Friday, June 22, 2007

Writing process, My Mother in the Hammock


Matthew Young, a 5th Grade Teacher in Ossining, New York wrote about Lucy Calkins’ popular Writing Process on the Teachers & Writers Listserv. Matthew, (who used to teach 4th grade at P.S. 75 in New York City, the school where Phillip Lopate led a team of us young artists to work with kids writing and making movies and even comix), praises the Process , is a system of teaching writing to school kids. I used to have mixed feelings about her work, which systematizes (and is sometimes overly rigid about) things that many writers prefer to have left mysterious. But of course what Calkins does is make writing and the teaching of writing work better for thousands of teachers and children. Also, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less impressed with the Romance of Art and more impressed with things that actually work. Anyhow, Matthew explains the Calkins’ Process and how it looks in a classroom in a way that it seems to me suggests some ideas both for teachers and for writers, especially those who go into classrooms:

Matthew says: “One give-away that Calkin’s writing process writing process is going on [in a classroom] is the presence of Writer’s Notebooks. Also, charts or other prominent displays helping students keep track of where they are in the process, e.g., drafting, conferring, revising, publishing, etc. Then look for chart paper hanging from clotheslines with shared writing pieces or other examples of writing strategies written in the teacher’s hand, plainly visible for all to see. Look for ‘Mentor Texts.’ Writing centers and places for students to confer with each other are not uncommon. Students may be actively engaged in conferences with the teacher and with each other. Some may be writing in ‘writing nooks,’ places in the classroom that are not their desks. Further, teachers who do this are generally very happy to talk about it and will volunteer the information when asked (and sometimes when not asked).

“At conferences I’ve heard from Lucy and from her colleagues that the Process (which is in a continual state of revision) derives from careful consultation with professional writers about how they do what they do. The ‘writer’s notebook’ is a very useful tool for gathering and developing ideas for writing (fiction, non-fiction, drama, or poetry). Naturally, many professional writers do not use an actual notebook, but most do have a way of recording and keeping track of ideas as they occur (e.g., a laptop computer, or scraps of paper in pockets that then go into a file at the end of the week). But for kids, an actual notebook is very useful and manageable. Furthermore, most professional writers likely do not keep a chart in their home offices with a clothespin to indicate which stage of the process they are in—obviously, mature writers are constantly in flux between drafting, revising, conferring, in no particular order and often simultaneously. One goal of the Writing Process is to help children understand this. But most children will not do this naturally, and need explicit instruction on how it is done.

“Another goal of the Process is to cultivate an understanding and appreciation of structure. For example, non-narrative writing can also be described as ‘idea-based’ writing; that is, a non-narrative piece (article, essay) is organized by idea: controlling ideas and subordinate ideas. Narrative writing (memoir, fiction) is controlled by time (a story moves through time, and there is a focus on “traditional European story structure”). Students read and write literature through those lenses.

“The most powerful teaching technique I have used from Calkins and her colleagues happens during revision. You write your piece, and then take a particular writing strategy for consideration. Some writing strategies include dialogue, sensory details, setting details, metaphoric language, flashback, flash-forward, foreshadowing, and so on (you have to admire the rigor). So, let’s say for the sake of argument I want my students to learn how to use setting details in their writing. Mini-lessons and mentor-text studies will ensue during which we study setting details. We read for them, we conduct guided reading groups on them, we notice them in our read-alouds. Meanwhile, in Writing Workshop, as you re-read your piece, you look for opportunities to insert setting details. You mark up your draft with them (professionals do this, no?). Then, for your next draft, you work them in. Then do the same with another strategy.

“As we get older we are able to hold and work with many strategies in our heads at once. With early- and middle-childhood students, we teach strategies discretely, adding tools to their tool boxes. This methodology has been successful for my students because...’s highly engaging;’s rigorous;’s manageable for the children; builds their independence (‘Teach the writer, not the writing;’ ‘give a man a fish...’)’s at heart a flexible framework that can accommodate a visiting artist, and his or her vision of writing, quite well.”
I don’t know the Calkins’ terminology all that well, but assume “mentor texts” are books and articles for the kids to read. I especially like the distinction between the kinds of writing organized by idea (an essay) and those organized by time (narrative). Obviously a good feature article probably includes some narratives, and the best novels are full of ideas and may even be organized around an idea rather than a story, but for teaching purposes and thinking purposes, these are nice distinctions

June 20

My novel for kids, Billie of Fish House Lane, has just been announced as the South Orange Maplewood Two Towns One Book for Children Selection. This is a great pleasure to me, as I always think fondly of my experience in writing Billie.

June 17

Week-end at the lake. My mom, Andy's sister Ellen, me, Andy, Joel, and Sarah. A big grill, water skiing, rowboat, sun on water, thunderstorm and rainbow. Hammock. Relaxes everything.

June 14

It has been nonstop busy these weeks: my dinner, Joel’s graduation and all the friends there, Joel to California, Joel back from California (and pick up from a delayed plane at 2 a.m.). Then Joel to Norway to present his paper at the computer science conference and Joel back from Norway, groggy from time changes and having been in a place with no night. Then, immediately, my mother arrives from West Virginia, ALSO in a delayed plane, at 1:00 a.m. or thereabouts. And I’m still teaching, to earn a little money, both online and at NYU and with private manuscripts. Tonight is the last writers’ peer group. It’s been cool and gray, so at least we’re not all staying awake and sweating. A good time, rich with people doing things people do– for the moment everyone alive and in fair health. Why aren’t we just calm and thankful instead of excited and greedy for more?

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