Creating a Productive Writing Environment
A renowned language arts teacher shares the joy of teaching young children to write — and love — poetry
1–2, 3–5, 6–8
Two children poke one another. Five or six others wander aimlessly around the room. I lean down to help a child with her writing and she doesn't even know this is writing time. I hear a sudden noise at my back, and someone yells, "Ouch!"
Because during writing children choose writing topics, confer with each other, and are constantly starting new pieces, more structure is required than in other subject areas. Writing brings out the itch in most of us. Think back to that last course paper you wrote. Two lines in and you're up and moving for a cup of coffee; you pick up a telephone and call a friend, pray for incoming telephone calls, order a pizza. Why? Putting words on a blank page is like looking in the mirror. You face yourself and you may not like what you see, especially if you are not used to writing regularly. You fear that you will not live up to your aspirations. You hear the words of others: "Did you write that awful stuff?"
The same is true for children — and it's even more true for children who do not write every day. When children write only a couple times a week, in effect they are writing as if they are starting on a blank page. As a result, they will have a hard time settling down to work.
Your goal is not a silent writing time. It is natural to talk during writing. Examine a class in painting, ceramics, knitting, woodworking, any craft where the hands are used, and you find people speaking. Of course, children have to learn to modulate their voices in order not to interfere with others who may be deeply involved with their pieces. The following guidelines provide other ways to foster a productive writing environment.
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SIX WRITING TIME RULES
During writing time, expect children to follow these guidelines.
- Write continuously on subjects you, the student, choose. (Among other benefits, giving students choice eliminates the disruption that can occur when students wait for you to "okay" their new topics, or to give them topics.)
- After finishing one piece, you may take a short break by reading, drawing, or completing other work before beginning another piece.
- When you finish a piece, put it in your work folder. Keep all your writing papers in the folder. If you take your folder home, bring it back the next day.
- Store paper, folders, and writing implements in one place and do not waste them.
- If you need specific help, first ask two other students, then consult with the teacher.
- You may confer with others about your writing, but not for more than four or five minutes.
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GIVE CHILDREN RESPONSIBILITIES
Beyond establishing guidelines for writing time, you and your students need to carve out rules and routines for the overall classroom. When you give children responsibility for the room's operation, they can better understand what makes it function, what derails it, and how disorder affects their writing.
I like to plan ways for children to assume as many responsibilities as possible. Students can take care of writing supplies and materials in your centers, water plants, conduct classroom tours for visitors, and so on. You can rotate these jobs weekly.
Showing visitors around the room is perhaps the most important job of all. The more children have to explain the room's operation, the more they have a stake in it running smoothly. You may wish to invite older children to visit, so the room guide of the week gains experience in going through the tours.
From time to time, I ask the room guide to give me a tour. I might say to a child: "I'd like you to take me around the room and tell me how the place works."
As the child takes me around, I ask questions like: What are these for? Would you please tell me what he is doing right now? . . . Oh, why is he doing that? When can children talk to each other? What do you do when you get stuck on this?
I ask questions because I am interested in learning children's understanding of the purpose and function of the room's structure, their understanding of the limits, and how they solve problems. I note which areas and practices he or she highlights and leaves out.
After the tour I will ask questions about room areas that the child has neglected. The child may have omitted these areas because he or she doesn't understand them as well as other areas. Through these discussions, I come to see which guidelines need clarifying.
As needed, the whole class and I discuss how the room can work more efficiently. We review such matters as why organization counts, the function of classroom materials, how the quiet area works, what to do when you are stuck on an idea or need help with punctuation, and how to work together.
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Writing can flourish in rooms with a predictable structure mutually designed by teachers and children. Cooperative structures build a strong sense of what the children are to accomplish as an effective working group.
Listen to your students speak about their room and their knowledge of work in progress, and you'll hear responses like: We can do these things.... This is the way we work here... Timmy is writing about how his dog died.... Look at what Angie is drawing. It is language like this that demonstrates a structure that is working well in the classroom.
Remember that there is simply no substitute for writing every day to establish classroom structure. Through daily writing, children develop their rhythms, their rituals of getting work done, and their rituals of consultation.