|Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute||Home|
Besides enjoying teaching writing, I am enjoying writing on my own much more. I have begun to keep a journal and use letter writing to friends and family as an easy way to put my ideas down on paper and to chronicle some of my family’s history. I also take courses which require me to write. While I am aware that a good way to motivate students to write is to write with them (E., p. 6), it is not always possible to do so because of the way I structure my students’ writing classes. What I do, however, is talk to my students about my own writing experiences, my own frustrations, blocks, and feeling of inadequacy in getting my ideas down on Paper. I also share my reading on the subject of writing with my students. Posters listing the steps in our writing process and posters defining important writing words are hung about the room. We are all learning a lot.
The students for whom I am writing this unit are in my sixth and seventh grade Talented and Gifted classes. However, the ideas for encouraging writing and improving writing skills in this unit can be used for practically all grades. They are all the approaches that I use for my own writing. What will determine the grade level with which to use this unit is the bibliography of autobiographical works. This bibliography has been chosen for sixth and seventh grade students with good reading abilities.
The writing process in my classroom consists of the following steps:
The first step in the writing process for my students is deciding what to write. Here is where autobiography comes into play. After years of thinking that I was helping my students’ creativity, flexible thinking, and writing skills by asking them to “be a pencil and describe your life” or write about “the class from the Point of view of the class gerbil” I realize that my students’ best writing is always done when they are writing about themselves and their own experiences. They “must have a real experience for the words to have the Power”’ (E. p. 357) In One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty describes how she did her best writing when it was based on real life events and the things she knew about best. “[O]ther sorts of vision, dream, illusion, hallucination, obsession, and that most wonderful interior vision, which is memory, have all done to make up my stories, to form and project them, to impel them”3 While my students would almost all sit down and willingly dash off some reasonably clever piece of prose, it was clear that there was no real involvement in their writing. They had completed the assignment, but they made it clear I should not ask for revision, revamping, or editing. In short, there was no commitment to their writing. I had motivated students to write but not gotten them personally involved with their writing. (C. p. 5)
1. Brainstorming a list of possible writing topics 2. Ten minute sessions of directed writing for students having difficulty beginning their writing 3. Writing of first draft 4. Revision of first drafts through peer conferences 5. Editing of revised work through teacher conferences 6. Sharing of final drafts
I was finally able to see that when Melissa wrote about the trip to DisneyWorld that she took with her family that her writing began to develop organization, her syntax improved, and she made many less errors. She was willing to revise this piece, have it edited, and share it with her peers. She and her mother translated the story into Spanish to send to her grandparents in Puerto Rico. She was involved with this piece of writing, committed to improving it, and willing to do whatever was necessary to make it her best work. While Melissa’s writing in and of itself was not great, it was definitely her best work up to that point. This is what we are striving for all of our students. In addition, Eudora Welty also writes that “Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life.” (W. p. 90) Do we not, as teachers, also want to provide this same kind of opportunity for our students: the opportunity to examine their lives and make some kind of order and sense out of them? Melissa had accomplished all of this.
Melissa’s topic came from the first step that I have my students go through in their writing process. Students are asked to brainstorm a list of twenty to twenty-five topics about themselves or their lives, from which to write. This is not an easy process. Lucy Calkins, in Lessons From a Child, states that the role of the teacher in this part of the writing process is to help students know that their lives are worth writing about and to help them focus their topics, and keep them from being too large. One student, typical of most of the others, listed “‘Countries” as one subject on which she wanted to write. After a lengthy questioning process, I was finally able to discover that she really wanted to write about “My Relatives Who Live in Sudan” Once we narrowed her topic down, she was able to write an interesting story about a part of her family that fascinated her and about which she knew a great deal.
I ask my students to think of pouring their topics into a funnel when thinking of topics to write about. Obviously, “Countries” would only fit at the top of the funnel. We want our topics to be able, figuratively, to come out of the funnel. Therefore, topics must be very narrow in focus. Once my student was able to be more specific about this particular writing topic, she was able to begin writing a much more detailed story about this very interesting part of her family.
I also need to add here that not every topic my students write about has to be about real people or events. Their dreams and fantasies are just as much a part of them, and therefore just as autobiographical, as their roles in real life. One student listed “Playing Drums With Motley Crue” as one of his topics. While we both knew he had never been a member of this band and very likely never would be, this was a fantasy that was very real to him. He wrote a lengthy, detailed description of his imaginary life as a member of that band, and because he cared about the topic, he put much more effort into this work.
This list of writing topics, once completed, is the basis of our daily writing. Students refer to it as they complete pieces of writing. They are encouraged to revise the lists as often as they choose and to use the list to spark new ideas.
Having a concrete list of ideas for students to use in their writing will be of little use, however, if students cannot get ideas down on paper. At the beginning of the year we engage in ten minute periods of directed writing in which students are encouraged to write nonstop for the ten minutes. Because this is a new experience for many of my students, the writing is directed by topics that I suggest. Whether or not to use directed writing topics will depend on your knowledge of your students’ writing abilities. More skillful students will not need this beginning step. If I do use directed topics, it is clearly understood that any student can use his or her own topic lists or anything else that enters his mind at that time instead of my suggestion. The writing topics that I suggest are usually topical in nature—something of interest to students taken from the news. Often I ask them to write letters—to the superintendent of schools, the President, or their parents in which they write on a given topic and state their opinion, pro or con. Letter writing appeals to my students and is often successful in helping them get words and ideas down on paper. Letter writing is also autobiographical writing when students state their ideas and opinions. They often describe their families, their activities, as well as their personal feelings. These letters provide them with a way of placing themselves in history by asking them to state their ideas or opinions about current topics of interest or controversy.
The question arises of whether or not to correct these papers. Many of us have been led to believe that correcting students’ papers inhibits their writing. That returned paper, full of corrections in red, green, or whatever color, is demoralizing for many students, especially younger students or students whose skills are lagging. However, this question can be resolved by explaining to students that there are two kinds of writing. The first is free and intuitive, the second part is controlled and critical (E. p. 7) and writing must be separated into these two separate processes because they cannot be done at one time. (E. p. 9) Since these first ten minute writing topics are meant to get ideas down on paper, I do not correct these papers in the beginning. What can be done, toward the end of this process, is to announce in advance that a set of papers will be corrected and then copied over. For some students, this may be the first time the concept of a rough draft is presented and it will take a long time for them to realize that the first writing will not be the end result. This is the stage at which I begin to help my students learn that what is written in the first draft is not necessarily what will be written in the final draft. What I find helpful to do at this stage in the writing process is simply to check the line upon which a spelling or grammatical error occurs. Two checks indicates two errors, and so on. Students can then go back on their own and make corrections. Portions that need to be reworked because they are awkward, vague, disorganized, etc., are bracketed and commented upon. Once the students have corrected as many errors as possible independently, they then meet with me to go over the rest of the paper.
When I feel confident that my students are able to get some ideas down on paper, and are beginning to understand the concept of reworking a piece of writing, I then move into the main part of my writing program. The catch phrase in my classroom is that “writing is an on-going process.”’ This sentence is spoken often and is on a poster prominently displayed. It is written on the board when students need to be reminded of our goals. It is also a reminder to me that each student will be at a different point in the writing process at any given time.
Each of my students is given a large manilla envelope in which to keep all of his or her work, and I remind them frequently to keep everything that he or she writes. Many of my students are in the habit of starting a piece of writing and, not finding it satisfactory, wadding it up and throwing it away. I ask students to keep all of these beginnings. They are all drafts of what will eventually be their final product. In fact, I ask them not to use new paper and just to cross out what they don’t like and start again on the same sheet. This is difficult for many of my students who clearly are members of what Caulkins refers to as a “first-draft only society.” (L. p. 30)
At this point my students are completely in charge of their choice of writing topics. Their topics lists are kept in their writing envelopes and as stated earlier, revised often. Once a piece of writing is considered a completed first draft, the student is asked first to reread what she or he has been writing by reading it to herself or himself aloud. The next step is to ask a friend to read the paper (or the author can read his work aloud to the other student) and to offer suggestions to improve the writing. This step, in the past, has not been a particularly successful one for when I asked what sort of comments or suggestions were given in these peer conferences, the comments are usually along the lines of “He said it was very good.”’ or, “He said he enjoyed it.” To remedy this, I have developed a Conference Sheet. This worksheet, which is included in this unit, is to be used whenever students confer with each other. The student who is reading the piece of writing will give this to the writer to use in making revisions. While this conference will benefit the writer, the student reading the story will also benefit from this procedure. In examining his peer’s writing to look for strong and weak areas, he will be able to get ideas to improve his own writing as well as to see ways to avoid the same kinds of problems. He will begin to develop his own revision process. He will also be called on to evaluate his peer’s writing and in doing so will continue to use and develop his own skills of evaluation.
Students need to be taught what revision means and then taught how to revise. It is easiest to explain revision to students by explaining what it is not. Revision is not proofreading or editing for spelling, grammatical, or mechanical mistakes. It is looking at a piece of writing to see if it is in logical order with the thoughts about one idea grouped together. It is looking to see if there is a beginning, middle, and end to the writing. Revision looks to see if the writer has said what he started out to say. It involves adding, subtracting, and replacing words and ideas.5 This is a difficult process for many students (and writers in general) for it is difficult to throw away or change what they have written. (E. p. 123)
In order to revise effectively, students need to be shown how to bracket a sentence out of sequence and draw a line with an arrow to its proper place in the text. They can be shown how to cut their texts into sentences or sections that can be rearranged and glued onto another sheet of paper. I strongly urge my students to write their first drafts double-spaced. This is somewhat of a losing battle, but the first time a student sees how much easier it makes the revision process, he or she will remember this tip in subsequent writing. In short, students need to be shown how to develop their own procedures that can be used over and over again for revision in all of their writing.
The next step in our on-going process, once a story has been revised, is the editing process. It is important for students to know the difference between revision and editing and to know that both are absolutely necessary. Alan Ziegler, in The Writing Workshop, sums up the need to revise and edit clearly when he states that “Getting everything the way you want it on one draft is akin to driving from one end of a city to another without hitting any red lights; it’s possible, but happens only slightly more often than when the moon is tinted blue and business picks up at the Hades ice skate concession.” (Z. p. 79) Having defined revision, the students can then be taught that editing is the correcting of all the mechanical, spelling, or grammatical errors. This part in the process can be done by both peer conferences and by teacher student conferences. If at any time during peer conferences a student notices an obvious error, this can be noted for the student even though the main purpose of the peer conference is for revision purposes. Once the student meets with the teacher with a revised draft, the teacher can help the student with the mechanical errors, noting errors by checks or by using a set of symbols to indicate the specific errors. Once again, it is important to stress that students will be able to write with more ease if there is a set procedure for him or her to follow that is always in place.
If, during teacher student conferences, I find that a student is in need of a quick less to teach a specific skill, such as the proper use of quotation marks, I will teach a mini lesson to that student on a one-to-one basis. Also, if mechanics are taught in conjunction with students’ own writing, they will be more meaningful (L. p. 35) and internalized more rapidly. If, however, I notice when looking through work in progress, that many students are making the same kinds of mistakes I will hold a mini lesson for the class at the beginning of the writing session. No more than ten minutes this is a quick lesson that teaches one specific skill such as the use of “there” ”their” and “they’re,” or when to use a semi-colon.
The ultimate goal of writing is sharing, either through oral reading of final drafts, or through publication. Lucy Caulkins refers to this as the “celebration” of the completion of a piece of writing (L. p. 111), and she points out that just as we need to write, we need to be heard. (C. p. 10) Students also learn from hearing what is good that has been written by others. (E. p. 23) While this is probably the most important part of this whole writing process, it is probably the one that is most difficult to accomplish. There never seems to be enough time for either of these two luxuries, but it is important to allow time for students to share their work by reading them aloud. This can be done at any time during the writing session and should be done with reasonable frequency, especially after the writing process is well under way. I have also found that an effective means of sharing work in a less formal way is to mount completed writing on sheets of construction paper and bind them into booklets. Prominently displayed in the classroom, these booklets are available for students to read in their leisure time, and for classroom visitors to enjoy. It is also interesting to ask students to put all of the drafts for one piece of writing together. Students can learn a great deal more about their own writing by examining how their work changed from first to final draft. Having gone through the writing process, the goal is for the student to internalize the questions asked during both peer and teacher conferences so that they can ask them of themselves. We ant them to become critics of their own writing. (C. p. 121) This is another step toward that goal.
Throughout this paper I have discussed the writing of prose. Everything that is included here, however, pertains to the writing of poetry. The hardest part, I have found, in getting my students to write poetry, is to convince them that poetry does not have to be the sing-song rhythm of “Roses are red, violets are blue”’ The best way to counteract this is to expose students to lots of poetry, by reading poems aloud and making sure that students are aware of how poems look, as well as how they sound. Caulkins points out that poetry is the great equalizer. A student does not have to be the best prose writer or the best reader to be the best poetry writer (C. p. 306), and many students who have difficulty writing about personal experiences or feelings in prose, find poetry much easier to write. There is a wide range of autobiographical poetry appropriate to this age group also recommend for use with students a wonderful anthology of poetry for children entitled Talking to the Sun, which introduces children to a wide range of poets, and is illustrated with pictures, hangings, photography, sculpture, jewelry, and pottery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While not all of the poetry in this book is autobiographical, it clearly shows the many forms poetry can take.
While writing about the process I want my students to go through in their own writing, I have indicated the part autobiography plays in this unit. A major complaint of teachers considering using autobiography as the basis of a writing unit is that students tend to think of writing their autobiographies by beginning with writing “I was born on.” and continuing from there. One way to counteract this is to expose students to as many different kinds of autobiographical readings as possible. As students read journals, memoirs, diaries, portraiture, and fiction based on autobiography, they will become aware of the many forms this genre can take. A brief bibliography of autobiographical works for sixth and seventh grade students follows.
Whether the writing is prose or poetry, however, the goal is the same. Our job as teachers is to make students comfortable with writing, to make them competent writers, and to help them find a place for writing in their lives. (Z. p. 103)
Title of Writing:
1. Is this story in good order? Are the events in sequence? 2. How are the paragraphs? Are all the ideas about one subject/event grouped together? 3. Does this story have a good beginning, middle, and end? Which parts, if any, need more information? 4. Are there any parts of this story which could be left out? Why? 5. Does this story have well-structured sentences? Which need more work? 6. Are there grammar mistakes? 7. Are there spelling mistakes? 8. Does this writing make you feel any particular way? Why? 9. What parts of this story are you able to visualize? 10. What did you like best about this story?
To introduce students to writing poetry.
Materials: “the thirty-eighth year” by Lucille Clifton
Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman, p. 3 (This passage is by Robby Wideman, as told to the author).
“Autobiographia Literia” by Frank O’Hara
1. Group discussion should center around what these poems tell us about the people who wrote them. Are these portraits that, in words, describe how these people look? What do these poems tell us about the writers? How does each of these people feel about himself or herself? 2. Ask the students to think about themselves and their many roles. For example, are they students, sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, younger or older, grandchildren, nieces or nephews, sports fans, babysitters, etc.? Each student should individually brainstorm a list describing his or her various roles beginning with “I am. . .” and listing as many roles as he or she can think of. These lists can also be expanded to include students’ qualities (physical and personality) and likes and dislikes. Completed lists should be shared orally. With minor revisions, these lists make interesting free verse. 3. Students can write their own self-portraits using either poetry or prose. They should be encouraged to put emphasis on who they are rather than what they look like, although physical descriptions do not need to be completely avoided. Since this is a writing activity that can be difficult for some students who are not introspective or who are unwilling to take risks, referring them back to their “I am. . .” lists may help them with this writing assignment. 4. Students can write a letter to.themselves or to a part of themselves about an experience they had, or about something they do or do not like about themselves or that part of themselves.
To introduce students to writing memoirs.
Materials: Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman, pgs. 202-09. This passage describes the author’s brief encounter with a young Chinese woman doctor.
1. There is much to be discussed about the author, Little Mi, and Chinese life in this passage. Discussion can focus on what the students learn about each. Our lives are made up of a series of moments, some more important than others. This is an example of an event that is not dramatic, but is still worthy of remembering—one of life’s “little” moments. Ask each student to think about a moment in his or her past that is remembered even though it is not of major importance. Think of all the reasons why that particular moment is important. What were the circumstances surrounding this moment? Who else is in this memory? Try to envision the circumstances, the location, the time of day, the sounds and smells. As teacher, give examples from your life to illustrate this assignment. Ask the students to write about this moment in either prose or poetry, trying to recapture the mood of that moment. Ask the students to try to let the reader see, feel, and hear everything that happened in that one event. 2. Students can write this vignette in the first person. They can then be asked to write it again from the point of view of another person or even an object that is important in the story. They can write the story again in the third person and compare the differences in each piece of writing.
To encourage students to write poetry and/or prose.
Materials: “two friends” by Nikki Giovanni
1. Discuss this poem by asking the students how we know that the two girls in the poem are friends even before we read the last line? Discuss friendship and brainstorm, as a class, everything that is needed for two people to be friends. Ask each student to think about his or her best friend and to list the special qualities that friend possesses. Ask each student to list his or her own qualities that make him or her a good friend. Discuss this question: If you were someone else, would you choose yourself for a friend? 2. Write about your friendship in either prose or poetry by describing an adventure you shared with your friend, or by describing your relationship with your friend. Write about your friendship in terms of what you appreciate about your friend. 3. Do the above as a play. 4. Put up a friendship “graffiti” wall in your classroom by covering a section of wall with blank paper to be covered with “graffiti” about friendship. Encourage students to look for quotes, write short poems, or draw.
2Peter Elbow, Writing With Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 11. All subsequent references to this book are cited in my text and will appear with the letter “E.”
3Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginning (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 89. All subsequent references to this book are cited in my text and will appear with the letter “W.”
4Lucy McCormick Calkins, Lessons From A Child (Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books, 1983), pp. 27-28. All subsequent references to this book are cited in my text and will appear with the letter “L.”
5Alan Ziegler, The Writing Workshop (New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1981), p. 80. All subsequent references to this book are cited in my text and appear with the letter “Z.”
A how-to book for introducing students to poetry and helping them write poetry. A valuable classroom resource.
Caulkins, Lucy McCormick. The Art of Teaching Writing. Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books, 1986.
Describes the writing process and how to go about improving the writing skills of students of all ages. This book is a valuable resource and guide.
———. Lessons From a Child. Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books, 1983.
A description of the author’s work with second and third grade writers.
Elbow, Peter. Writing With Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
A guide to more powerful writing for writers of all ages. Many techniques are applicable to the classroom.
Giovanni, Nikki. Spin a Soft Black Song. New York: Hill and Wang, 1971.
Poems about children, for children.
Salzman, Mark. Iron and Silk. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
Memoirs of the author’s two years in China as a Teacher of English and student of martial arts.
Welty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi in the early twentieth century and the events that led Eudora Welty to becoming a Pulitzer Prize winning author.
Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.
The author’s effort to understand why he became a Rhodes Scholar and award winning novelist while his younger brother wound up sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a man during a robbery.
Ziegler, Alan. The Writing Workshop. New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1981.
More on the writing process. A valuable resource for teachers of students in junior high school and up.
———. The Writing Workshop Vol. 2. New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1984.
The companion idea book for The Writing Workshop. Offers many ideas for encouraging writing.
The life and rise to stardom of this well-known opera singer.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1969.
Descriptions of the author’s early life with her grandmother in Arkansas and her later years in St. Louis and San Francisco.
Ashe, Arthur. Advantage Ashe. As told to Clifford George Gewecke, Jr. New York: Coward/McCann, 1967.
The career of this tennis star is described beginning with his teen years in Virginia.
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. New York: Bantam Books, 1904.
Powerful autobiographical work of growing up black.
Bates, Daisy. The Long Shadow of Little Rock. New York: David McKay, 1962.
A memoir describing the person behind the fight for school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.
Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb. Miami: Mnemosyne Publishers, 1969.
The story of the slave system and one slave’s growth to manhood and dignity within that system.
Bradley, Bill. Life on the Run. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book, 1976.
A Rhodes Scholar and All-American basketball player. His life as a pro.
Brown, Jimmy, with Myron Cyse. Off My Chest. Garden City: Doubleday, 1964.
The high and low points in the career of this Cleveland Brown fullback.
Campanella, Roy. It’s Great to be Alive. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.
A one-time Dodger’s catcher who has to learn to live with paralysis after a car accident.
Dahl, Ronald. Boy. New York: Farrar-Straus-Giroux, 1984.
Memoirs of the school years of the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach.
Douglass Frederick Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Garden City: Dolphin Books, 1963.
Douglass’ life as a slave his struggles to learn to read and write, and his eventual escape to freedom.
Frank, Anne. The Diary of A Young Girl. New York: Pocket Books, 1964.
The journal of a young Jewish girl in hiding from the Nazis in Holland during World War II.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Pocket Books, 1939.
A printer, inventor, statesman, and singer of the Declaration of Independence.
Fritz, Jean. China Homecoming. New York: G.P. Purnam’s Sons, 1985.
The story of an American woman’s return to China after leaving there at age 13.
Gibson, Althea. I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. New York: Harper and Row, 1958.
The story of a champion tennis player’s efforts to gain a foothold in the all-white tennis world.
Gordy, Barry, Sr. Movin’ Up. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.
The story of the father of the man who started Motown Records.
Lund, Doris. Eric. New York: Dell, 1974.
The author describes her son’s battle against leukemia and the effect his illness has on her family and herself.
Malcolm X, with the assistance of Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965.
The autobiography of this famous religious and black leader who was assassinated in 1965.
Nhuong, Huynh Quang. The Land I Lost. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.
A collection of remembrances of the author’s boyhood in Viet Nam.
Owens, Jesse, with Paul C. Neimark. The Jesse Owens Story. New York: Putnam’s, 1970.
For younger readers, the major events in Owen’s life.
Salzman, Mark. Iron and Silk. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
Memoirs of the author’s two years in China as a teacher of English and student of martial arts.
Sandburg Carl. Prairie-Town Boy. Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.
This American poet’s story of his boyhood in Galesburg, Illinois.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis. A Day of Pleasure. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1963.
Nobel Prize winning author describes growing up in Poland from 1908-1918.
———. Lost in America. Garden City: Doubleday, 1981. Singer’s dreams of a trip to America in 1930.
Sloane, Verna Mae. What My Heart Wants to Tell. Washington, D.C.: New Republic Books, 1979.
Growing up in the Kentucky Mountains at the turn of the twentieth century.
ten Bloom, Carrie, with John and Elizabeth Shemill. The Hiding Place. Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1971.
The author’s experiences during the Nazi’s invasion and occupation of Holland during World War II.
Wojciechowski, Maia. Till the Break of Day. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich, 1972.
This is an account of this Newberry Medal-winning author’s life during World War II and her escape from Poland after the Nazis invaded in 1939.
Contents of 1988 Volume III | Directory of Volumes | Index | Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute