Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Writing that Matters

Maria Paula Ghiso has written an excellent article in the May 2011 edition of 'Language Arts' titled "Writing that Matters": Collaborative Inquiry and Authoring Practices in a First-Grade Class.  In the article Ghiso makes a number of important points about children's writing. Her work is based on observations of a classroom teacher who urged Year 1 children not just to write for the teacher. While she accepts that children need to accept the teacher's authority and write because they have been told to, she argues that this must never be the only reason. The teacher she observed demonstrated that authentic writing should be directed by the author's motivations, not those of someone else.

Many decades ago Donald Graves made this same point in his book 'Writing: Children & Teachers at Work' (1983) as a result of his extensive classroom research.  Prior to Graves, James Britton and other English researchers similarly stressed that authentic writing requires a sense of authentic audience; people who want to read the text to find out, be amused, be persuaded and so on.  But while the point isn't a new one, it would seem that some classrooms rarely move beyond assigned writing with the teacher as sole audience. Testing regimes and mandated curricula tends to reinforce this, with adverse consequences for children as writers able to produce diverse, interesting and effective writing that has a sense of voice.

Ghiso observed a classroom where great importance was placed on developing a community of writers. This was characterised by:
The use of a workshop format where students were viewed as writers who had a high degree of control of the choices they made.
The classroom had a 'critical orientation' with young writers made aware that their writing was socially and historically situated and that it should be about things that 'mattered'.
Questions asked of them as writers were not to be seen as a problem but as necessary for inquiry and growth as writers.
Writing was modelled not just as the demonstration of proficiencies in skills like spelling, but first and foremost as something 'making sense and worth doing' because it conveys 'ideas that matter'.

While I have some doubts about the average teacher challenging 6 years-olds to discuss social justice issues, civil rights, and political action, in this community-based school founded by activists from the 1950s, it seemed to have been well accepted by the parents.  While we could be distracted by the specific classroom that Ghiso's work is based on, the piece reminds us that authentic writing is important and that children need to be challenged to write things that matter to them, not just what they think the teacher wants.

This reminds me of a young African American student who I met while teaching a grade 6 in the USA. I team taught on this class for six months and met Chanda the first day. She was a likeable confident young 12 year-old but when we had writing she did nothing.  Many weeks went by with Chanda showing constant resistance to any attempt to get her writing. But one day there was a breakthrough. Just before school commenced I noticed that she was writing something. I asked her what it was and after a degree of coaxing she showed me a folder of songs, a personal folio of music. When I read some of the music I was amazed to see that this 'non-writer' was writing meaningful lyrics that had promise. For Chanda the music mattered but the school writing didn't.
Above: From 'Pathways to Literacy'

How do we encourage 'Writing that Matters'?

I have written elsewhere in detail about the essentials of a writing program that will lead to writers who care about the things they write (here), but the essential principles that will shape good practice are these:

a) Provide time - young writers need time to explore ideas, talk to other writers, note good writing topics, talk to other writers, conference with their teacher, revise their work.
b) Writers need some control over their writing topics - while teachers should assign some writing children need to be able to pursue their own interests and be encouraged as they explore new ideas.
c) Writers need readers who know how to helpfully respond - one of the tasks of any teacher of writing is to develop an environment in which children know how to respond to each other's writing. The teacher will model this but will also give explicit instruction and guidance. Ghiso provides some lovely examples of how Mrs Blanche models this.
d) Writers need to learn the crafts of writing - like a painter, potter or singer, the young writer needs to learn about the writer's craft including grammar and spelling, but also how texts are structured (genre, register etc), where to go to find help, how to research a topic etc.
e) Writers need to see good writing demonstrated - they need to read good writing (e.g. literature), hear good writing, watch good writers involved in the craft, be involved in joint construction of writing, see writers revising their work, hear writers talking about their writing and how they do it.
f) Writers need readers - all writers need people who will read their work, offer praise, simply respond to the content, and at times offer constructive criticism.

Related posts

All writing posts on this blog HERE

No comments: