Thursday, October 20, 2011

Getting Kids to Write: Part III

Click here to catch up on Journaling and Brainstorming.

Prewriting. Such a scary word for young writers.  This is the time where they have to sit down and make their words turn into sentences and their sentences turn into paragraphs.

Mrs. Torres, how many sentences does it have to be?

Mrs. Torres, how long does it have to be?

Mrs. Torres, I still don't know what to write about.

Mrs. Torres, how do you spell...?

There's just something about a blank paper staring kids in the face that freaks them out.  Almost always kids who refuse to get started just have a mental fear. 

Is my teacher going to rip this to shreds as soon as she reads it?

Am I writing about the right thing?

Will it be good enough for the kids in the class to hear?

None of my little darlings ever said this out loud, but it's what fueled their frustration in beginning an assigned writing task. 

Long ago, I went to writing workshop over my summer break (yes, teachers work in the summer) and I learned very quickly how to get those fear writers out of their head and onto paper.  It was really quite simple.  When tasks seem too great we all like to shrink them down to size.  That's all I had to do for these kids.  Fortunately, it benefited everyone.  Even the kids who loved to write. Here's what I did...

When discussing brainstorming, I mentioned we began our first writing project in October and I chose the topic as a personal narrative.  My students were supposed to write of a time they were scared.  (If you are following along with this lesson, please go back and have your child do the brainstorming activity.  It take the burden out of pre-writing and make it more enjoyable.)  To begin the pre-writing stage, I simply had the students go back and look at their Top 3 'I Almost Peed My Pants' moments and choose the one they would like to write about.  Then I told them they had to have a 1,000 word narrative hand written completed by tomorrow.  Just kidding!

The next step is really very simple.  I begin to share my most scared moment, but I begin with a good attention getter.  An attention getter is where the writer constructs their first sentence to hook you, the reader, into the story.  I grab a few books and read the first few sentences to them.  They get to decide if the attention getter is a good one or not.  I even throw in some, "Once upon a time..."' starters to throw them off.  The kids begin to see most stories don't start with the two dreaded words...One day...

So I give them my attention getter.

I was snuggled beneath my warm sheets dozing off to sleep when I was awakened by a loud crash through the front bedroom window.  Jolting from the bed, I turned to Steven and screamed in the softest voice I could, "Hurry, hurry, get up.  There's someone breaking in the house!"

Then I stop and turn off the overhead (no Smart Board for me 3 years ago), and told the kids that was it.  Since I'm quite the jokester, I also instructed them to pull out their History books.  Of course no one did.  One they knew me too well, and two they really wanted to know what happened.  Instead of spilling the beans, I'd ask for questions like, "What else do you want to know?"

After the kids who had an opportunity to ask their questions by writing their them on my overhead, I really would turn it off.  It was their turn.  Yes, I was met by a lot of protests to finish my story, but it was right where I wanted them. 

The kids were directed to write the best attention getter for their story.  While they were writing, I'd circulate the room to make sure the kids were all writing and to help those who were 'stuck'.  Usually, by this point there was maybe one student who wasn't pumped to outdo the others.  A little probing usually did the job to get them off to the right start.  Once all the kids had their attention getter down on paper, they'd partner up with someone from the class.  Their choice.  Writing can be very personal, so I wanted them to be comfortable with which classmate they shared the start of their story. 

The kids basically did the same thing I modeled on the overhead with me monitoring their conversations.  Sometimes the partners would say, "I don't have any questions for them." This signaled one of two things for me.  One, the partner wasn't being a good partner by not using their thinking skills, OR two, the writer needs work on their attention getter.  Either they squeezed in too much information or not enough.  Either case, I was there to assist.

Once the kids were finished, we'd stop for the day.  The next day, the kids would begin to write their story, keeping in mind the questions their reader (partner) had for them the previous day (they recorded the questions in their writing journals).  I did have a few rules for the first draft, and they are as follows:

Rule #1: Don't ask how long it has to be.  It needs to be however long it needs to be to tell the story.  Some stories will be short and some stories will be long.

Rule #2:  Don't ask me how to spell something.  Right now is not the time to focus on spelling.  As long as you, the writer, knows what it says, you're good.

Rule #3: Use words that make me see your story, not just read it.  (Prior to this we have spent a lot of time on sentences that make you see, not just hear.  Basically, the kids are writing descriptively.  This is why we don't begin writing projects until almost 2 months into school.  It takes time to teach the basics.)

Rule #4: Don't ask about punctuation.  We're focusing on your ideas right now.

If it's really bugging you to see misspelled words and grammatical errors, well, get over it.  Pre-writing is not the time to correct your child or students' writings.  If they are concerned about spelling all the words right, they are going to dumb down their readability and word choice.  You want them to put down flavorful words, not just the ones they have in their spelling vocabulary.  And as for grammar, writing is not just about putting commas, periods, and sentence structure in correct order.  You'll get to these parts in time, but leave it out of the pre-writing stage.

I was going to talk about Revising today, but this is L-O-N-G enough. Can you tell I'm passionate about teaching writing?  What other sane person would type out something this long on pre-writing?  Only a teacher, right?  Poor Little Man and Little Miss.  They'll have a neurotic mother when it comes time for them to start writing projects at school!  Who am I kidding?  They already have a neurotic mother!

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