I am a good writing teacher - almost always. I love to write, so it is easy for me to get excited about teaching writing to my students. I have fail-proof techniques and tricks that I’ve developed over the years. (I should write them all down – bit of a contradiction that I haven’t done so.) Unfortunately, this week I didn’t do so well.
I use Reading Workshop with my fourth graders. This is our second year together because I was their third grade teacher and we “looped.” When they came to me as third graders, they had no idea how to construct a paragraph. Through hard work and lots of modeling, the students can construct multiple paragraph essays. All of our writing lessons are integrated with our reading work. We are successful writers.
That is, until this past week. Fantasy stories put the brakes on our momentum.
After reading a fantasy story to the students where we reflected on plot, setting, character, and theme, we explored the various elements of fantasy stories. Next, I read them a variety of other short fantasy stories and we examined the structure of each. We were ready to set ourselves up for writing our own stories. The goal of their fantasy story was to solve a real world problem with a magical solution. Sounds pretty simple. They brainstormed, did prewriting and wrote and handed me their first drafts. Ugh! No one got it. They were all over the place and did not achieve the goal of the assignment.
Where did I go wrong? It was time to reflect.
Sometimes I worry that students today lack imagination. Sometimes I worry that they’ve lost some of the magical feelings that make childhood precious. Were my students incapable of being creative? This couldn’t be my fault… could it?
So, I went back and looked at how I set them up to write. Ah-ha! I found my mistake. In my desire not to inhibit their creativity, I didn’t give them the usual guidelines to follow. I had missed a step. My students expect me to provide them with a structure, and without it, they couldn’t see the big picture. Their stories were unfocused and lacked a story telling element. They didn’t see that there needed to be a sequence to the events. Their result was scattered because I didn’t give them a path to follow.
The next day I rubbed my hands together –always a sign to them that I was excited to share some news with them. I told them that we were going back to the beginning. I admitted that I didn’t explain the task thoroughly so we had to start again. This time, I had each student write what the problem and the solution would be. Then, they made a list of transition words to use to help with sequencing and finally, they saw that each paragraph had to have a certain focus. They were nodding like crazy – they knew what I meant.
The new fantasy stories are amazing. Many students solved the problem of bothersome siblings with magical devices and wands that made them freeze. One student came up with a method for dragging her annoying brother into the computer with a magical mouse. Other students wrote about magical homework machines that did the work for them while others found ways to avoid chores by transforming vacuums into robots. The creativity oozed and flowed fourth because they understood the structure.
As a teacher who shouts that she loves to learn, I got a big lesson this past week. Even though I am confident in my ability to teach writing, my technique can always improve. I need to scaffold their learning and rely on the foundation I provided. I can’t release them until they are ready.
Most importantly, when something doesn’t work, the best place to look is usually inward.
If I hadn’t, another magical moment might have been lost.