Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Writing Cycle in the Classroom

The writing process is a five step cycle outlining what students do when they write.  It is a cyclical activity and rarely linear.  For example, students brainstorm during prewriting, write a draft then brainstorm again during revising. 

1. Prewriting
Prewriting is used to generate and develop ideas to write about.  Questions to answer are what is the purpose and who is the audience?  A young child might draw a picture. A university student might write ideas on post-it notes that could be reassembled on a page.  Brainstorming could take the form of a mind map. Looking online for inspiration or talking aloud to a classmate are methods to generate ideas.    In Structure and Freedom by Casey and Hemenway it is recognized that ‘children can write, but they must first learn to be careful observers of their surroundings.’  In Creech’s Love That Dog the teacher supported Jack’s writing by giving him examples of poetry to use as a model.  One of the poems given in class was Arnold Adoff’s Street Music. By reading good examples of literature, and brainstorming his own observations of his street, Jack created his own poem about the street he lives on.

2. Drafting
Drafting is the process of getting ideas down on paper.  A drafting exercise might look like an ink shed where the author writes for number of minutes without stopping.  Drafting does not need to be in the student’s own handwriting. A student could dictate to another student or teacher or could speak into a voice-recorder.  In Love that Dog, Jack’s initial poem about a blue car was used as a draft. For his next poem he revised hid original blue car poem by adding the sound and rhythm or “tiger sounds (8)” of William Blake’s The Tiger.  

3. Revising
Revising occurs when the students are able to refine ideas in their drafts independently or by conferencing with their peers or teacher.  In Structure and Freedom, Page in grade three compares revising work to “combing her long, snarly blonde hair…and once [she’s] done combing it, or once [she’s] done writing [her] story, it’s fun and [she] feels proud of [herself] and [she] gets lots of compliments.” In grade six she laments that that there is no time to revise and that editing has taken over.

4. Editing
Editing is the final polishing of the written work; it is combing through and pulling out the technical errors.  Page, in grade six, writes for the teacher rather than for herself. Essays have become formulaic and written merely to satisfy requirements. Instead of revising a draft, the steps of editing such as ‘[correcting] run on sentences or bad English (71)’ have taken over. The metaphor of smoothing over the top layer of hair instead of combing through the tangles and knots was used to compare editing to revising. 

5. Publishing
By reading aloud, printing student poems and stories into books for a classroom’s ‘local’ library, submitting work to newspapers and competitions or posting on the class bulletin board, students benefit from the publishing of their writing because they begin to see themselves as authors.  In Love that Dog Miss Stretchberry types up Jack’s response to the poem dog by Valerie Worth.  When Jack has the opportunity to see his work printed he recognizes his work as a poem and begins to take ownership of it. He makes suggestions of how he would like to see it printed.  

“Teacher’s create a community of learning in their classroom” (Tomkins et al, 37.)  There are certain strategies such as peer conferencing, modeling and giving plenty of uninterrupted class time, which teachers can use in the classroom to help students have positive ELA learning experiences. During peer conferencing students read and critique each other’s work.  Students give positive feedback to what their classmates did well and give constructive criticism to what could be done differently. Students can learn and be inspired through each other’s work. Jack really liked the tree poem by another anonymous student in Love that Dog. Students can encourage each other when work is displayed in class.  Peer conferencing is often less intimidating than teacher conferencing, especially when students are trying out a new writing form or technique.  When a student sits in the author’s chair and reads aloud a draft for revision, it is another opportunity for students to realize themselves as writers. 

In class we are often give the example that if a student is expected to write good emails, then show them good emails. Modeling good literature gives the student a goal to strive for and an inspiration to work from. In Creech’s Love that Dog Miss Stretchberry gave students a number of poems to model.  Jack was given a concrete poem about an apple and he was excited because he recognized that poems could take on a new form.  Jack created a concrete poem about one of his favorite subjects, his dog. Jack was able to enhance his writing by applying his ideas to a form that already exists. 

Miss. Stretchberry gives Jack time to develop as an author in Love that Dog. Every entry is about six days apart. More importantly the teacher supports Jack when he does not want to write ‘because boys don’t write poetry (1)’ and gives him time to discover the writer inside of him.  She gives him time to develop and raises her expectations to challenge him as he is ready.  Class time is very important. From my own experience I never enjoyed writing in class because I became anxious when I felt limited by time.  Instead I did a just enough of the project to show the teacher some in-class effort and read or worked on math and then took the assignment home to work on at my own pace.

           Students learn to write by writing. I hope my classroom will be student centered and experiential. My classroom will have a writing center where all the tools they need to brainstorm while pre-writing, such as large pieces of paper and markers, are available.  Magnetic words will be available so learners can play and explore without any stress of fitting meaning into form.  Tools such as dictionaries and thesauri will be at the student’s fingertips. I want student writing up on the wall so they can be proud of their work and learn from each other.  I hope this writing center can be teacher supported but student lead.

           I want my students to have authentic writing experiences where they can write for themselves and not only for their teachers. By allowing students to have choice in topic and opportunity to publish their work they take ownership of what they are writing and learning.


British Columbia Ministry of Education. (2006). English language arts: Integrated resource package. Victoria, BC: Author. URL: http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/irp/irp_ela.htm.

Casey, M. and Hemenway, S. (2001) Structure and Freedom: Achieving a Balanced Curriculum. The English Journal, vol. 90, pp. 68-75.

Creech, S. (2001). Love that dog. New York: HarperCollins.

Tomkins et al. (2011). Language Arts: Content and Teaching Strategies (5th ed.). Toronto: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Reflections on a Learning Experience

When asked to look back at my own ELA learning, my second semester grade nine English class was one of the most refreshing, engaging and authentic contexts for learning in all of my K-12 experiences.  In a year characterized by teen-angst my teacher supported us by establishing a positive atmosphere of respect and by recognizing us as responsible human beings. He allowed us to the freedom to manage our own time by handing our projects in at midnight the day they were due by giving long due dates.  Recently, in my EDCI 302 class, it was discussed how most students never look at teacher’s comments but just look at their grade. My teacher would tell us our grade but would not give us our grade until we did all the corrections to our assignments. But, he gave us the responsibility to manage finishing our corrections ourselves, as this was due at the end of term.  This type of support was realized in class discussions because we were learning how to become more responsible for our words and actions. We were able to delve deeper into controversial topics more fully than I had experienced in the previous semester with another teacher.

The text he chose for the term was John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night.  My first impression after looking at the cover was that it was about adults but would be simplified for school-aged readers.  I honestly was not expecting to enjoy the novel because it seemed out of date yet I finished reading it the day we were assigned it. We had read books about racism such as The Cay and To Kill a Mockingbird in previous grades but these novels are based on the child’s experience. It was refreshing to be given the responsibility to read and write about adult themes.  During the winter term, we wrote our first long essay.  Again, I was engaged by this because it felt authentic and was not the novel study I had been doing since Elementary school.  My essay was on all the connotations of the title in the book and movie. It was probably one of the best essays I have written, one of the only essays that I can honestly say I consciously used the 5-writing steps for and the only one I finished without a late night.  I got a perfect mark and it was displayed on the wall.

 As a whole, the students were fairly strong English learners but it was mixed between people who had written essays before and those who had written page long reports.  To support us in this, we were given time to pre-write and draft in class.  We were expected to write our essays at home but were given a class to peer-conference or teacher conference if we needed it. All drafts and revisions were handed in as a computer printed, title paged, numbered and referenced essay.  His expectations were clear. We were given both a page long assignment sheet with clear guidelines, topic choices plus a blank version of the sheet he would use to assess us.  We were also allowed to monitor our own progress by marking our work. We used the same sheet he used to mark us and if we gave ourselves within three points (out of thirty) than he gave us, we got our mark.

The very first day of class our teacher gave us all a quick get to know you survey under the pretense that a number of students had been switched into his class and were new to him. It was quickly forgotten.  He had used this survey to make a seating plan for the class that reflected themes from the novel.  For over a month he had arranged our seats in way that all the blue eyed students faced him at the front, the rest of us either had to turn sideways or all the way around in our seats to listen to him at the board. He was more accommodating, friendly and developed a rapport with those with blue eyes. He had been short when responding to questions from the rest of us, would not say hello to us in the hallway and made sure we were always slightly uncomfortable as we had to turn completely in our seats and write in our laps if we were taking notes.  According to Vygotsky, “learning occurs through socially meaningful interactions (Tomkins et all, 2011,8).” This hands-on activity allowed us to learn about racism through social experience and the following discussion.

This teaching approach, centered on the novel In the Heat of the Night, was resource based. He used Piaget’s constructivist learning theory when he built on what we already knew about writing paragraphs and taking that further to develop a full essay. He built a solid foundation for essay writing skills in every student by giving us class time to practice all five stages of the writing cycle. The final class discussion was largely student led. This type of hands-on experience is what Vygotsky described in his social-lingual theory when learning occurs through social interactions. Recognizing us as responsible students with a greater sense of self worth and confidence facilitated provocative classroom discussions.  He supported our essay writing by giving us clear expectations, class time to develop our ideas, having an open door policy to answer questions and by giving class time for peer and teacher conferencing.

What are the Characteristics of a Learning and how does the BC ELA IRP Address Diversity in Learning

            In preparation for my entrance interview for the education program at UVic I was asked to anticipate what diversity I might expect in the classroom and what challenges this might bring. I considered it and answered that learning differences would be the biggest challenge. Just to be sure I called my teacher-sister who quickly and strongly affirmed my suspicion.  My first response had only been in regard to finding the time to manage and reach the ADD/ADHD or autistic students while still challenging the ‘A-level’ students.   In retrospect, my answer to what diversity I might expect seems very simple.  The BC ELA IRP recognizes that ‘British Columbia’s schools include young people of varied backgrounds, interests, abilities and needs (p 3).”

According to Piaget every child “[constructs] their own knowledge from their experiences (Tompkins et al, 2011, p5.)”   At the primary school age, some children will have been read to every night by their parents and will love the chance to create and share their own stories. Other children may not read at all.  Each child will enter the classroom with their own schema created from their own experience.   Previous learning is categorized and stored and new information is assimilated and accommodated in a way unique to each student (5).   Ethnic diversity will add richness to the classroom by bringing different attitudes to learning, culture and language. Vygotsky stressed the child’s cultural background affected the stages of development as different cultures emphasize different social interactions (Tompkins et al,8).  The BC ELA IRP has prescribed learning outcomes for each grade.  These learning outcomes are a set of criteria that must be met and are a set of skills that must be taught to the students every year. This is so that every child has the foundation of learning required to enter the next grade and is consistent throughout the province. The BC ELA IRP states, as presented in class, “PLO’s are content standards for the provincial education system…Clearly stated and expressed in measurable and observable terms, learning outcomes set out the required knowledge, skills and attitudes – what students are expected to know and be able to do – by the end of the specified course.”  The BC ELA IRP is a tool to make sure each student is progressing through school at a similar level no matter what their previous experience.  It is also a resource to assess what fundamental skill a student may be missing and hopefully can be an aid in remedial exercises.  

Elementary aged students will have preconceived ideas about English language arts.  Every student has his or her own interests and strengths.  Some of these interests fall within a gender divide. I work at an after-school care center with a group of grade fours and fives.  After taking a toy top, called a beyblade, away from one boy he sat down and wrote a story that was inappropriately graphic in its violence about a boy with a supreme beyblade.  That same day the girls filled out surveys they created noting each other’s personal interests, favorite family members and pets.  The BC ELA IRP allows the teacher the freedom to choose subject matter that is of interest to her students. It also does not dictate how the subject matter is to be presented but provides a framework as to what skills need to be met in each lesson.    

I have a grade five student in this group who has an anxiety disorder and does not comprehend much beyond a grade one level when spoken to. She is strictly a visual learner.  Not only is it difficult to communicate with her as a member of a group she has tantrums and crying fits when she does not understand immediately. If talked to one on one and if shown how to do a task she is very competent.  She reads and will talk about books that are above her reading level.  Page two of the BC ELA IRP recognizes in it’s aim to reach six different areas of comprehension in the ELA program: speaking, listening, reading, viewing, writing and representing.  Not every student will be strong in each area. My student does not listen well, but she can represent, view and write. By building on those areas of comprehension, she can be supported when developing listening skills.

Learners, though diverse in their abilities, backgrounds and interests, all learn using the same strategies. I believe the BC ELA IRP addresses the similarities in learning strategies whereas it only recognizes the differences. I find it frustrating that it does not address how to teach a student who enters the classroom at a lower level than his or her peers.  Every child has a certain comfort level with new material based on past experience from school or from home.  Vygotsky called this the zone of proximal development.  The teacher has to anticipate this for his or her students in order to effectively teach new subject matter.  The BC ELA IRP does not offer any suggestions on how to meet the needs of lower grade level students other than to set them back a grade.

            As a pre-service teacher, two questions I am often asked to think about in my ELA class are: ‘what will my classroom look like?’ and ‘who will my students be?’ I hope that my classroom will be a celebration of all my students.  It will reflect their different learning styles, it will bring in different cultural elements and students will be able to share their experiences to learn, grow and explore together. It is clear now that as challenging as diversity can be, diversity can also open doors to both the teacher and to the learners as other avenues of teaching experiences and opportunities are opened.