As a teacher’s aide I work with students from every grade–kindergarten through sixth–who need a little extra help. For a number of years my schedule has included two or three writing groups a day, with children from a wide range of abilities. I’ve used a variety of writing programs and approaches over the years. I modify content and the expected rate of completing each assignment, to the needs of my students.
It’s always been a challenge to keep their interest and inspire them. They come from a full spectrum of cultural backgrounds and life experience. Expressing themselves is especially difficult for students who, for a myriad of reasons, have a limited speaking vocabulary. When they don’t know how to say something, their natural instinct is to leave it out, resulting in short sentences that are vague and void of all the captivating details. They miss out on the joy and interaction associated with sharing what’s on their minds, and of course that kind of writing isn’t fun!
My school recently bought a membership to the a-z writing program. I’m still learning how to teach and work with it, but I think it’s going to be a really good resource. Sometimes, though, when I begin a lesson, my automatic pilot kicks in and I have to back up to foundation skills that need a little reinforcement. That’s what happened to me this week.
The lesson required three details on a given topic, and many of my students were struggling. So we switched gears. I was so happy about how our lessons evolved that I wanted to share.
When my kids came to sit around my table, I greeted them with a guessing game. “I’m thinking of something that’s alive, has greenish-brownish rough skin and a long, powerful tail. It has lots of sharp teeth and strong jaws. . . ” I went on until everyone’s hand was up, then told them to silently write down what they thought it was. They all wrote “alligator” and I congratulated them. I described a couple of other random objects, then we wrote some of the descriptive words and phrases we had used on the board, identifying many of them as adjectives. Everyone wanted a turn to “think of something” for the class to guess.
Over the next day or two we continued the conversation about adjectives and how they relate to our senses: sound, sight, smell, touch, and taste. We also discussed how they described shapes, sizes, textures, and the features of an object (it’s different parts, like sharp teeth, long tail, etc.) We spent time to review names of three-dimensional shapes and the meaning of the word “texture.” Then we worked as a group to brainstorm all of the adjectives and features of our classroom door which we wrote out in a list on the board.
rectangular, about 7 feet tall and about 3 1/2 feet wide, no doorknob, but a shiny silver handle, narrow rectangular glass window, heavy and metal, makes a loud thud when you close it, painted dark brown, silver colored metal plate, about 3 feet wide and 10 inches high screwed onto the bottom, hinges, a metal box and hinged arm at the top swings out to hold the door open
They were amazed that we could write so much about our boring brown door! Next, I challenged them to describe our clock–this time in full sentences. At first, a few of them were bored by the simplicity and familiarity of their subject. I had to re-direct their focus from its function and what they knew about it back to describing its actual shape, size, colors, and features. While they were busy, I wrote my own description of it:
The clock in our classroom hangs on the wall. It is flat–about an inch and a half thick–and about 14 inches in diameter. It’s face is white with large black numbers–one to twelve, notches to mark the minutes, and three straight black hands. The long, slender second hand can be seen moving around in a circle. The face is protected with a clear plastic cover. There is a shiny, smooth, sloping black frame about two inches wide around the white face. Below the number 12 is written “Skyskan” with a small outline of a satellite. Above the number 6 are the words “Atomic clock”.
When everyone was sure they couldn’t think of another detail, I read them my paragraph. I instructed them to listen closely and tally one point for each detail I read that they had also written on their page. When I was finished, if anyone had a detail that I hadn’t written, they received two points for it.
It made a very interesting discussion, as we stopped to compare details, for instance “a little bigger than a basketball” makes a better description than “big”. We also discussed vocabulary like “diameter,” and compared texture words like the difference between “soft” and “smooth.” We celebrated unique ways of describing the same feature, for instance one student used the word “arrow” instead of “hand.” It was such a positive experience when they discovered that their terms didn’t have to match mine for them to be right. Mention of the inscription on the face opened a whole new discussion on the very intriguing idea that the satellite can set our clock for us.
Today was assessment day. While I administered reading fluency timings to individual students, they worked independently to demonstrate the skills they have been learning, by describing an apple. I picked it on my way out the door this morning and made it available for their thorough examination. I was so proud of their improved ability to creatively describe the features of the apple: “a little bigger than my fist”, the dents and stem, white dots, a wormhole, the bumps and the blossom on the bottom.
The conventions have to be taught, but writing is unlike other disciplines where there is only one correct answer. In writing there is room to see things from their own point of view and be as creative as their skills allow them to be. Writing only becomes enjoyable for children, rather than a chore, when they’re empowered with the vocabulary to express what’s in their mind and heart.
I felt the enthusiasm for writing, the first time in quite awhile for some of my kids. I’m excited to equip them with useful skills that will give them confidence and help them express themselves better through an increased vocabulary. I’m definitely going to incorporate an occasional game of “I’m thinking of something. . .” I’m motivated by the hope that my students will find joy in expressing anything and everything that piques their interest, excites, angers, saddens, or otherwise makes them think. They’ll be learning and won’t even know what hit them!