Friday, February 10, 2012

The Energizer Bunny Problem

If there is one thing that I have learned about teaching writing through the years, it’s that we cannot assume anything. If we’re talking to students about writing sentences, we cannot assume that they understand that the word “sentence” implies a subject and action working in harmony to formulate a complete thought. When we talk about paragraphs, we cannot assume that children know that topic sentences set the stage for what is to come and that everything that follows should be organized and focused around a central idea.

It is for this reason that when planning mini lessons, I try to look at the components of writing through a child’s eyes and try to figure out what pieces they will need to know in order to best build their understandings of how to compose text. I know that writing volume and pleasure are contingent upon success and so I try to figure out how to make the building blocks of writing tangible and concrete.

This week, I worked with a group of third graders working within a unit of study of compare-contrast essays. My charge was to help these students develop their ideas into well rounded paragraphs. When I looked at a paragraph through a child’s eyes, it occurred to me that paragraphs appear to be ideas stretching down the page so when I began my mini lesson, I talked about how a single sentence leaves readers wanting for more and paragraphs step in to fill the need by providing the details that “stretch” an idea down the page. Knowing that understanding “what” writers do would not be enough, I searched for a way to show students “how.” I settled on telling students that writers accomplish the work of stretching out ideas within paragraphs by asking themselves, “What would my reader want to know next?” and set about the work of composing a paragraph together.

Our paragraph went like this:

Lunch is one of kids’ most favorite times of the day. They love lunch because they can talk to their friends and they don’t have to do school work. With busy mornings, kids get hungry so kids love lunch because they get to eat.

From there, children paired up to write a paragraph about another school day favorite: recess.

As they talked, they wrote, and as I circulated the classroom, I heard them asking one another, “What else would my reader want to know?”

At the end of this guided practice exercise, the classroom teacher and I observed that all of the children had successfully written a detailed paragraph about recess. However, when we looked closer, we noticed something. Take a look. Do you see it too?

In case you’re having trouble reading, Angie and Jake’s paragraph goes like this:

Recess is loved by kids, too because you can run around crazy. They can spread out and play games like tag. There is a lot of things to go like slides, swings, monkeybars, and soccer. You can also play on the blacktop and play games like jump rope, hop scotch, and hula-hoop. Recess is fun for everyone! Kids think recess is cool and fun and awesome. Another thing you can do is go on the spider web. You can play sports like baseball, basketball, tennis, ping-pong, and exercising. Recess if fun!

Perhaps the verb tense and pronoun switches are glaring at you, but we were looking at this from a stretching the paragraph point-of-view and what we saw was a paragraph that kept going and going and going and going…It felt like this paragraph could have or should have ended at the first “Recess is fun for everyone” but in asking “What else would my reader want to know,” these writers marched forward, just like the Energizer Bunny.

So what does this mean? Can we call ourselves effective teachers if in the course of teaching one thing, we create the need to teach another?

When children are learning new skills and strategies, it is not uncommon for them to overgeneralize. What has happened here is not unlike when children first take note of apostrophes and periods: they sometimes appear where they belong but they often turn up where they don’t belong. In this case, children have stretched the details down the page to craft a paragraph, but they’ve stretched it a little too far. Now we get to teach them the next part of a paragraph which will be how to know when enough is enough because after all, when you stretch a rubber band too far, it will break and no longer be functional.

So was this lesson effective? Well, it all comes down to instructional decision making. If tomorrow I decide to return to the teacher’s manual that says that on the day after “how to write a paragraph,” I need to teach “how to write a good beginning,” and do it because the books says so, then yes, I have been ineffective. If, however, I decide to teach that lesson about how to know when to end a paragraph, well, then, that is a different story entirely. Effective instruction is teaching children what they need when they need it.

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