“NCCL kids write well” is a phrase we often hear from our students’ high school teachers. Unlike schools where writing is merely touched on in Language Arts class, we devote substantial time to it and teach writing as a craft rather than just an assignment. Over a child’s time at NCCL, she will have worked on her writing an average of four days a week for close to an hour a day. She will have completed long-term writing projects, shorter essays, and most importantly, developed her voice as a writer.
Giving Students a Voice
Above all else, writing is communication. It’s the expression of an idea, thought, or feeling — whether it’s describing the sensation of snorkeling or persuading someone on the death penalty. So it’s curious that for so many years in elementary education, there’s been so little communication to kids about their writing.
Many of us have had the experience in school where we had a writing assignment, handed it in to the teacher and got it back with a grade and perhaps a few comments. What did we learn about writing? Probably a sense that we are on our own.
Traditionally, there hasn’t been the widespread support given to children while they work on their writing. Those who are naturally good at writing do fine, while those who struggle, continue to sweat it out.
In the late 1980’s, influential educators began to look at the teaching of writing in elementary schools differently. People like Donald Graves, Lucy Caulkins, Randy Bomer, and Nancy Atwell advocated a new approach that reflected the way writing was taught in colleges. They emphasized several important ideas:
- Writing is a collaborative endeavor rather than merely a solitary one. You share your writing with peers as well as the teacher and help each other improve.
- The focus is on the process, not just the product.
- Students have a voice in what they write — it’s meaningful writing and not just pet writing assignments for the teacher.
Nancy Atwell and others used the term “Writer’s Workshop.” This is the approach we use at NCCL School. When we think of a workshop, certain images come to mind. No matter what we picture people doing, we tend to imagine a vibrant, bustling environment. And like a group of highly-skilled artisans, we want kids to approach their writing as a craft — not just an assignment to get done.
Writing For an Audience
The idea of approaching writing as a craft rather than just an assignment is paramount. The writing is meaningful because before children even begin to work on a particular writing project at NCCL School, they’re thinking of their audience. It may be their classmates, it may be the school community, or it may be bigger.
Our 5th and 6th graders publish a class newspaper in which they report on local and national stories. We print 500 copies that the children help distribute to take-out food restaurants, barber shops, dentist offices, etc. in Newark and surrounding areas. The students know people will not only see their articles but will learn and be enlightened. Click to read a copy of The Nautilus Newspaper.
Each child is writing with a sense of purpose and awareness of his or her reader. It’s meaningful projects like this that drive kids to work hard and really care about their writing — they’re invested.
The Writing Process at NCCL
As mentioned before, one thing that sets our program apart from so many others is that we work with students as the writing is happening.
Imagine for a moment that you’re building a tree house. Your friend who’s a carpenter will help but won’t be there as you work. After your first efforts, you email him a picture of it for feedback and then maybe make improvements based on his or her comments. This is a world of difference than if the carpenter is there to encourage, hear ideas, and share techniques, and see your work in progress.
So it is with writing. So often in schools, writing is taught from a distance. Comments are made or a grade is given but there’s little follow through.
It’s not surprising. You can’t do a Writer’s Workshop with 30 children in a classroom or with 30 minutes a day. One of the big reasons our Writing program can be so strong at NCCL School is that we have half the number of students and we devote twice the time. But it’s also the way we work with the children.
- Student-Teacher Conferences: During these one-on-one conferences, teachers are talking with students about their writing as it’s happening. Teachers listen, offer encouragement, help overcome challenges, open doors, and show techniques. Every child and piece of writing is different and what a child needs in any given conference varies. Our job as teachers is to be attuned to this so we can be most helpful.
- Developing Planning ideas/Macro: We support students to brainstorm, plan, and organize their writing. Each child begins to think about what he or she wants the reader to gain from the piece. Students learn to find the heart of the story, poem, or article.
- Developing Expression/Micro: We help each student find his or her voice. The kids gain a growing awareness of whether the writing is clear, specific, colorful, engaging. They build their vocabularies and learn to write more complex sentences.
- Developing Mechanics: As adults, what we often notice first in a child’s writing is the mistakes — the errors in punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and sentence structure. If we’re not careful, we can swoop in and pick apart a child’s writing until there’s nothing left but a carcass. This is when the child shuts down. Focusing on these details at the wrong time is destructive. The child fixates or stresses about a spelling and loses momentum with the ideas or only uses words he or she knows how to spell. The focus first needs to be on the ideas and expressions (the substance).
We teach proper mechanics throughout the year but address them age-appropriately and in one-on-one conferences as publishing nears. The focus is always on the audience. Younger students are encouraged to add periods and spaces between words to help the reader. Older students develop their editing skills by using personal and general checklists to help them weed out common mistakes on their own. Editing with the teacher helps to identify other problem areas.
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Having students for two years in each class allows us to see growth in writing over time. What’s really exciting is when you see it before your eyes — this is what we as teachers live for. What follows are three examples of student work that show growth of different kinds.
Planning a Project
Kai, an 8th grade student, was part of a project in which students wrote a play. Each student needed to develop the plot, conflict, themes, and characters before writing. They looked at how to write effective scenes and received coaching from the Delaware Theater Company as well as their teacher.
Here Kai identifies some areas he’d like to possibly explore in his play.
Writing With Description
Ethan, 5th grade student, was part of project that involved interviewing someone with an interesting job, hobby, or life experience. The students then used the interview to write a profile on this individual. Ethan chose to interview a Civil War re-enactor since Ethan takes part in these events with his father. His approach was to draw the reader in by making it seem as if his interviewee lives during the Civil War rather than the present. Here are several drafts of his lead paragraph.
(Click to enlarge each image)
You can see Ethan’s idea and him going for a nice surprise. But he gives it away too quickly. In a student-teacher conference, he was encouraged to draw out the scene more. You can see his note regarding this.
By Ethan’s 5th draft, he’s added some suggestions from the class during group share. There’s a bit more detail, sentences are smoother, and there’s a rhythm. His peers became his test audience and he soaked up their feedback – much of it was positive. He still needs to edit for capitalization, spelling, etc. but his ideas have had a chance to blossom.