Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Are they students or authors?

Do your students know why they write?  Do they write because they are trying to communicate something, or do they write because you told them to do so?  The more I work to refine my writer's workshop for my 4th graders, the more I realize that it is challenging to keep writing authentic for all of my kids.  No matter the subject matter or the purpose for writing, it is contrived for some kids.

I don't believe that our little ones come to school without anything to write about.  I think that if every Kinder kid had a switch on their backs that could be flipped to, "I AM A WRITER," every one of them would begin to write voraciously.  Everyone one of them would love the opportunity to communicate.

I can imagine several of them thinking, "WAIT!  You mean there are TWO ways for me to tell my very important stories?!?!?!  I can use my voice AND my pencil?!?!?!  AWESOME!"

Then they get a little older and they get through a few years of writing lessons.  Some of these lessons may be great!  They may be excellent activities that allow kids to write for meaning to an important audience.  Many lessons are not so great.  Too often, we ask kids to write for the sake of a state-mandated or district-mandated reason.  We do this because they need to learn a certain writing objective.  We try to make that learning objective fit within their purpose for writing.  It doesn't work for all of them every time.  For some of them, it doesn't work very often.  Many of them become reluctant to write.  They are told what to write about and the purpose is minimalized or meaningless.  We give them feedback about their writing that makes it sound like it isn't good.  More reluctance.

Then they hit 4th grade.  The writing grade.  The writing test.  Panicky teachers get even further away from authentic, purpose-driven writing.  But more tragic, the test absolutely requires a ridiculous format.  The parameters are set up so that teachers must teach kids how to fit their writing into the little box the state asks for.  It is challenging to keep their writing authentic and engaging when the test will give each child and the school a score.

Even as I tried to ignore the test, there came a point where I had to focus on the format they would be expected to "write" for.  If there was no test, would my writing instruction be better?  Absolutely.

And the units of study I am expected to follow?  The written curriculum?  It is definitely a challenge to get it all in.  Really, it is impossible.  Sure, I could spend seven minutes on period usage, 13 minutes on Similes, and 2.5 minutes on the semi-colon.  That would just about cover it. 

Sean Cain, the author of The Fundamental Five, has data that shows it is better for student achievement when a teacher "gets it all in."  I believe his information specifically pertains to content subjects like science and social studies.  Regardless, too many teachers see all written curriculum objectives as checklists.  Cover it all!

Other researchers, like Mike Schmoker, have evidence that the most successful teachers totally simplify the written curriculum and focus all of their energy on providing students with multiple opportunities to write, read, discuss, and argue  They basically ignore the checklist of objectives.  They ignore the "written and guaranteed" curriculum.

If the language arts curriculum for the state of Texas was better, would my writing instruction be better?  Absolutely.

Regardless of the parameters, I make the plans for writing in my classroom.  I keep going back to the word authentic.  If I dictate what they write, is it really authentic?  Can I design a classroom where they want to write because they feel compelled to communicate through the written word?  Can I create classroom experiences that include experiences for students to prepare written arguments for important opinions?  Can my classroom compel kids to communicate their scientific findings?  Can my classroom be a place where kids write for the art of writing?