The Science of Teaching Writing

A blog on teaching, with an emphasis in teaching writing.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Let's Go Outside

In the Poudre School District, most schools in the 6th grade take their students to either Pingree Park of the YMCA at the Rockies for three days and two nights of Science and Ecology lessons. It is one of the highlights of the year for the students, a way for student to learn Ecology in a more hands on approach, and also a real time of bonding for all who go, but also a great way to do teaching outside of the classroom.
Too often, writing is an activity with paper and pencil for kids, where they sit at a desk where they try to follow the formula of expository writing that that been drilled into them since third grade. Even when doing narratives, it's hard for some kids to get going--if a sixth grader doesn't have to sit quietly in a desk, they don't.
I took my kids outside to write. I cut really thick cardstock into quarters, cut unlined paper--I was trying to make it as untraditional as possible) stapled it, and took them outside to write. It was awesome. Up at Pingree Park as the sun is setting, it had lightly snowed the night before, the smells of the mountain were rich. After the sun set, the stars were littered across the sky like brilliant white crumbs of light. Kids were writing about how the ground felt--a cold that drains your body heat and energy, the pine needles flat and square like little rollers--the smells, the sounds of the wind and the Poudre river. It was wonderful. We shared our writing, talked about what we really liked of the writing that was shared, and one of my boys said, "We should do this more often. This is really fun."
As winter nears here in Colorado, I know I will take my kids out to enjoy the last of the fall, again in the Winter to enjoy the silence that comes with the season, in the Spring with all its newness, and the early summer smell that is delicious.
Besides, I hate sitting at a desk, too. And why not have a little bit of fun while we're at it?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Peer Revision, Editing & Conferencing

My sixth graders have finished their summer narratives--thank goodness as it is already October--and after teaching poetry to 118 kids, reading each poem and giving each poem thoughtful feedback, I was no where near excited about reading 29 narratives. So often each year, I get 25% that are amazing, 50% there are pretty good, and 25% that are terrible: misspellings, grammar mistakes, terrible handwriting, zero voice and detail. My weekdays and so jam-packed, they end up being my weekend reading, and reading these over a weekend have me going through more up's and down's than a speed freak.
My sixth grade teaching partners and I were looking through student data from the CSAP (our state tests) and we were talking about what do to for next quarter, how to bring up the standards we were least meeting. We talked about using rubrics with our kids, but just before, we were talking about peer-conferencing and editing. And that is where I decided to blend the two.
I made an excel sheet that broke down the areas I felt most needed to be addressed (voice, detail, number of sentences per paragraph--I have several "slackers"--and conventions) and then they filled in what would be an A, B, C, D, & F. We did this whole class, the excel sheet on a transparency, and they debated what were the requirements for each. Long before this happened, maybe a week, my students met with their peer-conference partner, and the writer read their piece to partner, and the partner would stop them when they had something to say--give more detail here; this is where you need a new paragraph. A week before that, kids had Author's Circles, where groups of 3 to 5 kids read their narratives, and were offered suggestion to help them springboard into re-vision (re: again, a new; vision: the power of sight) and most of my kids went back to their pieces with great ideas, and a few boys picked their noses and drooled on their desks because that is their work ethic.
On Monday, each writer gave their stories back to their peer-conference partner, rubric stapled to it--just to add, kids had copies of their rubrics the Friday before to see if they were measuring up. Students read each other's work, and then, with a hi-lighter, X-ed the part of the rubric where they felt the piece was. Before they did this, I told them, "You're following a rubric, not giving a grade, so, if it's a ONE, so be it. That's how we get better."
This last Friday, I gave the narratives back to my students, and this was their last chance to make, what I call, finishing touches. I had 26 of my 29 kids aggressively revising their narratives. I made them skip lines, this way they had room to add, change, and so on. As far as the three who weren't, one was sick, and two were doing what they do best, trying to look like they were looking. Notice the trying.
As I sit in a coffee shop in Old Town, drinking my Americano, I'm pleased as to what I have to read in front of me. The 28 isn't all that pleasing, but I know their work is better because of each other, because of the community of writers we are continuing to build. Had I used class time ot go over each piece with them, we would not be done. And very often, the advice students receive from each other is more valuable to them, than what a teacher will say. I saved time--I have mroe class time to teach--and myself some aggravation as to what I have to read.