Sunday, August 25, 2013

Writing: The Key to Unlocking Everything Else

Although all subjects in school are important for children to develop, it is my firm belief that none is more important than writing at the elementary level.  After elementary school, students will be asked to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding in most other subject areas through writing.  For example, a strong foundation in science is a stepping stone into many lucrative fields, some that possibly don't even exist yet!  However, if a student is unable to express his or her scientific know-how, understanding, and innovative ideas through writing or presentation, these skills and ideas will most likely go unnoticed.  To best serve students' needs in this now competitive STEM-driven world, we must give them the most effective tools to help them learn how to communicate their understanding and ideas.  We must teach them how to think about expressing their ideas and how to write.

Enter the writing workshop.  I've been teaching writing using the workshop method since my first year of teaching in 2002.  The writing workshop teaches the process of writing by allowing students to develop their inner-writer. Students are authors in the workshop.  They come up with ideas, develop them through process, discuss their writing with each other, and most importantly learn to communicate in a way that traditional prompted writing classes do not teach.  Writing should be taught across the entire curriculum, but it must also be taught as its own craft for students to reach their full potential as both writers and communicators.  The writing workshop helps achieve this goal.

Last school year, my first as a fifth grade teacher, I struggled with writing.  In fifth grade, the curriculum demands and requirements are so intense that I found it to be a difficult balancing act to fit in the writing workshop.  When I taught third grade, the writing workshop was implemented four to five days a week for an hour at a time.  In fifth grade, my students now have music class twice a week, intensive science and tech classes three time a week, PE twice a week, and many special events for their final year as elementary students.  Although I wanted more time in my teaching day, I would never have suggested taking any of these opportunities away from my students.  I realized I had to find time to fit in the writing workshop around the bursting-at-the-seams fifth grade daily schedule.

Enter Columbia University's Teachers College Reading Writing Project (TCRWP).  In a prior post, I wrote about my four days at the TCRWP summer writing institute for PAUSD teachers.  It was actually life-changing for me.  Through the help of my session presenter, Alissa Levy, I was able to find time to fit writing workshop into the schedule.  It's not ideal, but it's what I can do.

Room 20's Fifth Grade Weekly Schedule for the 2013-2014 School Year
We had our first full week of school last week.  While academics are not exactly in their full swing quite yet, we were able to start the writing workshop.  This past week, my students created their own personal writing notebooks and participated in our first session of the writing workshop.  At the TCRWP institute, I worked with my peers to learn how to implement Lucy Calkin's Writing Workshop.  The first session this past week was from her fifth grade narrative unit.  In this session, students learned how to generate ideas for narrative writing.  One of the most difficult skills as a writer is to come up with an idea.  Many teachers quickly turn to giving a student a prompt if he or she can't think of anything to write about.  I firmly believe we must avoid doing this and teach students how to come up with ideas, even if the process forces students to struggle.  If we do not teach students how to come up with their own ideas every time they write, they will become too dependent on us.  Students need to learn to be independent, especially at the fifth grade level and higher.

This first mini lesson was about learning how to generate topics for narrative writing by thinking about first times, last times, and times that made us realize something.  I modeled on the SMART board by writing the following:

Miss Nosek's Narrative Writing Ideas
-The first time crossed a finish-line at a triathlon.  Tears of joy were flowing!
-My first day of school as a classroom teacher.  I was both nervous and excited.
-The last time I ate a strawberry.  The allergic reaction was ugly.
-The time I realized...

Through writing my examples on the SMART board, my students watched me struggle to come up with ideas.  The ideas were not pre-typed.  Rather, I sat there struggling to think of what to write.  By doing it this way, my students saw that struggling to come up with ideas is a natural and normal part of the writing process.  After this mini lesson, I set students free to generate their own ideas.  What happened next was magic.  They were all writing!