Friday, September 27, 2013

Improving Student Writing With Staples and Tape--Who knew?

Pathways to the Common Core
I have been implementing a new writing program called Pathways To The Common Core by Lucy Calkins. This program utilizes writer's workshop and short mini-lessons to teach writing that is aligned to the Common Core State Standards.  When I first started looking through the materials in August I was quite overwhelmed. The teacher's manual is formatted much differently than other programs. Calkins uses a descriptive narrative prose format to describe the teaching that should occur during each lesson. It reads like a script from a lesson taught by Calkins. One day's lesson consists of several pages of text printed in two columns and very small print! I have found that despite this new format, I am enjoying the program and my students are reaping the benefits of better writing instruction.

Before Lucy....
I have powered through the dense reading and am finding my instruction to be drastically different and much better than it was before.  Writing with Kindergarten and First Graders was a source of frustration for me before this program. Try as I might, I could not get my students to write more than a couple sentences in one writing session. They always wrote a few lines and declared, "I'm done! Now what can I do?" I would meet with each student and edit their work with them. Students would line up in front of me waiting for feedback. When we were done meeting they put their work away and wanted to know "What do I do now?" I always knew they were capable of writing more but I had a hard time convincing them of that. When it came to teaching them to revise their own work and add to their writing I was an utter failure. I could never convince them of the importance of this task.  It turns out all I needed was a workshop approach to writing, some scotch tape and a couple of staplers.

"When you are done you have just begun...."
One of the first lessons required of the Pathways program is to teach children that when they finish a piece of writing they are never really "done." Students are taught from day one that when they finish a piece they are to read it to themselves, to a friend to the teacher and use their feedback to add to their work. If they do reach a place where their writing feels finished then they put it away and "start something new." So simple!  Now if a student hands me their work and says "I"m done!" I keep my hands at my sides, smile and say, "Wow! What should you do now?" (I get to ask that question now!) They stop and say, "I should read it to myself!" or "I should write another story!" Amazing! This philosophy fit well in my classroom as I have also been implementing The Daily Five literacy block method in which students build stamina for learning tasks.  The idea that when they finish a task they should stay busy and find something else to do was familiar to my students.

Revision strips, Scotch Tape and Staples
Another early lesson in the program teaches students to add more to their writing by taping smaller pieces of lined paper, "revision strips," to their work so they can write more details on each page. Kindergarten students are encouraged to staple pieces of paper together to make either scrolls or books as they can draw and label more about their topic. The first day I introduced this mini lesson I wasn't sure anyone would really do what I was demonstrating. I was shocked to see every student sit down, read their writing and then make a beeline for the paper and tape dispensers. Students who refused to add more to their writing were suddenly so excited to use scotch tape and a stapler that they deliberately thought of more to write. I shook my head in amazement all day long. So simple! Why had I been guarding the staplers and the tape dispensers on my desk like a dragon guarding a castle for all these years?

From Simple Sentences to Books!
Last year I focused my instruction on writing sentences. I did not expect my students to write more than one or two simple sentences about something they drew. I gave them the spelling of any "hard" words they wanted to include and I emphasized punctuation almost immediately. Lucy Calkins takes a different approach. First grade students are given booklets of paper stapled together and are told to "write stories." The focus is not on perfect sentences with capital letters at the beginning and periods at the end. Students are encouraged to plan "small moment stories" by telling the details of a story, sketching a picture and writing words to go with those sketches. Calkins says not to worry about spelling or word spacing yet. We are more interested in getting their ideas on paper. We are encouraging them to take risks and spell "hard words" without worrying about getting them right. Kindergartners are encouraged to draw and label their drawings. They can use letters or squiggles, anything, as long as they attempt to write. There is even a lesson in which we teach them to adopt an "I Think I Can" attitude by reading and retelling the story of The Little Engine That Could.  Taking the focus away from proper spelling has built confidence in my students. It was not uncommon for students in the past to be paralyzed by the thought of spelling words incorrectly. Many of them refused to write a word unless it was dictated to them. Now, I look out across the room and I see their heads bent and hear them whispering the sounds of the words they are trying to write. No one is saying, "How do you spell, 'I ate pizza for dinner and it was really good?'"

Markers, Pens, Pencils...anything goes!
I was very strict about using pencils for writing in years past. I thought the pencil's ability to erase mistakes trumped all other writing tools. Pathways To The Common Core encourages students to use a variety of writing implements from markers to pens. The idea is that all writers have a preferred "tool" for writing and we should never force a student to use any specific tool. Calkins thinks revision is more apparent and easier assessed by teachers if we can see where they have scratched things out and made corrections on their own. It also encourages an environment where students are comfortable making mistakes. Again, this is such a simple strategy! Reluctant writers in my room are now motivated to write with sharpies, ball point pens and markers. I realize now that as long as their writing I really don't care what they use! They are also happy to cut small pieces of paper out and tape them over their mistakes. Mistakes are an opportunity to use scissors and tape!

What's Next?
As I write my lesson plans each week I find I am more and more excited to implement the Pathways program. I have had to create more planning time in my prep time schedule for reading the lessons. This has been hard to do on busier days. Now that I am familiar with the text structure and format of the teacher's guide I am finding the reading goes faster. Next week my students will "unfreeze their characters" by making them speak and move! I am finally feeling "unfrozen" as an instructor of writing, thanks to Lucy Calkins!

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