Monday, February 23, 2009

Virginia is for Writers

At the Virginia State Reading Association Conference this past weekend, I gave three presentations for reading specialists and literacy coaches. As many of you know, Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8 has specific mini-lessons to help students develop rich, in-depth characters and settings. One teacher suggested that after students have brainstormed a character and a setting they should swap their character descriptions with a peer and see how their character would react to being placed in a different setting. How would a Mexican immigrant living in New York City view and experience being homeless in Barbados? Beyond being a fun learning activity, this would also help students see their setting from a different point of view. Here are two teachers enjoying the process of collaborating on creating a story.

Evi Hickman, a reading teacher in Fairfax County Virginia, was excited to see a book with a subtitle that included 4th graders with 8th graders. She said, "By doing that you have grouped fourth graders with older readers as opposed to tying them into younger students." She thought that this would communicate greater expectations to these younger writers and spur them on to higher levels of achievement.

When I confided to an ESL teacher that I had dreamt that the title of my book would be "Everyone has a Story," she laughed. She found in her work with both Hispanic and a Russian student that at times it is easier for these students to write their own stories, than it is for them to learn how to read. I was surprised but she reminded me that when writing stories from their own lives they are exercising personal choice, which enhances their learning experiences.

Like the teachers who I taught at NCCAT last fall, these teachers also experienced the challenges involved in on-demand writing. They left with a greater appreciation for the tasks which they require their students to perform. I encouraged teachers to take this a step further and share their own writing experiences (both successes and failures!) with their students. As Peter Johnston says in his book, Choice Words, "Being a knower/learner communicates to the student that we're in this together. We're on the same page." (Stenhouse Publishers, 2004)A community of writers working together is vital for a learning-rich environment.

My sessions were well received and I overheard a teachers say, "I'll use this in my classroom on Monday!" Music to a presenter's ears. I left the conference thinking that everyone knows that Virginia is for lovers. But I found a state that is for writers too.

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