Teacher to Teacher: Helping Students Write
by Lynne R. Dorfman
“I don’t have anything to write about!” I remember how I felt every time I heard that announcement from one of my students. A few months ago, friend and colleague Rose Cappelli introduced me to Ralph Tells a Story by Amy Hanlon, a charming picture book about a little boy who could never think of anything to write about. Ralph’s best friend Daisy is always writing. She even wrote a story about Ralph. But when the students gather on the rug to share, Ralph’s heart beats wildly as he is called on to read his story. What follows is quite wonderful! Ralph begins to talk about finding an inchworm at the park. Daisy and other classmates ask him questions, and all of a sudden, Ralph is telling the story he didn’t write. His peers love his story, and that is all Ralph needs. Finally, Ralph becomes a writer.
Sometimes, that is all it takes to get a young writer on the right track. Often, there is more work to do. When I am in a classroom where a writer choruses, “I have nothing to write about!” I start by having a conversation with him. I want to find out what the student likes to read, who his favorite authors are, what he watches on television. I ask him about his interests and hobbies. I want to know who is important in his life. Sometimes, I will try to find out if he has written a story, poem, description, etc., that he felt really good about and would like to tell me about that piece.
I look for a topic, activity, or person this young writer has returned to several times. Then I say something like, “I see you often write about soccer. Tell me about that.” I try to find out something new that this writer can say about his soccer experiences. In addition, I move to his writer’s notebook. Here, I am trying to learn about the student’s knowledge and use of strategies his teachers have taught in the past. I want to discover this student writer’s areas of frustrations. If I am the classroom teacher, I am looking for the tracks of my teaching in that notebook. If none are visible, perhaps I need to revisit a few mini-lessons as small group instruction or even one-on-one during a conference.
Also, I could ask the student if he writes outside of school. For example, maybe he makes birthday cards for his mom and dad. Maybe he has a graphic novel started or a riddle book. I’m looking for anything that will help me have a conversation with him about writing. I want to know who this student is as a writer. Most important: I want the student to know who he is as a writer. I need to help this student find and develop his writing identity early in the school year. This cannot be placed on the back burner.
Later in a conference, I might ask, “Where do you think other people get their ideas for writing?” This question may be used in a whole group discussion where I would document the thinking of my students on an anchor chart. If my students do not talk about mentor texts that include an author’s note, I will share a few of my favorites including Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth, Six Dots: The Story of Young Louis Braille by Jen Bryant, The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush by Tomie dePaola, and Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building by Deborah Hopkinson.
When students are truly stuck, we need to ask questions and give them strategies to get going. The first logical question to ask would be, “When you get stuck finding something to write about, what do you do?” I need to know if the student uses his writing territories list or heart map, tries a memory chain, composes an expert list, creates some version or several versions of a neighborhood map. Does the writer have a lot of pages with cross-outs or pages that were torn out of his notebook? Perhaps I need to have a conversation about abandoning a piece of writing and starting new and/or the writing process. If his writing is voiceless, I might ask about his mentor authors. Maybe this student needs a new mentor text – one he is not familiar with – that might bring out his voice.
This September, find out who your writers are! Do lots of ungraded writing, and have lots of conversations. Here are some questions to get started:
- What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in school?
- How do you feel about writing? Why?
- What is your favorite piece of writing from last year?
- What kinds of writing do you enjoy?
- What is the easiest thing about writing?
- What is the hardest thing about writing?
Lynne Dorfman is a co-director of PAWLP. She is excited about the completion of a draft for a second edition of Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-6 with Rose Cappelli. The second edition will be published by Stenhouse in 2017.