Teaching Kids to Write – What I Value

It may be surprising to hear that I didn’t always love teaching writing to young children.  After all, I write a literacy blog.  You would think that I loved reading and writing as a kid and that my love for those subjects carried right into my adult life and into my teaching.  Well… not so much.  I actually hated, yes HATED, reading as a kid and although I didn’t mind writing in my younger years, I found it to be absolutely painful to teach in the beginning years of my teaching career.

When I first started teaching, we really didn’t have a writing curriculum, so we had to figure things out as we went along.  I started reading a few books about teaching writing to my first and second graders, but they all talked about modeling for them.  Writing in front of the class absolutely petrified me.  I couldn’t imagine sitting in front of a class and showing them how I came up with story ideas and actually writing in front of them.  It was painful.  It was something I avoided at all cost.

In 1998, I started my master’s program in reading and literacy.  I didn’t feel as competent as I wanted in these areas and I knew I needed to learn more.  Katie Johnson was one of my instructors who helped influence my teaching.  She had written a book called Doing Words.  I tried many of the methods she described and started to enjoy our writing block.  I started to think of writing as the central language arts experience in our day. I helped my young writers with vocabulary, getting their ideas from their heads to their papers, giving kids more choice, and using the whole writing process.  I started to feel like I knew what I was doing!

Not long after starting my master’s program I discovered Katie Wood Ray and Ralph Fletcher.

They changed my world.  I started reading every single book I could get my hands on.  Ralph Fletcher taught me so much about keeping a Writer’s Notebook and Katie Wood Ray made my heart sing with her Writer’s Workshop approach for young authors.  Writing became a joyful time in my classroom.  I found myself making sure my students had time to write every single day and they started begging me for longer blocks of writing time.  I attended conferences that Ralph Fletcher and Katie Wood Ray spoke at and would absolutely get goosebumps hearing them talk about their work in teaching young writers.  I want to BE Katie Wood Ray.

In 2004, I was invited to be part of a team of teachers in my district who would be working together to strengthen the literacy component in our district and our building.  This was truly the best opportunity of my professional life.  We spent time watching nationally recognized literacy coaches teach lessons, work with small groups, and confer with individual students.  I took notes and tried these lessons and techniques in my own classroom.  Our literacy team worked together, studied together, co-taught lessons, supported each other, and encouraged one another.  We gained enough confidence that we began inviting other teachers into our rooms to learn right along side us.  We didn’t take the role of  “expert” but we were co-learners with other teachers.  My willingness to try new things, invite others in, and build a Writer’s Workshop in my classroom had gone to new levels and my students were benefiting.  I was so excited about Kindergarten Writer’s Workshop that I wrote an e-book and started selling it on Teachers Pay Teachers.

click here for the e-book

I’m currently working in a new-to-me district that is really striving to support their teachers in the teaching of writing.  We have had many days of training, lots of demonstration lessons, and we’ve been given the resources we need to be effective teachers.  I think it has made me a better teacher of writing, but I’m feeling like I need to take a step back and look at what I value.  The work and training in my district has given me an outline to follow.  I know what I need to teach my kids and where they should be at certain benchmarks in the year.  It’s a clear map to follow, but I’m finding that I’m missing a few pieces that have made me the writing teacher I am, and have made my students so passionate about writing.

This will be a working list, because I’m sure I will forget a few important components, and because my thinking is constantly changing.  I’m already including some of these things into my writing block, but a few of these things have taken a back seat and I’m just feeling like I need to rethink where my heart is.  Here is my list of things I value and want to be sure to include in my writing program:

*Young child need to make stuff, especially books.  Writer’s Workshop is that time.

*Writer’s Notebooks are the HEART of writing time.  I absolutely cannot live without them, even with kids as young as kindergarten age. Ralph Fletcher has always been my mentor in this area.

*We should write every day and be joyful, without feeling like we are herding our kids through pre-determined practices.

*Scented markers, scrapbook paper, and sticky notes need to live in the Writer’s Workshop.  We teach young people and a variety of supplies makes those people joyful.

*We need to write books, not just single pages.  This makes us true authors and helps us understand the books we read. It helps us see why authors and illustrators make the choices they do.

*Sharing time, where the kids share their writing, is even more important than the teacher’s mini-lesson at the beginning of writing time.

*Small motor skills and modeling how to slow down our illustrations, using simple shapes to draw pictures is immensely valuable.

*Benchmarks for what kids need to be able to do at certain points during the year have made a big difference in my instruction.

*Oral Language development is a huge component that is often overlooked when we are teaching children how to write.  It is really the backbone of so much work we do in reading and writing instruction.

*Pre-writing is a great opportunity to develop oral language.  Kids can tell their stories to themselves, to friends, or a teacher.  Speaking their story helps them to be able to write their story.

*Children learn about language all day long. All. Day. Long.

*The environment needs to be a support to the writer.  In Reggio Emilia, the environment is considered the third teacher.  (This assumes that there are two teachers already in the room.)

*I absolutely love teaching writing with mentor texts (picture books).  When kids make connections to the work another author has done and try it in their own books, it’s magical.  I strive to do this daily in my writing instruction.

*Mini-lessons are the places we really help the kids learn to talk like writers.

*Poetry writing was taken out of the Common Core State Standards, but I can’t live without it.  It opens kids up to an entirely new possibility and helps reluctant writers become free to try new things.

*The Inquiry Process and inspiration from the Reggio Emilia Approach have driven my work with group research projects.

*The documentation of student learning comes in so many different forms.  Reflection (teacher and student) and transparency (with students, parents, other teachers, and administrators) are two important pieces in this process.

As you can see, there are so many things I love an value in writing instruction.  This list is, by no means, complete.  I will continue to add things as I grow as a teacher of writing.  For now, I need to really throw my heart into taking what I know to be great pieces of my training in my district, and combining it with the pieces I value.  I need to bring my focus back to Writer’s Workshop, using mentor texts, and incorporating Writer’s Notebooks, without losing sight of the great work we have done in our district trainings.  I believe that bringing these pieces together will make my heart sing and my students soar.

Happy Writing!

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