Several primary teachers lately have mentioned that the publishing experience in their classrooms so far has not been a pleasant one. Most of these teachers said that if things didn't soon improve they weren't sure they would continue with conferences and publishing at all. Some were just short of giving up on the workshop approach all together! When I've pursued what the particular problems have been, these teachers enumerated various issues:
"My kids are ready with their 5 good pieces before the week has ended. I'm pulling out my hair trying to keep up with them."
"I'm unhappy that, as hard as I'm working to keep up with the publishing, the final products aren't really something I'm proud of. The 'end' isn't justifying the 'means' as far as I'm concerned!"
"While I'm conferencing with the kids who are ready to publish, many of the other kids aren't on task. The conference kids aren't getting my undivided attention as a result."
Let's explore what's happening here and try to correct it. The workshop approach is far too valuable to abandon!
First, we are still in the early part of our school year---just spilling into November. My guess is that many of these teachers moved into the formal conferences and publishing far too soon. First and second grade teachers especially must take quite some time to be sure that the foundation for writing has been laid. Before publishing can be meaningful, kids need to become at least "somewhat" fluent in their writing. They need to have a clear understanding of what is accomplished when pencils touch paper to communicate thoughts and ideas to someone. Many first graders don't even come to us understanding what writing is, much less that they have the capacity to use this system to talk to others.
Pat Cunningham tells the greatest story about her teaching experience in a first grade classroom of a struggling population of kids. She allowed the children time to write in their journals and was monitoring them during the process. She stopped at the desk of one little boy who was not yet using letters and words and who was busily drawing a picture. As teachers know that they should not assume what these pictures are, she carefully asked what he was telling about in his picture. He replied that this was his new dog named Bowser. Wishing to encourage him to advance in his understanding of print, she offered a helping hand by attempting to write "B-O-W-S-E-R" across the paper, and exclaimed to him, "There! Does that look like Bowser?" The puzzled eyes turned towards her as the boy replied, "That ain't no Bowser!" Thinking that she had probably misspelled the dog's name, she erased the "s" and replaced it with a "z." "Now. Does that look like Bowser?" With greater exasperation, the boy again replied, "That ain't no Bowser!" Taking a cue from his frustration, she moved along to "help" the next child! Later that evening, Pat said she had "a teacher moment." You know---the kind we all have that comes to us after the fact---as we're driving home or when we're showering, etc. All of a sudden, she realized that the little boy didn't have a clue that ideas could be written with the squiggly lines she had used to write "Bowser." Indeed, he had thought she was trying to draw a picture of Bowser---and he was right! That "ain't no Bowser!" What a poor artist he must have thought her to be!
From this we learn that writing is such an evolutionary process. There are certain stages through which kids must pass. The normal progression could be something like this:
||Using pictures to represent ideas
||Scribbling to acknowledge that ideas can be communicated by putting pen to paper
||Writing with random letters
||Using random letters that come together to look like words (though they aren't just yet!)
||Copying words from around the room or using very familiar words (I call this the "love" stage because it sounds like, "I love my mom. I love my dad. I love my teacher. I love my dog..."
||Using creative spelling of words (Now they're gaining control of written communication even though it may look as though they're losing ground.)
||Displaying a "sense" of sentence using creative spelling (Probably not using conventions)
||Demonstrating a "sense" of story (Nothing elaborate-but several sentences connected by the same topic or theme.)
||Using conventions of writing with an awareness of the basics to communicate effectively.
We cannot always hope to bring a child who comes to us from the picture stage all the way up to the conventional stage in a school year---sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't. However, we can usually expect in our Writing Block that we will help children advance through the various stages. This is often accomplished with a little nudging and "gentle" guidance through our status conferences and our publishing conferences with children and through our daily mini-lessons in which we imbed those skills we want kids to acquire.
In the beginning of the year, we don't set a goal of publishing with children. We work instead to be sure that all children become a least somewhat fluent in getting their ideas on paper. We watch for signs of some development of ideas and some structure to the organization. When many children begin to have some understanding of what "story" means and can link sentences together around a common theme or topic, then we may consider announcing that it's time to begin the publishing phase of our Writers' Workshop.
"Boys and girls, I've been so pleased lately about your writing. You have begun to tell lots of different things in your writing, and you're able to describe and explain so well. Do you know, I think that you're about ready to become published authors! This is such a special time for our class!"
This announcement begins the beginning of a new writing cycle. This is when you may want to announce that the students will be writing 3-5 good pieces (be sure to define the number, as you can bet that kids will write the fewest allowed---always!) and will then be having a publishing conference with you to select one piece that they're proudest of to polish for publication. Kids will be thrilled that their work has reached this level in your estimation!
Now we begin to publish. Now we have writing that has some "meat" to it that we'll really be proud to publish and that we'll have enough ownership in to hang in there throughout the whole writing process. The writing process, done correctly, is laborious and needs this ownership to keep the attention of the children.
I hope that this makes you feel a little better if you were previously feeling guilty about not having started your publishing this year or if your publishing hasn't been as productive as you had hoped. I don't want you to be too overly cautious about starting, because publishing is so motivational for students. However, publishing too soon, I feel, may even be a bit counterproductive in the long run. We want kids to feel that they publish because they've attained a certain level of writing expertise and have met a certain standard. We want them to value those gems among their writings and to be proud of their final polished product.
Happy publishing in your classrooms!
My scheduled training:
Below are seminars (some 1 day and some 2 day ones) that I have coming up in the future. Please know that I have a small group of really excellent folks who work along with me, too. We do site-based work in schools and districts at your request. For their services, you can simply call 843-549-2684 and speak with Cathy Bell or visit her website at www.ergsc.com. We offer various types of staff development: classroom demonstrations, on-site presentations, classroom observations and feedback, and exploring 4-Blocks in more depth, among other offerings.
*Still in the planning stages. Will keep you posted!
|Orlando, FL||February 13||SDR|
|Dayton, OH||March 1||ERG (grades 4-6)|
|Dayton, OH||March 2||ERG (grades 1-3)|
|Lexington, KY||March 6||SDR|
|Minneapolis, MN||March 7||SDR|
|Indianapolis, IN||*March 13-14||ERG (tentative plans for upper grades)|
|Albuquerque, NM||March 27||SDR|
|Phoenix, AZ||March 28||SDR|
|Houston, TX||April 3||SDR|
|San Antonio, TX||April 4||SDR|
|Chicago, IL||April 24||SDR|
|Detroit, MI||April 25||SDR|
|Anaheim, CA||May 9||SDR|
|Ontario, CA||May 10||SDR|
Watch for the summer schedule coming soon! More upper grades and more "beyond the basics" are surely on the way!
For ERG workshops, call 843-549-2684 or go to www.ergsc.com.
For SDR workshops, call 800-678-8908.
Hope to see you at a workshop soon!