As an English teacher I have found great joy in the exploration of meaningful writing with junior and middle school children. Children acquire language skills when they engage in self-motivating activities that are stimulating, social and meaning based. Writing activities, I have seen, need to be a part of the entire language experience that children are engaged in, and they cannot be isolated from what children listen to, speak about or otherwise experience. In the same spirit, writing activities must focus on communication and meaning rather than on the form of the language.
When thinking about meaningful writing, several important questions arise. How is writing to connect with children’s imaginative and psychological inner worlds? Can there be a structure to the way children conceive of the writing process itself? And how is creative writing to be assessed? I will try and propose frameworks to approach these three questions in the sections that follow.
Writing personal narratives
This is your writing journal. It is a place for you to write in either at home or at school and you will give it to me once a week. I will read it and write messages back to you!
The type of writing you will be doing in this journal is called personal narrative. That means you will write about events, stories, people and memories in your life. You will choose one topic for each entry. So, you might write about taking a train ride. Another time you might write about how you learned to blow a balloon.
This is how a letter to each of your students might begin, if you were to try personal narrative journal writing. This can be a weekly activity throughout the year with each student maintaining his or her own journal. It is a meaningful form of communication going back and forth between teacher and student, gradually deepening the relationship between the two. What it isn’t, is a place for us teachers to correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and form. It is a place for us to respond to the feelings, events and thoughts shared by the child who is relating a particular narrative. It is, therefore, a response to content and not form.
What exactly does this activity entail? In spirit it is just like a child eagerly grabbing the teacher’s attention on a Monday morning, “Uncle…do you know what happened to me this weekend? I lost my third tooth!” “Aunty, yesterday night, I and my father got lost while we were coming home…and you know what…it was more scary because the current was not there!” Our complete attention is summoned by the intensity of emotion, touch of drama, and lucid details that the child brings. Her main goal is to reach her audience successfully. While we hear ourselves saying, in our minds, “my father and I…last night…not yesterday night . . .” we respond out loud, with, “Oh gosh, really?!” or we go on to ask searching questions (if we can get a word in!) because we are genuinely interested in knowing more. What we are instinctively doing is responding to content and tone, but not form, and this is the spirit with which we would read the journal entries.
An article titled Core Values of Progressive Education by Seikatsu Tsuzurikata and Whole Language (June 2 2007, International Journal of Progressive Education), by Mary and Chisato Kitagawa, gives us an insight into the significance of this simple yet fulfilling exercise. During the Great Depression of the 1 1930s, teachers in rural schools in Japan found the textbooks and prescribed curricula too abstract and removed from the experience of the children whose families were simply struggling to survive. The teachers finally decided to ask the children to write about their own lives and experiences in the form of journal entries. Quoting from the Kitagawas’ article: Students wrote about their hardscrabble farm life, describing their parents’ toil in specific terms. For example, one student depicted his father’s gnarled, soil-encrusted fingers as looking almost like the edible roots he was pulling from the ground.
Today this approach can be used to benefit children anywhere by ‘listening’ to their personal stories and acknowledging their emotions. We can do this by writing meaningful comments in the margins of these journal entry pages. Over the course of the year while these entries keep going, the teacher can do lessons in the classroom on the use of rich detail, focusing on a memorable moment (not a whole summer vacation!), and using colourful vocabulary—all the time remembering that the entries are to be retained as a special, expressive communication between teacher and student.
Keep in mind that your comments are pivotal for this to work. Children should be made to feel uninhibited, free to experiment with words and phrases, or to try out a writing voice and style. In the samples below, I highlight such language play.
Student: It was an everyday-type day until the doorbell rang.
Teacher: Your phrase ‘everyday-type’ day even sounds monotonous. I like how it rolls off the tongue!
S: It was nicer than that. Made of real leather. It even smelled like leather. Like the smell of a new leather jacket. And the seems were handstitched too.
T: Ooooh! I can smell it as you describe it. How closely you have observed this little gift.
S: There were mannnnny birds on the water.
T: I can see how excited you were to see that many birds-‘mannny’!
S: I didn’t know the birds names but I felt happy looking at the birds.
T: Isn’t it funny how we always want to name what we see while we could just enjoy looking at it at that moment? How nice that you felt happy seeing them.
S: OK now let’s go deep deep into the jungle.
T: What an inviting way to lead me into the next part of your story!
S: It was there that we heard about the Kerala rock.
T: Wow! I’m hooked.
I would like to end this section with these words from the Kitagawas’ article:
What makes this movement remarkable is the degree to which teachers succeed in making themselves trustworthy co-spectators…the reader can read without any other purpose than to appreciate what has been expressed.
Writing as a process
Writing is not just an end product awaiting correction and evaluation by the teacher; it is an evolutionary process that requires teacher involvement at every stage.
[Writing Conferences: Alternative to the Red Pencil by Glenda Bissex]
Below are my notes as I watched a writing class.
There’s a low hum and a shuffling of sheets as students settle into their little nooks in the classroom and make themselves comfortable. It is time for writing with the 10-12 year olds. For a period of two weeks or more, we have been taking a piece of writing from the stage of an idea, to making a list or holding a brainstorming session, followed by a first draft, then peer feedback, a revised draft, an editing stage and then to the final product. The children have chosen their genres (travel brochure, recipe, news article, instructions or poster). As they lean against the wall, exchange that glance with a friend, and then look at their papers, they are getting ready for their task in the process of writing their piece.
For a few it is the final stage of writing out that recipe they’ve tried at home. Two others, at the stage of revising their first drafts, go outside to read their pieces out to each other. They will follow that with searching questions and feedback, which will nudge the other into making changes and revising the draft. They will read it out instead of showing it, so that the listener can focus on content and not get distracted by editing errors or handwriting quirks! Most of the students this morning are still navigating through their first drafts—an exciting stage of expression where they can dream about how they want to reach that final product—a colourful, flashy brochure about Savandurga Hill, perhaps. They can also freely put down all they want to say and in the way they want to, knowing they’ll be able to go back to it and reshape it. Since each student has chosen his or her own genre and topic they are quite motivated today as we settle down and proceed.
Rukmini has been painstakingly folding and refolding an origami crane making sure she writes down the instructions correctly. Finally she comes to me with a brainwave, “Aunty! Now don’t worry, I will also write how to make the crane but can I stick an actual paper at each step, with the correct folds, so that whoever reads it can see exactly how to fold it?” Over the last few days, she has discovered how complex it is to write about and draw out instructions for the folding of an origami crane, but she seems to have found a way out! As I look around, there are two students missing and I remember that they are off interviewing staff members for a news article. They should be back presently with their notes.
Suddenly I sense a queue of students developing on my right. Some need help in editing, one is not clear what to do next, and one who is writing a novel from the perspective of a dog which lives on Savandurga Hill, is feeling stuck with no creative juices flowing today! If there are too many waiting for help I usually urge them to: start designing the layout of their final product, read a library book, or see if a classmate needs help with their piece—sketching or decorating.
A couple of minutes before the end we all gather. I have to go up to the balcony to make sure I have found everyone! The hum turns into giggles and loud exchanges. The students pull out the sheets on which they are tracking the stages of their writing process. They take a minute to report, in writing, what happened that day:
‘Couldn’t think of anything new for my novel.’
‘Shanti listened to my story and said it was nice.’
Maybe this is a moment for me to write down some observations as well:
‘Varun struggled to begin working independently and is not able to get the big idea of the process. Perhaps this is too open-ended an activity for her.’
‘Shalom has already reached a final—seems to be rushing in most activities.’
‘Shreya has grasped the importance of revision, and wrote notes for herself when Rahul gave feedback and asked questions.’
My notes are of what I have noticed today. As I sit and look through all their writing process tracking sheets later, I will realize the need to instruct the class more in certain areas, such as how to listen and give constructive feedback to your partner (not just say, ‘it was nice’), how to incorporate their ideas and actually make changes in the first drafts, and so on.
As a parallel to the vignette above, I could trace my own journey in writing this article. I first brainstormed ideas I wanted to include, wrote a rough draft to just pour sentences onto the page without worrying about exactly how it sounded, then shared it with a colleague who gave me some feedback. A few days later, I went back to it, made changes in paragraph format, took away unnecessary details, added some necessary ones, and then began to think of my audience (you!) more seriously. Finally I was ready to edit for spellings, grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation. It was only after that that I felt it was a finished product that could be presented in some way.
The belief that children are authors capable of taking decisions, like adults, forms the core of this approach to writing. In this scenario, writing is real, not just an essay in response to a prompt, or an answer to a question. It is a living thing that has a meaningful end: reading out one’s story to a younger group of children, giving copies of one’s recipe to others in the group to try out, displaying the travel brochures in the library, putting up posters for publicity and such like. In the younger classes when children are not as familiar with many different genres of writing, the whole group can be led through an exploration of one genre—news article, for instance—and while all the children write the article they can choose what topics to write about. As older children are more familiar with different genres of writing they can choose to work on one for a couple of weeks as described in the vignette above, and move through the steps. Over the course of the year, you can make sure they cover five or six different genres. Exactly when they do each one could be up to them.
How do we understand the revision step? When we are immersed in a first draft for a while, it becomes very hard to step back and see if it reads well, is clear and performs its function. We have become too close to it. Reading it out to someone helps us hear it better and allows for the natural process of questioning and feedback to emerge. Here are examples of what teachers and peers might ask:
Who do you mean by ‘she’?
Is this a few days later or on the same day?
You have used the word ‘good’ quite a lot.
I would like to know more about the bull that came towards you and your friends, rather than the restaurant.
Why do you say you will never forget that day?
It is most effective for the teachers to role play this type of interaction (perhaps at the start of the year) so that students see how to give feedback, what questions to ask, how to be respectful of the piece written, and how to listen and wait till the end. Here are some more general questions for the listener to ponder over:
- What was the best part and why?
- What was difficult to understand and how can it be changed?
- What was the writer’s main point?
- What do you want to know more about?
- Did the piece fit its purpose?
Putting the responsibility back into the writer’s hands and making him/her active in deciding how to change, add to, or rephrase the piece conveys a powerful message of trust, and gives the student confidence in his/her writing abilities and talents. It is also a shift in perspective: moving the focus away from the mistakes themselves to that of making constructive changes and revising the writing.
A tool for assessment
- There were hundreds of birds flying over our heads!
- It’s a fact that giraffes have killed predators by a single kick of their hind leg and have also fallen on predators and crushed them!
- It was not that Omri didn’t appreciate Patrick’s birthday present to him.
- No more tips for today. Read tomorrow’s paper for more tips. (A ‘tips for dogs’ piece)
- That’s all. Why are you just sitting there? Get out of your comfy armchair and go play the game! (The conclusion to an essay on football)
- Not being able to fit in? People not understanding what you say? Come to St. Rajappa’s Gibberish School!
- He served it to the king’s guests. ‘ “Wonderful!” they remarked. “What do you call it?” The cook thought for a while and said, “Avial…” And thus the famous dish was born.
When we read a piece of writing we may feel it speaks to us, makes us laugh, entertains us, leaves us wondering about something, or gives us important information. On the other hand, we may feel it makes us confused, leads us down many paths, doesn’t have a main point, or is misleading. This gut reaction we have is valid, but as teachers we need to also understand the exact reasons that make the piece ‘good’ or ‘bad’, effective or not. These reasons give us teachers the language necessary to describe the strengths and needs we see in children’s writing, and clarity about how to teach to that or to move forward.
Vicki Spandel, an educator from the USA, has created a program titled ‘6-Trait Writing Assessment and Instruction’. Essentially this type of assessment is a rubric or grid comprising six traits that all writing can possess:
- sentence fluency
- word choice
- conventions (capitals, punctuation and spelling)
The student self-assessment table shown expands on these. Students are exposed to literary extracts or anonymous samples of children’s writing that are strong or weak examples of each trait until they begin to understand the nature of that trait. For them to appreciate what an effective detail, a personal voice, a strong lead, rich vocabulary and sentence fluency actually sounds or looks like, they need to read and hear examples and understand for themselves. Finally, after weeks of assessing other works, they can apply it to their own and each other’s writing. This assessment tool can be used once in a while at the revision stage (instead of the peer feedback process) so that students can go back and fix or improve their pieces and then apply it again at the very end of their writing process.
Here is an example of how the rubric can be applied. One child’s sample reads thus:
Talk by the Dalai Lama
As the rain pours down on the parched earth, people run out to enjoy the earthen smell and when the rain trickles down their foreheads, the farmers pray for a good harvest. At last the monsoons have come. Although some people don’t feel so much happiness as they ride on a motorbike. For instance it happened to me yesterday when I was going to a talk by the Dalai Lama.
The essay ends with this: So that is why I missed a wonderful talk…because of the rain!
This is a piece that has:
- an interesting lead, setting the scene for something to come
- memorable and poetic word choice: ‘parched’, ‘earthen’, ‘trickles’
- sensory details that create a scene: ‘rain trickling’, ‘earthen smell’
- varied sentence structure
- clarity in format
- a personal voice: reaching out in that last line.
All these specifics can be entered into the rubric and one will immediately see where the strengths and needs lie. Another sample reads:
Last year, we went on a vacation and we had a wonderful time. The weather was sunny and warm and there was lots to do, so we were never bored. My brother and I swam and also hiked in the woods. When we got tired of that we just ate and had a wonderful time.
It ends with: I hope we will go back again next year for more fun than we had this year.
This is a piece that has:
- organization and control, a clear beginning, middle and end
- good spellings and editing symbols, easy for another to read aloud
- no eye-catching details or strong lead
- repetitive vocabulary, ‘wonderful’ and very common words: ‘lots’ and ‘fun’
- lack of build up to one peak event, just a rambling list of things done on a long vacation
- lack of personal voice (no particular person comes to mind as we read it)
In each of the trait categories we can have a scale of 1 1-3 3 as the table shows. A ‘1’ could represent a weak example in that category and a ‘3’ could indicate a strong example. Just like children seem to enjoy rating movies they have seen or books they have read, they seem to find this exercise enjoyable as well.
The same form is used by the teacher to assess the students’ writing. When the student, her teacher and maybe even a third person are able to evaluate a piece of writing in the same manner by using this form, it indicates an effective use of the rubric. Having put thought and care into our writing instruction, it is appropriate to find a form for assessment that can match it. I believe this type of assessment helps derive children’s strengths, highlights their needs, and gives us the information we need to improve our instruction.
STUDENT SELF ASSESSMENT FORM
My message is clear
I know a lot about this topic
I have included enough information
I have included deatils not everyone would think of
My writing has purpose
Once you start reading you will not want to stop
My opening line hooks you!
Everything ties together
It builds to the good parts
You can fllow it easily
The ending works well and makes you think
My tone and voice are right for this topic and audience.
This sounds like me and no one else.
This piece shares my feelings about the topic
It makes the reader laugh, smile, get the chills, etc.
It’s like I am having a conversation with the reader.
It creates word pictures
Wording is accurate and crystal clear
These arre strong verbs
Words are not often repeated- Only for effect
These are memorable moments wording or phrasing stays in the reader's mind
It is easy to read aloud and it flows well
The sentence vary in length and structure making it easy-on-the-ear
The tense- past, present and future- is consistent throughout
The sentences are all grammatically correct
A few sentence fragments are used for style and effect
It looks neat, edited, polished and mostly free of distracting errors (capitals, punctuation, grammar).
My design and presentation draw the reader to the main points.
Note: All quotes and children’s samples have been taken from classes held at Centre For Learning, Bangalore and adapted slightly for this article. Names have been changed.