This week I participated in the August Institute on the teaching of Writing at Teachers College at Columbia University. Upon registering, we were given tote bags with the Teachers College logo, several books and a notebook where we would be practicing and developing our own writing skills during the course of the week. As an educator who loves everything about literacy and writing, I was thrilled to be here.
We were welcomed by Lucy Calkins, the founding director of The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP). She shared a very personal story about her father. I thought of my own father and how on my to do list there is a huge need for me to listen and understand his story. Lucy’s words rang true because writing for me has always been a deeply personal and spiritual affair. It also occurred to me that I don’t always honor this personal connection of writing with my students. Unfortunately, in the game of testing, standards and rubrics, I have sometimes been more concerned with the final product than the personal connection of the story or the writing process.
Every day we broke out into small groups. In these small group sessions, we experienced what a writer’s workshop could look and feel like as a student. Our presenter guided us through mini lessons, whole group and small group instructions. She modeled different writing styles: personal narratives, small moments, non fiction, writing reviews, how to and all about books.
After she gave a mini lesson, we were sent to draw a picture/sketch to help develop our writing. This I found interesting because some schools frown upon drawing because they think it is not academic in nature. I myself have been told that the drawing portion of my interactive big books were not in line with the curriculum. As a veteran teacher, I have observed time and time again how eager kids are to share what they have drawn. And as we learned, drawing is equally important as the written word because its purpose is to tell a story, share an insight or convey a message. The presenter modeled how teachers can confer with students (individually or in a small group) and how crucial it is to take notes on what the student is doing independently, observe where they get stuck, and how to scaffold support so they use their “writing tools”.
While I am in the habit of conferring/conferencing with my students in writing, I have mostly focused on the rubric. I am sad to say that yes, I did mark up their papers, I did point out missing periods and misspelled words. In our morning group I asked the presenter, “So if I’m not helping them edit and revise and I’m not marking their paper, what exactly should I do?” She said, “Focus on one writing point: structure, development, conventions or process. This will help the student better understand the writing process. The focus is on understanding the process of writing so that they eventually transfer these skills in their independent writing.” “So they don’t publish a final copy?” I asked. She smiled,”No. They are 5, 6 and 7 years old. They can fancy up a writing piece by adding a cover and coloring a picture. How many times have you asked your students to publish a piece to include all of the revisions you’ve helped them with, and they still copy some, if not most of it incorrectly. What’s more important, the final draft or internalizing the writing process?” I didn’t answer her because I was having an AHA moment. This was paramount!
We were asked to write in our notebooks everyday. We wrote a lot. Sometimes I really understood the lesson and went for it. Other times I was at a loss. “What’s a small moment?” I asked. “It’s writing with focus, detail and dialogue.” “What?” I asked again and again. As much as the presenter explained it to me, my colleagues at my table gave examples, I still couldn’t wrap my head around it. But after writing several small moments throughout the week, I understand how necessary it is to put myself in the role of the student in order to help them navigate the process of writing.
Our final day together, we gathered for a closing celebration. I was exhausted, hot and consumed with rushing back to the hotel to pack and head back home. I sat on the steps of the aisle since there weren’t anymore seats available. But as five brave teachers shared their “small moment” writing pieces I leaned in, wanting to hear their stories. My heart pounded and broke, I wiped tears from my eyes and held my breath. While I couldn’t see any of the speakers, I could hear their words, I could feel their pain and was instantly taken to that small moment in their lives. Their stories were brutally honest and I wondered how they didn’t lose it as they shared to a crowd of over 1300 people.
I have lots of ideas brewing in my mind and I know how lucky I was to be part of the amazing TCRWP group. I also need to get my father a notebook so he can share some family stories with me.
The wonderful thing about writing is that it separates the meaningless and the trivial from what is really important. – Donald Graves