Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Teach the Writer

"Teach the writer, not the writing." This is a phrase that I have heard from leaders of Writing Workshop, including Lucy Calkins and Katie Wood Ray. It is a point that Katie made in her workshop with us in August. I knew what she was talking about. I could picture myself last year conferencing with one of my six year old students. She had a nearly completed book that I felt had serious problems. Yet she was so proud of it. As I looked at her beaming over her book, I looked at it again. I focused first on what she was doing well. She was telling a story that she was excited about. Her book consistently focused on that story, and she had an interesting structure with a repeated pattern that added to her story. My concern was that she had rushed through her pages and had left out a number of words. She also had not put spaces between her words. Her spelling was semi-phonetic, so the leaving out of words and lack of spacing added to the difficulty of reading her piece, even for her. Yet what a lot of work it would take for her to go back and fix this piece of writing. I needed to focus on what she needed as a writer rather than what this particular piece needed.

I took a breath and considered my next words carefully. Then I pointed out the things she was doing well in her book. As the conference wound up, I told her that I admired her skill as story teller. But I added a request. I said, “I love your stories, and I can tell you’re excited about them. I think because you are excited you rush, and then you leave words out. That makes it harder for me to read your wonderful stories. The next time you start a book, I want you to stop after each page and read it over carefully. Be sure all the words of your story are there.” I made a note in my record book to check in with her early in her next book project to remind her of this. I also made a note to include her in a group with others who would benefit from a mini-lesson on spacing words later. Her development as a writer and her developing confidence as a writer were far more important than how that particular piece turned out.

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