Are You Sure They Should Write?
by Jacqueline Leigh
It is common for adults in Sierra Leone to feel that children should not be asked to write in English independently before we teach them all the fundamental skills. Their comments bring to mind the parents who used to ask an experienced art teacher whether their children had mastered enough fundamentals to paint. She used to say,
"What do you mean by fundamentals? Do you mean only skills such as accuracy and representation or do you mean helping a child to find his own way to put on paper or to shape in clay what he is seeing and feeling?" (p. 44)
She would go on to list the "fundamentals" recognized by the Art Center of New York's Museum of Modern Art [underlining is added]:
· Giving children opportunity and time to explore and encouraging them to do so is fundamental to their growth in art.
· It is fundamental to provide young children with the opportunity and encouragement to express freely their ideas and feelings.
· Acceptance and respect for what the child creates is fundamental.
· It is fundamental to learn techniques as they are needed. (p. 44-46)
Although student essays in Sierra Leone are marked using four domains--content, organization, expression, and mechanical accuracy—many JSS teachers of English consider mastery of just two of these--expression and mechanics--to be prerequisites to writing. Students spend much of their language arts class time memorizing rules governing these domains in highly teacher-centered classrooms.
The Seli River Writing Project's extracurricular Young Writers clubs, are instead participatory. We try to fill our membership with those who have not had an easy time with schooling. Students decide such things as what they will write about; whether they will conference, revise, edit, or draft; when they need more paper; and where they will sit. Students who miss meetings cannot simply borrow someone's notes to catch up. They have been missed in the club: the group helps them write. Process-writing workshops are a big change for the students; exhilarating for some, and unsettling, at first, for others.
We encourage members to see themselves as authors by virtue of the previous experiences they bring to the classroom. "We do not write with words, says Donald Murray--we write with information.". The first thing we do is to ask our students which of their personal experiences they want to write about first. Then they write, all they can, on rough paper, without worrying about spelling or grammar. We praise margin-scribblers and others who make messes as they flow.
As they learn the process, students move among the stages independently. An author who has finished a first or second draft goes for the feedback forms and the stapler, and seeks out both peers and a teacher to make up a conferencing group. As others need conferencing, they join the group. A content conference with the teacher alone will produce neither the peer viewpoint nor the variety of questions that the author needs. A conference without the teacher may not challenge the group to think critically enough; may not firmly respect each child's home culture; may not challenge pivotal misunderstandings.
We have found that the questions our junior secondary students ask authors in content conferences cover, in kid language, the full range of content and organization and help the authors strengthen their next drafts.
Although we are aligning our instruction with how compositions are assessed in school, many teachers take issue with the fact that in Young Writers clubs we do not chastise students for errors in English expression or mechanics in their first drafts. We consider correction as something authors do at the end, before submitting or publishing writing. It makes sense to us: how can we do editing if we have not written anything? As one writing consultant says, put off your worries about correctness until you have a piece of "writing worth fixing." In first drafts, we want authors to get thoughts on paper. How can we focus on accuracy at the same time we are encouraging fluency?
Donald Graves makes the point that there is less to edit if we work with content and organization first. "Most problems with skills [i.e., problems that need editing] concern information. The child's data are weak; the child assumes information is in the selection when it isn't. Such gaps produce problems in syntax and punctuation. When the child achieves greater clarity about the subject, then the language and conventions that mark off meaning are much easier for the child to change."
Jane Cooper Bland—the art teacher--emphasized the importance of being alert for the child's teaching moment. "Techniques have no value in themselves. If taught before they are needed, they have no meaning for children and only confuse them. Children learn to paint, model, and construct as they learn to walk--slowly, developing in their own way and learning each new step in the process as they are ready for it." (p. 46).
In an ESL writing workshop setting, we maintain the scope: a syllabus of both skills and discrete language items. The students control the sequence. The students cue us individually when they need to learn which item. They don't always ask for help or know that they are ready, so we watch. When they are ready to learn, we do not make them wait until the editing stage. If a six-year-old's drawing shows some words floating free in the air and some enclosed in speech bubbles, we see he has distinguished narrative from dialogue and we introduce the idea of quotation marks. If a middle school ELL becomes frustrated with her writing and when we ask what the problem is she says, "This happened before this, not after it. How do I show that it happened first?", that is the moment we introduce the past perfect tense.
Techniques learned this way, on the cutting edge, are tools, not rules. They become part of our "grammaring;" part of our active language. We own and control them. Rules, on the other hand, we learn by heart to pass tests. They are stored in a part of the brain that is not connected with language use. Often many of the students are ready for the same tool at the same time. That tool will be the topic of the mini-lesson for the first 10 minutes of the next club meeting.
In our Young Writers workshops, students write their true personal experiences, because the memories are emotionally charged and full of sensory details. Process writing workshops themselves enhance second language acquisition. We support the many researchers who say language is acquired more from producing than from input.
Recently, I was explaining SELI's JSS clubs to an English teacher. His expression was skeptical and his first question was, "But do these children know how to write?" He implied that they didn't. It made me recall my first motorcycle-taxi ride. I stood there nervously and then confessed to the driver, "I don't know how to do this."
He replied, "Do you know how to sit?"
© 2010 Jacqueline Leigh
 Bland, J.C. (1968). Art of the young child: understanding and encouraging creative growth in children three to five. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
 Quoted in Ed Leadership, Oct. 2004, p. 22
 Kirby, D., Kirby D. L., & Liner, T. (2004). Inside out (3rd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, p. 42
 Graves, D.H. (1982) Writing: teachers and children at work. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, p. 103
|Last Updated on Thursday, 11 October 2012 10:39|
- We all have the right to write. Anything we can say, we can write.
- We all can write well if we are emotionally involved in our topic and our purpose. We find our voices there. Writing is learning and discovering. It develops best in real-life situations, with the instructor intervening in the writing process.
- We learn to read by having written. We learn from our experiences, including experiences with oral and written texts. We should expose ourselves to many texts, and often do free-choice reading.
- We learn best in collaborative, diverse, and supportive communities. We all learn in our own ways, and our home cultures affect how we interpret our experiences.
- Moving through the writing process can produce powerful writing. We gain more ownership over our writing if we master the writing process.
- Writing is a strong tool for developing critical thinking. Challenging our thinking as we write in collaborative settings, develops academic language proficiency.
- We teach equitably: not less, but more to the poor. We recognize our children's home communities and ancestral cultures as our educational partners.