Honestly, I don’t think that there is anything scarier for me than teaching writing. I don’t remember learning to write essays. I remember writing pages and pages of text with footnotes and annotations. But I don’t remember learning how to figure out the content of what to write. It is one of those things that I just do. I don’t think about it. I also rarely do a plan for an essay.Throughout my Graduate classes, I wrote my essays on the computer. Most of the time, I had a vague idea of what I was going to write in my head. I didn’t have a written plan. I also didn’t do a lot of editing. Chris proofread my papers, generally finding few errors. I never got less than an A.
When I was an undergraduate, I used note cards for research. I remember putting the note cards in order of how I was going to use them, but I don’t think that I used an outline or plan of any kind. I graduated with a 3.5 GPA in my English courses. I guess that I knew what I was doing.
Teaching writing to Elementary School students was easy. You did a plan, usually a web. You wrote a topic sentence and then supported the topic. You used descriptive (or “juicy”) words. During my last year as a paraprofessional, I used Every Child A Writer. I LOVED this way of teaching writing to SPED students. It involved a lot of modeling and teaching step-by-step-by-step. It usually didn’t require a lot of thought or planning on my part. However, when I was teaching, it was very active on my part. After I modeled, the students would need help and monitoring of their efforts at writing. The amazing thing was that the kids I was working with became better writers. They did it by learning how to write and copying how I did it. Of course, I was copying how the curriculum said to teach it. The important thing is that it worked.
Grammar is a weak area for me. It isn’t that I don’t know what is correct, I do. I just can’t explain why. Or what. For example, today I was working with my lowest class on writing a sentence. Somehow they got to High School believing that they don’t need capitals and periods. My professional goal for the year (although I less than 2 months to reach my goal) is to have students increase their skills in organization and conventions in their writing. So, after watching my students write answers to Reading Comprehension questions without capitals and punctuation, I figured I’d better do some re-teaching. Usually in this class, I work with my ESL student 1:1 and then have him work independently while I work with the remaining kids (4 on a good day, 2 today). But, since what we were going to be working on was basic, I had my ESL student join us.
Here is the puzzling part to me, my ESL student has a better idea of correct grammar and conventions than my native English-speaking students. I wrote the following sentence on the board – my dog runs – and asked the students to tell me what was wrong with the sentence. First, they told me it wasn’t a sentence. Then they told me that I was missing something. My sentence should read – my dog runs fast – They told me that – my dog runs – wasn’t a sentence. I asked them if it had a subject and a verb. They could identify both of those. But they never told me that it needed a capital letter or a period. My ESL student told me that. So, we had – My dog runs. – on the board. I asked them to make it a better sentence. They told me – My dog runs fast. – then they decided – My dog runs very fast. – They thought that this was a good sentence. I prompted them to tell me about the dog – My blue dog runs very fast. – Then they came up with – My little blue dog, lucky, runs very fast. – again they didn’t know what was wrong with the sentence as I wrote it. My ESL student told me that Lucky needed a capital letter.
I was able to teach the students that every sentence had a subject and a predicate (the naming part and the telling part). They seemed to get that. So, I had them write 3 good sentences each. My ESL student, who is working on writing at a fairly basic level, wrote 3 adequate sentences. They weren’t outstanding, but they were good enough. One of my other students wrote – my favorite team are the san diego chargers. . . – I read it aloud to him several times and he couldn’t tell me what was wrong. My ESL student told him – is – not are.
But as my goal is to improve writing (and the whole school is working on this), I think that I’m going to need to do some direct instruction in writing. And this scares me because there are times I don’t feel qualified to be teaching writing. Literature I can teach, no problem. Writing, I know how to do it, but I’m not sure I know how to teach it.
I’m preparing for my Formal Observation this week. Actually, it is tomorrow (but by the time you get to read this, it will be a few days past). I’m torn between teaching a lesson from Write Like This: Teaching Real World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts by Kelly Gallagher or introducing a new short story. Teaching the short story will not involve much in the way of stretching my teaching abilities. We would do a pre-reading activity, go over vocabulary and then I would read the story aloud. This is very similar to what I do with every story or novel I am reading with my classes.