Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Is your teaching sticky?

Today  In Our Write Minds, the Write Shop blog, is addressing roadblock #2:  Lack of skills and tools.   It is so true that many students get stopped at the very start of the writing process because they have no organized way to brainstorm or organize their ideas.  The blog addresses those main problems and includes a surprising suggestion  to use games as a way to practice the skill of brainstorming without the pressure of writing.(Great idea!  I had not thought of that connection.)

This post really spoke to me because I distinctly remember writing in school and absolutely avoiding the use of ANY pre-writing activity.   Of course way back in the dark ages of my elementary and secondary education I don't really remember anyone emphasizing the webbing that is so popular now.  Teachers instead tried to teach us to write an outline - a formal outline, with Roman numerals and all kinds of confusing numbers, letters and indention!  While I understood outlines, I did not see outlines as an organizational tool.   They were more like a unique form of torture for high school English students.

The problem was that I couldn't think of the outline before I had started writing! I had no tools to get the ideas out of my head without the flow of language that came naturally.   So I wrote and then made the outline from what I wrote just to satisfy the teacher.  (If my kids are reading this it is definitely a situation for do as I say and NOT as I did!).   I was fortunate that, for some reason, the writing organized itself in my head, more or less, and I was usually able to write a coherent essay or paragraph literally, off the top of my head.  I did learn to bullet outline my essay answers in college.  I saw this as a valuable method of not leaving out essential information and possibly getting partial credit if I ran out of time on a big test.  However -- I still couldn't tell you how I learned to do this except by trial and error. 

The problem came when I tried to teach my own children how to organize their writing.  It was still a mystery to me how I organized writing in my head and that made it difficult to explain to my poor struggling writers.  One of my children shared the same "writing off the top of the head" method I used in high school and his resistence to pre-writing organization created a lot of tension at our school table. (Don't you hate it when your children turn out to have YOUR bad habits?)

Thankfully, I found Write Shop for this last victim (I mean student!!!) !  Write Shop does an excellent job of explaining the brainstorming step of writing and teaching how to organize thoughts into a logical sequence. The prepared brainstorming sheets (like this example) are especially helpful to my very visual student.

We've been faithfully following all the steps with Write Shop and I have to say that I'm thrilled to see the method's sticking.   What I mean is that when you teach how to do something a certain way, there is no guarantee that the student will actually follow that method when you aren't looking.   To voluntarily use a particular method, a student must buy into the value of doing it that way.   If the student follows the method on their own, without prompting or bribing, then the method is "sticking". 

Write Shop is working for us in this area and this is how I know - this past weekend my daughter decided to enter her soccer coach into a "coach of the year" contest.  She took a yellow legal pad and started a list of all the reasons he should get the award.   She contacted her team-mates and recorded their ideas in the list and THEN (drum roll!!!!!) she organized the list into categories and started the letter.

All I have to say is way to go Write Shop!!!!!

To be honest, we still have a long way to go in this writing instruction; but at this point I'm grateful for any sign of  progress.   

If you have younger students you will want to read Sally's comments on the Primary level here.

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