Monday, February 2, 2015

Writing is Thinking: Moving Student Writing from Who & What to Why & How

After a few classes of prewriting and encouraging students to talk to their families (their best resource for family history and culture), we used yesterday's class to explore online resources. I shared a document, Family Tree Resources, with several already pre-selected for students, but I was sure to model how to use the following from that list:

However, most students will experience struggle when digging for family this way. And that is ok. This kind of research challenges anyone of any age and helps develop problem solving skills. In the end, students will find that they want to, and need to, ask for help. And I love that many realize on their own that family is the best place for them to find this help.

I see today day as a transitional day because we should be writing for the next several classes. All of us. While you can go in any number of directions with guiding student freewriting or drafts, I offer the following prompt as a starting point:
Inform an audience with up to three things which intrigue you about your family history and/or culture.
As students began to open their notebooks, I composed my own list of things which intrigued me about my family on the white board and then wrote a sample of the kind of thinking I hoped they would move to:

The more I dig the more I learn about the (severe) hardships all immigrants experience. My ancestors relied on one another to make it. Often they lived in another person's home for years before finding steady work, money, and confidence to rent their own home. For instance, one of my cousins left Italy for the United States after World War I. Married, she and her new husband experienced the joy of the birth of a son and the heavy sorrow of losing twin girls at birth--all in less than 18 months. I can't imagine the drastic swings of emotion during their first year in a new country where neither could speak nor write the language. This teaches me why I remember my family as always being so close and tender with one another. My mom and older cousins were raised where people took care of one another when family truly needed each other.
After writing and reading my response, I leave the class with about twenty minutes to list and write.

Teaching Points:
  • Inherent in the prompt is the question of audience. As you make time to confer with students as they write, a great question to put to them is who is your intended audience? who would you like to know this information? are you writing to family? to your classmates? others?
  • This work sets the stage for next week's video (or podcast) because it asks students to dig deeper into the aspects of family and culture that interest them most. Bear in mind that writing is thinking and students need the time and encouragement to write and work through several "thinking drafts" in order to get to the good stuff.
  • A student might continue to draft and revise the "three things" prompt during upcoming classes, or they might branch off to one of those "things" if they have gathered information, details, and know the topic.
While we all teach in different communities and different students, I want to offer a few takeaways from the lessons at this stage of the process in my classroom:
  • Students are talking at home. They report calling grandparents and other extended family members. They are bringing in pictures of family artifacts and in some cases extensive histories already gathered by family members. They are engaging their parents in conversation.
  • Students can remained locked and focused on the who and the what. It is up to me to model how to take the who and the what and reflect on it. Show readers why the information matters. Show the readers how and why it impacts you, your family, and your culture. Through my writing and the sharing of my writing I need to show students how to take the names, dates, and places and craft it into something with fluency, readability, and novelty. 
  • Students show so much support for one another. Lots of peer conferring is occurring spontaneously and respectfully.
Saving time during the last ten minutes or so to allow students to share aloud has been an important element of each day. While the first few classes allowed us to share our frustrations and successes, today allowed us to speak passionately about the elements of our family and culture that have us hooked.

As I explained to my students, finding the ability to write from the heart is a key component of good writing. When we write from the heart, we write about why things matter, how and why we connect to our topics, and why you as a reader might take something from our words.

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