Monday, August 22, 2016

Reflecting on Teaching Writing

I want to be a better writing teacher. That is an area in which I feel I really struggle. I attended trainings with David Matteson at our school district 2013-2015 for intermediate grades. Even though I understand his trainings for primary grades are phenomenal, I felt that the training for intermediate grades did not have too much impact on my students’ ability to write well. So much of his focus was on planning before you write, which is definitely an important process. Yet, I find that I often do not plan what I write most of the time. I prefer a more free-flowing form of writing, at least when it comes to writing reflectively. This summer, I started reading “What You Know by Heart: How to Develop Curriculum for Your Writing Workshop” by Katie Wood Ray. Her perspective led me to believe that to be a better teacher of writing, I need to be a writer myself. Then, I can draw on my experiences to tell students what I was thinking during the writing process. This led me to write a short story I had been contemplating for a long time. I did not write down a “plan” for the story, because it was a story that came from my heart. I did spend time in the pre-writing stage- thinking, not writing a plan. I took quite a few days to write and I wrote it like a sci-fi, to make the characters more visual. Actually, my intention was to hide the identity of the people upon whom I based the characters. I know one genre that I struggle with is opinion writing. So I tackled that type of writing this summer as well. I wanted to avoid the entire political arena when searching for a topic. So, I thought about other things that I am passionate about, mainly the environment. I am also passionate about math, but that does not usually lend itself to opinion writing pieces. I was inspired by a news story I had seen where a brewery made “edible” six pack ring holders. So, I decided to write about six pack rings needing to be made of degradable material. For my piece, I wrote the major and minor propositions. Then, I did some research to find evidence to back up my claims. In the process of doing this research, I discovered that US law already requires six pack rings to be made of material that will degrade in warm Florida waters in the summer. This led me to change my proposition to “Washington breweries should make six pack ring holders out of edible biodegradable material.” I included the research I found and I felt proud to complete the piece. Back to my quest to being a better writing teacher, I looked in other professional books to find how to teach opinion writing. Other than an old textbook called “Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition: Complete Course,” most of the “professional literature” that I had did not do a good job explaining how to teach opinion writing. Katie Wood Ray’s book basically said that people writing about their opinion does not need to be written in a formulaic way. Many other writing books I have all seemed to focus on personal narratives. So, I took to the internet and found some useful information from Lucy Caulkins. During my internet wanderings, I discovered and fell in love with his concept of Sacred Writing Time, which is 10 minutes each day where students must write. However the topic can be about anything they want. I look forward to incorporating this into my daily routine this year. I also discovered “Amelia’s Notebook” by Marissa Moss and plan to share a few entries from that on the first day of school with my students. I really like how the margin drawings give permission to students to illustrate their thinking. Previously, I would frown upon doodling or drawing, as I could not really relate to doodlers, not being a drawer myself. Yet, I love looking at sketch-notes that other people make, especially the ones done by RSA Animate with Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks. Sketch-notes are also popular on twitter. Since I teach fourth grade, I think it’s important to give students permission to draw. In the younger grades, the “planning” process taught by David Matteson has students draw a story. Even though I try to push them into chapter books, many of my students are drawn to cartoons (pun intended). I think “Amelia’s Notebook” and other graphic novels are the perfect bridge for students to move toward more sophisticated reading and writing. Katie Wood Ray writes about letting authors co-teach by reading books to students and talking about how the author wrote. I look forward to bringing Marissa Moss in as a co-teacher, not necessarily in person, but through her books and through her website, especially It’s going to be a great year!