over for hours. Because this move tends to be so painful, I am always looking for ways of making revision more palatable and easier to understand for young writers.

Recently, I was working with a group of fourth grade writers who devised an amazingly comprehensive list of questions that writers ask themselves when writing. They included things like considering the audience, making sure the writing made sense, and taking things out in addition to the more common kid changes like adding details to make the writing more interesting and thinking about catchy beginnings. I was so impressed with what they came up with that I expected their revisions to be profound.

No such luck.

At this stage, these writers knew how to talk the talk, but walking the walk was a different story. I watched as they grappled with where to make changes. I watched as they crossed out one word and told me they were done. I watched as many sat and stared. I left frustrated. What could I do to support these students in their quest to “re-see” their writing?

Then it occurred to me: these writers needed practice.

As teachers, we have become very good about providing children with models of the work we want them to complete. In fact, I had shown this group of writers what revisions look like. But sometimes, until children have had the opportunity to mark up a paper and try out all of the great ideas they have been told make a difference, they just don’t understand how to apply it to their own work. So that is exactly what we did. The kids worked in small groups with a short text. The groups wrote questions in the margins. They crossed things out. They drew arrows. These drafts went from being boring and mundane to colorful and appealing. The transformation was amazing.

Improving the quality of student writing is important work. It is also hard work—both for students and teachers. Working in small groups to provide guided practice is sometimes just what young children need to scaffold them as they make their way toward better writing.

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