LISTENING, LEARNING, AND WRITING: UNDERSTANDINGS, PERCEPTIONS, AND EXPERIENCES OF FIFTH GRADE WRITERS by
Andra Nathan Brill B.A., Brandeis University, 1991 M.A., University of Colorado, 1996
A thesis submitted to the University of Colorado at Denver in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy Educational Leadership and Innovation 2004
2004 by Andra Nathan Brill All rights reserved.
This thesis for the Doctor of Philosophy degree by Andra Nathan Brill has been approved by
Brill, Andra Nathan (Ph.D., Educational Leadership and Innovation)
Listening, Learning, and Writing:
Understandings, Perceptions, and Experiences of Fifth Grade Writers Thesis directed by Associate Professor Sally Nathenson-Mejia
This ethnography examined what learning to be a writer is like for thirteen fifth graders in writers workshop. Specifically, I looked at ways the children understand what it means to be a writer, the ways children perceive themselves as writers, and the nature of childrens experiences as they learn to write. Because writers workshop is based on constructivist theories of learning, this study attempted to encourage the children to participate as fully as possible in the research. Evidence of childrens emerging voice, empowerment, and writing development emerged from extended interviews with each child. The results of this study include the large amount of information children have access to regarding writing and being writers, and the depth of the learning experience when teachers listen to what children have to say.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I recommend its publication__________________________
To the memory of my mother, Ilse Nathan, who taught by example. Her strength, compassion, and intelligence transformed the world.
To my father, Jay Brill, for the best gift of all, unconditional love, and for always being there for me.
Many, many thanks to my advisor, Sally Nathenson-Mejia, for her unwavering encouragement and endless enthusiasm.
Thanks also to my wonderful committee members, Phillip White, Sherry Taylor, and Karla Haas-Moskowitz, for fabulous conversations that helped me clarify my own understandings, perceptions, and experiences.
Special thanks to Professor Rod Muth for many years of sage advice and support.
Through the Looking Glass........................1
Introduction to the Children.....................7
About This Study.................................9
2. REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE...........................13
Voice and Empowerment...........................15
Conversation as Learning........................20
The Researchers Role...........................34
Methods of Data Collection......................36
Moving from Writing Conferences
to Writing Interviews...........................39
Conversations with the Classroom Teacher........43
Credibility, Transferability, Dependability,
Understanding What it Means to be a Writer.............56
The Joys of Writing............................ 58
Being a Writer................................. 61
Qualities of Good Writers...................... 63
Self-Perception as Writers.............................67
Are You a Good Writer?..........................68
What Children Like About Their Writing..........70
Conventions are Tricky..........................72
Learning to Generate Ideas.......................73
Identifying Writing Goals........................75
Advice for Other Writers.........................77
Experiences in the Writers Workshop.....................82
Learning How to Write............................83
Learning to Write in Fifth Grade...........85
So, What Makes It Better?............... 87
Classroom Charts........................ 89
Writing Beyond the Classroom............ 90
What Children Know About the Writing Process...92
j Choosing a Topic...........................94
Sense of Audience.........................105
What Children Know About the Craft of Writing:
Three Genres and Strategies.....................106
Mastering the Craft................Ill
Confusion about Rhyme..............114
Good Writers are Funny.............115
Summary: Understanding, Perception,
and Experience in Writers Workshop.............118
5. CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS....................121
Listening to Children..........................121
Understanding What it Means to be a Writer.... 123
Perceiving Oneself as a Writer.................124
Experiencing Learning to Write
in Writers Workshop............................125
Future Research............................... 128
A. STUDENT QUESTIONNAIRE..........................132
B. DOMAIN AND TAXONOMIC ANALYSIS................. 134
C. COMPONENTIAL TABLES............................139
D. STUDENT GENERATED CLASSROOM CHARTS............ 145
E. EXAMPLES OF STUDENT WORK.......................150
Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to provide explanations over and over again.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery Through the Looking Glass
Classrooms are like mirrors. Children learn to behave and often to think in ways that mirror the classroom teachers values (Clarke, Davis, Rhodes & Baker, 1996). By examining childrens experiences, understandings and perceptions, we can begin to uncover the culture of the classroom. Looking at what classroom experiences are like for children also gives children an opportunity to express themselves in a way that is often overlooked. Asking children about their own experiences, understandings, and perceptions also assists us in making the paradigm shift from teaching as a set of theories and methods to teaching as the creation of contexts for learning (Clarke, Davis, Rhodes & Baker, p. 18). Another way to say this is that teaching and learning are about making sense of the world around us.
Writing is one such way that we have to make sense of our world. For centuries writers have used language to explain their experiences and perceptions of reality. Writers workshop is a way of organizing classroom writing instruction to be more authentic, to focus instruction to more closely reflect how real authors approach their work. Writers workshop offers young writers the opportunity to authentically explore and develop their own writing processes. The writers workshop is a way of setting up the classroom to accommodate a self-contained block of time for children to explore what it means to be a writer. It is a regular part of the school day, governed by rituals and routines negotiated with children, in which children experience becoming apprentice writers.
Much has been written about children and writers workshop. There is research that discusses childrens writing development (Atwell, 1987; Avery, 2002, Schickendanz, 1990), best instructional practices (Clarke, Davis, Rhodes & Baker, 1996; Taylor, Pearson, Clark and Walpole, 1999), and theories that support teaching writing through a process model (Calkins, 1986; Graves,
1994; Taberski, 2000). However, despite suggestions to focus more on students (Lincoln, 1995), little has been written that examines what the experience of writing workshop is like for children from their own perspective.
Listening to childrens voices is both worthwhile and empowering (Lincoln, 1995, p.89). By listening to childrens voices we can honor truly
child-centered curriculum and allow childrens experiences to inform our teaching practice. For child-centered reforms to be successful it is imperative that research uncover what writers workshop is like for those it is intended to educate. In a child-centered curriculum it is the childrens voices that can best deepen our understanding of curriculum reform.
Childrens perspectives of what they experience in the classroom have too often been overlooked in favor of teachers interpretations (Hindley,1996; Cunningham & Allington, 1994). Focusing solely on adult perspectives assumes that adult versions of reality are more valid than those of children.
Too often, adults control the power, and thus the ability to define the reality of what goes on in the classroom (Lincoln, 1995). Children in a teacher controlled classroom are mere auxiliaries to adult versions of reality. If we are looking to construct child-centered classrooms, it seems evident that we need to create the time and space for children to express their own version of reality.
This study is about perceptions of learning. It is about listening to children talk about their own learning. It is also about teachers learning from children, learning to listen carefully as children begin to express themselves. Too often teachers are unable to take the time to listen to what children already know. I am not speaking of the endless assessments that we subject children to in order to figure out what facts or skills they have learned. When I say listen to what children already know, I am referring to the conceptualizations and
cognitive strategies that children have internalized that enable them to become independent learners. As educators it is imperative that we begin to really listen to our young students so that we can begin to deepen our own understanding and practice.
In an attempt to document what children know, I focus my study on the writers workshop. By its very nature, writers workshop is structured so that students are active participants in their own learning. Traditional instructional models, where teachers simply transmit knowledge to their students, are incompatible with a workshop method that requires children to establish individual connections and formulate personal understandings about what writing is all about. Therefore, in a workshop structure traditional means of assessing childrens progress, such as tests and quizzes, cannot help us inform our practice. It is not enough to give children the information that they will need to be successful in our society. Education must also teach children what to do with information, how to think about it, and how to use what they know in the world beyond the classroom.
Often research is done by the researcher for the researcher, or action research is done by teachers for teachers. The questions asked in this study are prompted by wondering how to use research as tool to further empower children. Talking with students as a means of deepening the learning experience is not new to education. From the Socratic Method, to instructional
conversations (Tharp & Gallimore, 1991), or accountable talk (Resnick & Hall, 2001), how we talk to children is just as important as what we say to them. Can listening to children express their ideas and understandings of their experiences actually be a form of pedagogy? This study is not just about how children make meaning in the writers workshop, but is intended to give voice to the children as they explore the experience of becoming writers in a workshop setting. Because I believe that children should be active participants in their learning, this study is structured so that children would be active participants in the study. The three research questions are:
1. In what ways do children understand what it means to be a writer?
2. In what ways do children perceive themselves to be writers?
3. What is the nature and extent of how children experience writers workshop?
These questions are intended to place children at the center of the research. The hope is to uncover and validate childrens perceptions, understandings, and experiences as learners in a writers workshop as much as possible.
One of the most important realizations about asking these questions is the level of trust that is involved. Children must be comfortable and trust the researcher just as much as the researcher needs to trust that the children are giving an honest portrayal of their thoughts and experiences. I believe that this level of trust is of paramount importance in a child-centered classroom.
Children will reflect back what teachers believe and do. If a teacher sets and
models high academic and moral expectations, children will eventually internalize the classroom standard.
Writers workshop can empower children to take control of their own learning and to shape their own realities (Dahl, 1995). The strength of writers workshop lies in the fact that it is student-centered. It is not about what the teacher can teach, or how much information she can transfer into childrens heads, but how well she listens to children and encourages them to become more themselves. Spending time listening to what children know and understand is essential in a child-centered model of education.
Most often, the process approach to teaching writing is referred to as writing workshop (Avery, 2002; Graves, 1994: Hindley, 1996). However, it is with much deliberation that I decided to use the term writers workshop. I wanted to focus on the writers, and not as much on the act of writing. In addition, using writers workshop implies that the workshop belongs to one particular writer. And using the plural, as in writers workshop, again put the focus on the workshop, away from the writer. This research is about fifth grade writers, thus using the term writers workshop is an attempt to keep the writers at the heart of the study.
Progressive educators, such as Dewey (1938), have said that the purpose of education is for children to discover more about themselves and the world around them. Children who learn to learn independently have strategies that they can apply to any situation. The disconnect between school and a childs life outside of school has been studied and documented (Heath, 1994; Finn,1999). Too often formal education serves to alienate children from the reality of their own experiences (McQuillan, 1998; Willis, 1977). This study will look at a classroom situation where writers workshop attempts to create strong connections between school and childrens realities.
Introduction to the Children
The children in this study are all fifth graders in Marcy Sevilles classroom. All thirteen children who participated in this study are willing participants. They are candid about their experiences, and talk openly about what they are learning and how they made sense of this new information. Among the children, there are a few who stand out, mostly through their ability to articulate what writing and being a writer is like.
Maggie has big, soulful brown eyes and long, dark hair. She is quiet in class. Her life out of school seems fairly stable in that she lives with both parents and has been at Mendoza Elementary since kindergarten. Her first grade teacher still talks about how bright and vivacious she is when she is six
years old. In four years however, Maggie has become a different person. She is often withdrawn and sullen. She is painfully shy when it comes to sharing her writing with the class. Unlike most of the other girls in the class, she prefers to spend her time with the boys, although she socializes well with everyone in the class.
Maggies writing is particularly well-developed. She writes and talks about complex strategies for making her writing interesting and understands the power of writing to communicate with others. However, because of her shyness, Maggie rarely shares this knowledge in the classroom. In fact, I am quite amazed when we sat down to talk with just how much she had to say about being a writer.
Freddy, a slight boy with dark hair and dark eyes, also stunned me with his deep understanding about writing and being a writer. Like Maggie, Freddy seems to hover at the edges of the class, and rarely contributes to group conversations. At the beginning of the year, the classroom teacher, Marcy, expressed concerns that his writing is poorly developed. His writing journal is filled with short entries written in large letters. Not much writing is really happening for Freddy. So it is a huge surprise to sit down with him and really listen to all that he knows about writing strategies and purposes.
Antonio is twelve, making him the oldest student in the class. He is the baby in his family, although you would never guess it from his tough guy
attitude. Always well dressed, his hair is short and gelled into spikes. Antonio wears a gold chain and an earring. He is enamored with Hummers and draws them at every opportunity; and he likes to listen to rap music, often filled with violence and raw language. Despite his quiet demeanor, Antonio is an influential leader in the class, particularly for the other boys. As a writer, it is striking how well Antonio expresses his struggle to come up with ideas, and the frustration of needing more time to think about what he wants to write.
Antonio seems genuinely surprised and relieved when I tell him that many professional writers struggle with the same issues.
June is new to the school this year. She has light eyes, and light brown hair. When she first came, in the middle of October, she seemed particularly depressed and withdrawn. Over the past few months, however, and with the help of new contact lenses, she has begun to come out of her shell. Marcy has frequently voiced concerns about the quality of Junes writing, most notably her handwriting. In the interview June talks about her understanding of how choosing the right words can make the difference in a story.
About This Study
This study examined the experiences, understandings, and beliefs one group of fifth graders expressed about writing and being a writer in a workshop setting. The children all have Hispanic backgrounds, some are first-generation
immigrants bom in Mexico, while others were bom in the United States. The children are all bilingual, and while many speak Spanish at home, the language of instruction is entirely English.
Over a period of five months, I participated in the classroom as a literacy coach, supporting the teacher during the writers workshop. We taught units on personal narrative, description, and fables. The most in-depth study is of poetry. Classroom observations were documented on a small computer and then analyzed using coding and a two-step process. The majority of data is collected from individual conversations that I had with each of the children. Data were also collected from a short questionnaire, ongoing interviews with the teacher, and students written work.
Among the findings of the research is the undeniable fact that children internalize, understand, and are able to express much more than is normally demonstrated in a fairly traditional classroom environment. Children who are usually quiet often express the deepest understandings of the writing process. Children write best from their own experience (Calkins, 1986; Graves, 1983). However, for this particular population, a good part of their life experience is watching television and movies. Very little has been discussed or written about how to incorporate this experience into what we ask children to do as writers (Dyson, 2003; Alvermann & Xu, 2003).
In addition, in part because of the time spent watching cartoons, one of the highest accolades children seem to bestow on good writing is that it is funny. Interestingly, humor as a genre has been, until very recently, completely absent from the research and curriculum conversations about writers workshop. Based on the present study this is a huge oversight since it is a genre to which children are naturally drawn, and they are able to recognize it instantly.
Two implications from the data indicate how listening to children might inform and improve teacher practice. Unlike most educational research, this study assumes no secondary goal to improve instruction, per se. However, it would be negligent not to report the most obvious findings. First, and not surprisingly, the data clearly demonstrate how facilitating children in the creation and verbalization of their own knowledge about writing, particularly regarding poetry, is an incredibly effective method of instruction. Second, the children referred often to the co-created classroom reference charts for support while writing. While the creation of charts with the whole class is an integrated part of the workshop method being presented across the district, for some veteran teachers this new methodology feels too foreign to implement successfully.
The most important implication of this research reiterates John Deweys (1938) admonishment that teachers must study their own practice. Research in ones own classroom is the best way to improve teacher performance. Most of
all, listening to children as part of the classroom based research improves student achievement in ways that are difficult to document using quantitative measures.
This study examines the ways in which children perceive themselves as writers, how children understand what it means to be a writer, and examines childrens experience learning to write in a writers workshop.
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
What is important are the bonds that link us to one another in a concept greater than oneself.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh
1. In what ways do children understand what it means to be a writer?
2. In what ways do children perceive themselves to be writers?
3. What is the nature and extent of how children experience writers workshop?
The questions that drive this study are intended to help rectify the fact that we dont listen to children enough. Not often enough, and not well enough. Really listening to what children have to say about these questions leads to deeper understandings of voice, empowerment and writing development in a workshop model.
In order to address these questions I will explore the research on student voice and empowerment, writers workshop, conversations, constructivism, and discourse. Listening to what children have to say is the focus of this research. By listening to children we acknowledge and validate their voices, thus giving power to their perceptions. This research looks specifically at what children
have to say about being writers in writers workshop. A significant part of the %
workshop is the writing conference, conversations with children about what they are doing as writers. The workshop is based on principles of constructivism. A working knowledge of different discourse styles ties together issues of power and communication in the classroom.
So much of the newer literature encourages teachers to talk with their students, and yet, at least from my own experience, very little time is provided for teachers to actually practice what this kind of conversation is like. Even reading about how to go about having meaningful writing conferences with children does not provide the authentic experience for either teacher or students to learn from (Anderson, 2002). The problem is not in recognizing how valuable our conversations with children are, but in prioritizing conversations as valuable pedagogy.
In order to better discuss how writers workshop, and particularly writing conferences, can empower children it is necessary to examine the social aspects of education. Not only is discourse important to learning, but the kinds of discourse that occur in a classroom are an important indicator of the level of student participation that is expected.
One of the elements that distinguishes this research from preceding studies is the particular population that is observed. While there have been studies that look at emergent writers, (Avery, 2002; Calkins, 1986) and older
writers (Atwell, 1987; Powell, 2001), very few studies examine the writing experience of intermediate elementary students becoming writers (Rosean, 1993). Of these, not one looked at a classroom of students acquiring English as a second language.
The National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning has done numerous studies regarding the use of instructional conversations in transitional bilingual classrooms (Goldenberg, 1991; Tharp & Gallimore, 1991). While there is at least one report that examined the value of instructional conversations in a transitional bilingual fourth-grade classroom (Patthey-Chavez, 1995), I could find none that examined ten-year old childrens own understanding of the writers workshop experience in a similar setting.
Voice and Empowerment
Throughout the last one hundred years, progressive educators argue that schools are not merely preparation for life, but an integral part of life being lived every day by students and teachers (Dewey, 1938). As such, classrooms reflect what sort of lives teachers envision for their students, at least while they are in school. What children think and internalize from this experience is crucial to understanding how what we do as teachers affects our students (Lincoln, 1995). Teachers who invite children to fully participate in the
classroom, in their own education, and in their own lives also invite children to become full participants in their own learning (Lincoln, 1995)
Voice, according to Karin Dahl (1995), is the way in which people express their perspectives. For children, voice is how they share the meaning they make of their own lives. It is difficult to define, and yet, when we hear voice, we hear an individuals personality and perceptions. Often, in my own writing classes, I have used different styles of music, classical, rock, and reggae to help children hear what voice is about. Each style has its own mood, and creates its own context. Finding ones voice is about learning how to express ones mood, context and perceptioa Dahl goes on to say that voice can either be a reflection on our experiences or an attempt at self-definition. This kind of expression is how we let others hear what is true for us, it provides a glimpse of who learners are and how they experience their lives in school (Dahl, 1995).
Equally important, is the sense of self-worth that is necessary to express our truths. We must believe that what we have to say is important, if not to others, then at least to ourselves. By important, I mean that what we have to say has some impact on the world around us (Freire, 2000). Often this is referred to as empowerment, a word that conjures up images of the disenfranchised and the oppressed (Freire, 2000). And while the argument can be made that children are both disenfranchised and oppressed, socializing children and structuring schools so that adults are in charge is deeply embedded
in our paradigm of how the world works (Giroux, 1988). Treating students as intelligent beings from whom there is much to learn, while novel, is not new (Paley, 1986). It is certainly a form of oppression to assume that only adult perspectives are valid in the classroom. Including children in the research process, according to Marshal and Rossman (1999), also empowers children to participate in decisions that directly affect their education and their lives. Thus, asking children to think about what they are learning and listening to what they have to say is a way of inviting children to find their own voice and become more empowered.
Years ago, artisans learned their craft by apprenticing in the workshop of a master crafter. Whether it is painting or carpentry, apprentices learned from watching how master crafters went about their business, observing the day-to-day life in the craft, learning the process of the craft, and practicing under the masters watchful gaze. The idea behind the writers workshop is similar.
Like the apprentices workshop of old, the writers workshop is an environment in which children can observe how the craft of writing is done, learn the process, and practice with guidance from the teacher (Atwell, 1987; Ray, 2001). Writers workshop is meant to teach children what it means to be a
writer. Within the workshop children have the opportunity not only to talk about writers and writing, but to practice being a writer and engage in the practice of writing.
There are many aspects of the workshop structure that separate it from traditional writing classes. First, the workshop is child-centered. Children are not merely receptacles to be filled with knowledge, but active participants in the process of learning to write. Second, the workshop does not focus on covering a preconceived curriculum of isolated skills or strategies over the course of a year, but instead guides children to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a writer and what the process of crafting good writing is like. The writers workshop teacher, therefore, must know something about what it is like to be a writer and the craft of writing (Graves, 1994; Hindley, 1996). This is a huge departure from the days when the teachers job is primarily to correct spelling and punctuation.
In addition, the workshop relies heavily on the construction of knowledge through conversations -- in large groups, small groups, and one-to-one about writers and writing (Anderson, 2000; Atwell, 1987; Ray, 2001).
The structure of the workshop provides ample opportunity for these conversations. However, in order to have educative conversations, teachers must know more about writers and writing than how to edit a paper. To be truly meaningful learning experiences, teachers must have a good
understanding themselves of what it means to be a writer, and what the craft of writing entails (Calkins, 1986; Graves, 1994; Hindley, 1996). Teachers must become the master crafter in the writers workshop if children are to be the apprentices.
Just as the name suggests, the writers workshop is a way of constructing meaning that identifies students as writers working in authentic ways as they explore and develop their own writing processes (Calkins, 1986). The writers workshop is a way of setting up the classroom to accommodate a self-contained block of time for children to explore what it means to be a writer (Avery, 2002; Ray, 2001). It is a regular part of the school day, governed by rituals and routines negotiated with children, in which children experience becoming apprentice writers (Atwell, 1987; Calkins, 1986; Graves, 1994).
The philosophy underlying writers workshop is constructivist and child-centered. It is constructivist because, as suggested by Bruner (1961), there is the belief that individuals can and do construct knowledge based on what they already know. It is child-centered because there is a certain level of trust that children will not only show us what it is they need to work on next, but that they will be active participants in their own learning process (Brooks & Brooks, 1993).
Conversation as Learning
At the National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning, Roland Tharp and his colleagues (1991) have created an observation protocol for instructional conversations. These are discussions that are instructional, providing new knowledge, and conversational in that they are naturally occurring interactions. On the other side of the country, Lauren Resnick and others at the Institute for Learning have reached similar conclusions about the nature of the conversations that take place in classrooms. According to their Principles of Learning, not only conversations within classrooms, but those among teachers in professional settings, should be filled with what they call accountable talk (Resnick& Hall, 2001). Accountable talk is a kind of discourse that holds speakers accountable for what is being said. This means that conversations are grounded in knowledge that is both accurate and relevant (Resnick& Hall, 2001). Both instructional conversations and accountable talk emphasize the enormous importance of high quality conversations with children.
The idea of using conversation as teaching has a long tradition (Applebee, 1996; Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Bruner, 1961). Even more traditional educational theorists, such as B.F. Skinner (1984) say teachers must talk and listen to what children have to say. Good classroom conversations have multiple purposes, aside from the direct educational value, good
conversations help foster an environment that encourages thoughtfulness and learning (Patthey-Chavez,1995). Powell (2001), in an unpublished manuscript, wrote that conversation is an important tool to emphasize the social context of classroom teaching and to emphasize the social construction of knowledge (p. 28).
While just talking with children is a great place to begin, recent research has found that it is not only the amount of time we take to speak with children, but the quality of the talk that is important (Center on Organizations and Restructuring of Schools, 1993; Goldenberg, 1991; Newmann & Wehlage,
1993; Resnick & Hall, 2001; Tharp & Gallimore, 1991). Conversations may be filled with talk that is accountable to the larger community, to knowledge and to rigorous thinking. A common example of this kind of conversation is helping children go back to the text to justify their own reasoning when making inferences. This kind of accountable talk is one way of using conversations to further instruction (Resnick & Hall, 2001). When participants are held accountable for what they say in this way, conversations become increasingly informative and productive.
Instructional conversations are similar to accountable talk, however embedded in the term is the idea that instruction, which leads to learning, and conversations, which occur naturally in other settings, are married to create meaningful exchanges in the classroom. (Goldenberg, 1991; Tharp &
Gallimore, 1991). This marriage is an elegant way to re-construct the idea of how scientific concepts, the instructional piece coming from the teacher, interact with the spontaneous concepts that are brought by the students.
Conducting our conversations with children well has the potential to reaffirm Vygotskys notion that meaning and purpose are integral parts of our interaction with children (Ashton, 1996). Goldenberg (1991) also discusses the importance of the dialogue between the teacher and the student to scaffold new information, weaving previous understandings with new material. Rosenblatt (1978) tells us that good, high quality conversations are essential in the classroom. Such high quality conversations should include authentic questions to encourage dialogue (Applebee, 1996). Furthermore, authentic reflection on our conversations can lead to deeper understanding, and eventually to student growth and development (Graves, 1983; Robb, 2002).
Having wonderful, high level conversations with children is simply the context for learning to listen to what children have to say. Wheatley admonishes that the task is really to become superb listeners (1999, p. 66). Good teaching should do more than just impart knowledge and teach skills (Goldenberg, 1992). Teachers also need to listen carefully to hear what children are saying (Tharp & Gallimore, 1991). Only in this way can we move towards a world that is less discriminatory, more democratic, and more humane (Freire, 2000).
Freire also talks about the importance of trust. As individuals we ought to trust those around us. One of the biggest shifts that traditional, teacher directed instructors are called upon to make as they transition to writers workshop is to place more trust in students. If the goal is truly to nurture students to become independent learners we must learn to trust them to manage their own learning (Sternberg, 1997). This shift of responsibility, from those who have traditionally held power and control over those who have traditionally been held accountable by external measures, should be reflected at every level of our schools, between administrators and teachers, as well as between teachers and students. More importantly, as teachers we must learn to trust our students to use their minds to make meaning of their lives (Bruner, 1961).
Children construct meaning from the outside in. That is, what children can discuss with others, they can then internalize (Vygotsky, 1962). Language is the primary vehicle for intellectual development. Good teaching involves using language to enrich students understanding of important ideas (Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Pressley, 1995). If, as Vygotsky (1962) suggests, learning is socially mediated, then the social interactions we have with children are the very heart of our teaching. Promoting rich, caring relationships in our
classrooms are at the heart of good teaching (Heshusius, 1995, Salomon & Perkins, 1998).
Research on effective teaching demonstrates that children seem more motivated and more able to retain information if they are active participants in constructing knowledge for themselves (Dweck, 1986; McCombs, 1991). The theory that grew out of these observations, constructivism, has been the impetus for many modem educational reforms. According to Bruner (1961) children who team through discovery are more likely to retain what they learn, as they themselves have constructed the schema to store the new information. Today, project learning, discovery learning, experiential programs, and those that are student centered approaches all trace their roots back to constructivist theory.
At its most basic, constructivism explains how individuals construct new knowledge and understandings from their own experiences and interactions in the world (Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Newmann & Wehlage,
1993). In fact, individuals learn and understand what they learn better when they make connections between what they already know and the new information (Bruner, 1966). Shepards (1989) research demonstrates that when students are taught conceptual comprehension that builds upon previously constructed knowledge, they do better than students who are taught skills only.
Just as good readers must get beyond identifying letters and words to construct meaning (Goodman, 1996), good writers must also move beyond
letters and words to construct meaning in their writing. Research in reading has shown that the interaction between the reader and the text, the transaction between what the reader brings to the text, and the text itself, is the key to reading comprehension (Goodman, 1984; Rosenblatt, 1969). For it is not the what and how, the mechanics of writing, nor the why, the strategies and concepts behind what we do, but the interaction of meaning and purpose we bring to a text and the text itself that fosters the learning experience.
Authentic education engages students and encourages them to practice higher-order thinking skills, such as synthesis and analysis (Center on Organizations and Restructuring of Schools, 1993). Good teaching should emerge naturally from interactions with students. Through conversations with children we can discover what children already know, and therefore organize our teaching so that learning occurs within a students zone of proximal development (Tharp & Gallimore, 1991). Another way of talking about authentic learning experiences is that they incorporate knowledge-in-action rather than knowledge-out of context (Applebee, 1996. p. 21). Applebee (1996) goes on to say that the problem facing most traditional classrooms is that children are learning about rather than participating in meaningful and authentic learning opportunities (p. 28). Bruner (1961) also talks about how traditionally, what he refers to as the expository mode of education, teachers do most of the expounding, and students do a lot of listening. In the hypothetical
mode, however, students take a more active role in learning (Bruner, 1961), creating their own hypothesis and investigating the possibilities.
Discourse refers to the style in which we are accustomed to communicating with others (Finn, 1999). Different groups, particularly defined by economic and social class, have different styles of discourse (Finn, 1999; Heath, 1994; Payne, 1998). According to Finn (1999), discourse styles vary according to the following characteristics: kind of authority, level of conformity, isolation, power and whether the language is implicit or explicit. Both Finn (1999) and Heath (1982/1994) discuss the difference between how discourse in middle class families differs greatly from that of working class families. Heath (1994), argues that the style of discourse expected in school favors middle class children, while Finn (1999) sees the different discourse styles defining different academic and social expectations that influence students future class status.
In terms of the writers workshop, discourse refers to being able to talk and write using content specific vocabulary and concepts. Applebee (1996) proposes that students should learn the discourse of writing, rather than simply the characteristics of good writing. Writing discourse would include the development of new interpretations, analysis, and the presentation of
convincing arguments and new opinions (Applebee, 1996). This is exactly the kind of conversations Resnick and Hall (2001) and Tharp and Gallimore (1991) discuss in their proposals for accountable talk and instructional conversations. The hope is that teachers will be able to do more than merely impart knowledge to their students; students will learn to be independent, life-long learners (Applebee, 1996; Bruner, 1961).
Listening to what children have to say about their perceptions and understandings about being a writer, and their experiences as learners in writers workshop is the main focus of this study. By truly listening to what children say, without the usual pressures to figure out what to teach, childrens own voices emerged from the data. Along with creating a context for childrens voices, listening to what children say gives strength and validity to childrens experiences, and empowers them to be active participants in their own learning.
The idea of actively participating and constructing knowledge comes from the work of constructivists such as Lev Vygotsky (1962), who also emphasize the importance of social interaction, found here in the form of conversations, to ensure effective learning. Much of the current work on school improvement addresses the kinds of conversations that go on in schools, among and between teachers and students. Learning to listen well, modeling critical
thinking strategies, and valuing childrens input are all ways to improve the depth of instruction and better prepare our students to be engaged, compassionate human beings.
Listening to student voices is both worthwhile and empowering.
Yvonna S. Lincoln
This study examines childrens experience of becoming writers in a writers workshop. The guiding research questions are:
1. In what ways do children understand what it means to be a writer?
2. In what ways do children perceive themselves to be writers?
3. What is the nature and extent of how children experience writers workshop?
This chapter begins with a review of the overall approach and rationale for looking at childrens experience in writers workshop and an explanation of the classroom and students. I will then explain my own role as both coach and researcher. Following this, I will discuss data collection, data management, and data analysis. Finally I will look at the limitations inherent in this study.
There are three main reasons to study exactly what children are learning in the writers workshop. To begin with, the workshop model of literacy is new to my school district, and therefore merits careful scrutiny. While assessment of the program is being conducted on many different levels, test scores will be
the most common indicator of the success of this program, and the programs impact on children. However, because this new program is built upon child-centered theories, it is necessary to examine what the experience of being a learner in writers workshop is like for the children involved. This is especially true, since very little of the conversation in the professional field surrounding the workshop model has addressed childrens perspective (Marshal & Rossman, 1999).
Second, I would agree with Dewey (1938) and Brooks and Brooks (1993) that it is essential when using a child-centered curriculum, to seek out and give value to students point of view. I would argue that it is important to know our students, as individuals and as learners, for the sake of knowing the people we work with. Learning from childrens voices allows us to know at a deeper level who children are as learners... (Dahl, 1995, p. 130). Children, like the rest of us, want to be seen and valued for who they are.
Finally, listening to what children have to say is valuable to informing our practice as teachers (Lincoln, 1995; Dahl, 1995; Heshusius, 1995). Armed with the knowledge of who our students are, we can then make informed decisions about how we modify or improve our instruction (Lincoln, 1995;
Dahl, 1995; Heshusius, 1995). Ultimately, the goal of educational research ought to be the improvement of educational experiences for students.
The purpose of this study is to document the nature and extent of childrens experiences and to describe the understandings and perceptions of children learning to write. In this sense this research is both descriptive and exploratory. Descriptive because it seeks to paint a picture of what learning to write is like for the children in this classroom, and exploratory due to the limited existing research in this area that is truly democratic in ways that includes childrens perspectives (Castelloe & Legerton, 1998).
Examining childrens own perceptions about becoming a writer is one way to empower children within the context of school curriculum. Too often school officials alienated from the classroom are the ones making policy decisions. Even in the classroom, it is usually the teacher who dominates the decision making process regarding curriculum and instruction. This study looks to give voice to the subjects of school curriculum in ways that have been overlooked in the past, by integrating childrens experiences with their own interpretations of their learning (Marshall & Rossman, 1999).
In order to truly understand what this experience is like for children one must also understand the meaning that children give to being a writer. An examination of the products traditionally used to evaluate childrens writing abilities, such as most writing assessments, would fail to examine the connections that children create within the context of the workshop. Likewise, standardized testing assesses only one level of student achievement. Too often,
children for whom English is a second language, such as the majority of students at Mendoza Elementary, are assessed on what they have not yet learned, rather than on what they already know (Escamilla, Mahon, Riley-Bemal, & Rutledge, 2003; Commins & Miramontes, 1987).
This study used ethnographic methods (Spradley, 1982) to examine what becoming a writer is like for fifth graders studying a process approach to writing. Like Lightfoots (1983) thick description of high schools, the hope is to provide a new understanding of childrens experience in the classroom, specifically in writers workshop. While much research has looked at the stages of childrens development in writing (Calkins, 1986; Hindley,1996; National Council on Education and the Economy, 2001) I am unable to locate any research that addresses the question of childrens own understanding and perception of themselves as writers.
Choosing to collect data at Mendoza Elementary made sense in light of my position as literacy coach and the relationships that I have with the principal and staff. There were several classrooms that would have provided interesting participants. After talking with teachers it became clear that Marcy Sevilles group of fifth graders would be the best choice based on their verbal skills, maturity, and Marcys willingness to participate.
Mendoza Elementary school is part of a large urban public school district of a well established city in the west. The school district, like many around the nation, is struggling towards excellence in the face of budget deficits. This study took place during the second year of a district wide reform program which focuses on literacy and language development. The new program stresses longer chunks of time for reading and writing workshops in every classroom, from pre-kindergarten to high school. In the elementary schools, ninety minutes are set aside daily for readers workshop and one hour for writers workshop.
Over the past several years demographics in the neighborhood have changed dramatically, causing the student population to drop from a high of eight hundred and fifty students, to a population of four hundred and fifty students at the time of this study. Previously, large extended families, primarily immigrants from Mexico, lived together in small bungalows and apartments. Today, the small homes are being bought by young professionals, in turn driving up housing costs. More of the immigrant population is moving away to more affordable parts of town.
The student population at Mendoza is 85% Hispanic; this figure includes recent immigrants from Mexico and families who have lived in the United States for generations. Ninety-three percent of the children are on free or reduced lunch programs. The teaching population at Mendoza is unusually
stable, of the twenty-one teachers, over half have been at the school for more than thirteen years, with some having served all or most of their twenty or more years in the building. The principal has been at the school for the last seven years and is highly esteemed by teachers, parents and students.
The Researchers Role
My role in the classroom is multi-faceted. As the building literacy coach I am charged with supporting classroom teachers in the development of the districts workshop model of literacy instruction. Sometimes this means modeling in classrooms, or co-teaching. Other times my role is to plan and facilitate professional development, for the entire staff, or for smaller groups.
At times I consult with the principal to make decisions for the school that are instructionally sound. I am also the researcher; constantly reflecting on my own practice, and what children are learning.
As a literacy coach, my purpose is to work alongside the classroom teacher to create a workshop model for both reading and writing. By definition, my role is one of participant observer (Spradley, 1980). Normally, I am able to spend up to an horn every day for five months working with individual teachers and classrooms to establish and refine the writers workshop. Thanks to this arrangement, teachers and children are accustomed to my presence in their classrooms. In addition, I am in the habit of eating lunch with the teachers,
which has provided opportunities to build a more personable relationship and allowed for less formal interactions.
Because of my role as the building coach I am in and out of almost all the classrooms, therefore many of the children were familiar with who I am and what I do before I began the research. Children know that I am the writing teacher, and often stop me in the halls to tell me about their latest dream, journal entry, or about a story they particularly like. The students are familiar with my appearances throughout the building, and as an active participant in their classroom. Thus my presence in Mrs. Sevilles classroom is completely within the scope of normal school activity for the teacher and children.
My job as a coach is to work with teachers in a supportive role; I hold no responsibility for formally assessing teachers work. I made it clear to the teacher that I will discontinue the research at any time, should she feel uncomfortable with anything in the study. This is also true for the children who are participating. The period of time for data collection is five months, from the beginning of August to the end of the semester in December. Since finishing data collection I have remained an active participant in the classroom, although with less frequency than while I was conducting the study.
Methods of Data Collection
Qualitative, ethnographic research methods are the most natural fit for answering questions about experience and perception. Good ethnography can provide a deeper understanding of our lives (Eisenhart, 2001). In order to understand what the experience of being a writer is like for children, it is important to represent the childrens own experiences and perceptions as naturally as possible (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Spindler, 1982). Special emphasis is placed on representing the childrens world without imposing my own beliefs (Marshall & Rossman, 1999). Ethnographic methods are the traditional choice to study how the children make meaning (Eisenhart, 2001).
Another important consideration is being able to observe how the classroom functioned with the least amount of disruption to the classroom as possible (Spindler, 1982). Ethnography is the method of choice to examine context (Marshall & Rossman, 1999). Since the research questions ask what the experience is like for children, I observed the context in which that experience occurred, or how the framework of relationships operated (Spindler, 1982).
Field notes from observations were collected 2-3 times a week using a small keyboard buffer which I then fed into my computer. Additionally, personal thoughts and reflections were recorded intermittently. A total of thirty-four observations over the course of five months were documented.
Conversations with the classroom teacher provided a forum to better understand the relationships and tools constructed in the classroom. These conversations also offered a means of ensuring that my assumptions were reliable (LeCompte & Goetz, 1982). The majority of the data, however, comes from a writing survey and individual conferences with children.
Originally, I hoped to use the writing conference as a tool for collecting data from the children. The writing conference is an important part of the workshop. It is built into the structure of the workshop and is a natural activity for the children. After an initial period of five weeks, it became clear that the classroom conferences were primarily focused on content and strategies, and that children were not familiar with discussing their thoughts and perceptions in this context. When the preliminary tapes of my classroom conferences with children seemed focused more on the content of the writing, rather than childrens reflections on writing and being a writer, I opted to use an open ended questionnaire to collect more data and focus future interviews with the children.
In addition, I adapted the methods of data collection to include longer, individual interviews with children. These private conversations were more comprehensive than either the previous conferences, or the initial questionnaire alone, and provided the environment and time to ask deeper questions and get a better sense of each child as a writer. During the individual interviews, I was
able to clarify answers the children had given on the questionnaire, and ask children to share their thoughts on themselves as writers, and their own writing.
Extensive samples of childrens writing also provided data about the ways children developed as writers (Nathenson-Mejia, 1992). In order to make the experience as natural as possible, writing samples were collected primarily out of the childrens writing notebooks. Most of the samples were selected by the children as pieces that they think are good, or ones that they particularly like. Much of the data from the interviews came from conversations about the pieces of writing the children chose to share with me.
Participant observation is sometimes synonymous with good ethnography (Cresswell, 1998; Spradley ,1980). Marshall and Rossman (1999) discuss participation and observation as two separate, but interrelated, research activities. In my role as observer I was primarily concerned with collecting field notes as objectively as possible. As a participant, my role is slightly more complex. On one hand, as a teacher in the classroom, I am certainly a participant in the context that is being studied. At the same time, my ability to participate is limited by the fact that I am an adult, and a teacher, and not a fifth grader learning to write. Luckily, my interactions with the children were primarily positive. While I did enforce my own set of rules, for the most part,
the classroom teacher is the voice of authority for the children. Setting up the roles this way served two purposes. First, it preserved Marcys authority in the classroom. And second, it allowed me to be less authoritarian with the children.
Most days of writers workshop begin with the children coming to sit in a circle on the floor for the whole group mini-lesson. Occasionally, there are side conversations as the children And spots on the floor, usually in a circle facing one another. Marcy usually begins the lesson by recapping what the children have been working on, and stating what todays lesson will cover. Sometimes I model the lesson for Marcy, but with the exception of some of the early poetry lessons, I had the sense that Marcy is more comfortable consulting with me, and then teaching the lesson herself. Given that my schedule in her classroom is anything but regular, we easily fell into a pattern of Marcy doing most of the teaching with occasional input from me.
Moving from Writing Conferences to Writing Interviews
An intrinsic part of writers workshop is the writing conference (Atwell, 1987; Calkins, 2003; Hindley, 1996). As with professional writing, the purpose of writing conferences clarifies the content of a piece or refines the craft of the writer. Anderson (2000) says that as an instructional method, writing conferences are most effective when participants discuss the latter.
Interestingly, writing conferences are quite similar to more traditional ethnographic interviews (Cresswell, 1998). Both are structured to be natural, conversational, and loosely structured around open ended questions (Marshall & Rossman, 1999).
Ethnographers have long relied on interviews to help uncover and identify participants perspectives, creating knowledge from conversations (Anyon, 1980; Marshal & Rossman, 1999). All attempts were made to encourage childrens own perceptions to emerge, thus allowing the children to express their own interpretations of writing and of being a writer (Miles & Huberman, 1994). One of the biggest advantages to this method of data collection is that interviews tend to generate large amounts of data quickly (Marshall & Rossman, 1999).
Marshall and Rossman (1999) caution that one of the most difficult parts of interviewing is often establishing a rapport with the child. In this case, my existing relationship with the children as writing teacher, and my sincere interest in what the children had to say, made the majority of interviews more like instructional conversations (Tharp & Gallimore, 1992).
Originally, the plan is to tape writing conferences during the workshop. Graves (1983,1994), Calkins (1986), and Anderson (2000), experts in the field of writers workshop, stress the importance of writing conferences as a way to meet individual writers where they are and offer appropriate, scaffolded
support. I quickly discovered that neither the children nor I knew what to talk about in a writing conference, let alone how to go about talking about perceptions and understandings about writers. Most often we ended up talking about the content of a piece. I was more than happy to listen to what children were writing about, using the opportunity to create a rapport and get to know the children. The notes from these interviews, however, did not seem to be providing answers to my questions.
I decided to modify the writing conference so that I could have longer, more in-depth conversations with students individually (Marshal & Rossman, 1999; Cresswell, 1988). I met with students one at a time, inviting them to bring their writing journal to my office, located upstairs in the adjacent pod.
On the way over I would explain what we were about to do and try to gauge the students mood. Once in my office, I set up a small tape recorder and spent the next 20 to 30 minutes talking with the children about their writing, writers workshop, and how they see themselves as writers. These conversations were thoroughly enjoyable for me, and much more informative than the quick, five minute conferences in the classroom. The bulk of the data comes from these interviews, and is identified in Chapter Four by the childs name and the code for that particular conversation, including page and line numbers. At the end of each interview I asked the student if I could photocopy the writing pieces we
had just discussed. In this manner I was able to collect written work selected by the children as some of their favorite pieces.
My hope in giving the children a writing questionnaire (see Appendix A) is to help me get an overall idea of what children were thinking about writing and themselves as writers (Marshall & Rossman, 1999). Since my questions are about what the experience is like for children and how they perceive themselves as writers, it made sense to first let the children write about these questions without any intervention or guidance from an interviewer. I also hoped that by asking these questions first in written form, some of the children would at least have given some thought to their answers, even if what they wrote down is only a truncated version. Providing children this opportunity to self-report is consistent with my beliefs about listening to children, and honoring what they share with us (Marshall & Rossman, 1999).
In Chapter Four, data from the questionnaires is noted with the letter Q and the question to which the answer corresponds.
In addition, the questionnaire proved to be a valuable starting point for many of the interviews. Many of the questions are ones suggested by Fountas and Pinnell in their book Guiding Readers and Writers, Grades 3-6 (2001). I hoped to administer the questionnaire as early into the study as possible.
Therefore, very early in the year I gave the classroom teacher, Marcy, the questionnaire to do with the children in my absence. She started working on the questions in class, and then, running out of time, sent the questionnaires home to be finished for homework.
Unfortunately, I think that sending the questionnaires home resulted in answers that were a bit more succinct than might have otherwise appeared. Nonetheless, the questionnaires provided an interesting snapshot of what the children were thinking about being writers. Two children failed to bring the questionnaires back the next day, but returned them subsequently. Only one child turned in a questionnaire that is incompletely answered, and this is remedied during our interview.
Conversations with the Classroom Teacher
Marcy is a relatively new teacher. This is her fourth year in the classroom, and her second at Mendoza Elementary. She is young and stylish, and radiates an air of self-confidence. Marcy is passionate about her teaching and enormously invested in the childrens well-being and academic performance. She has taken it upon herself to conduct home visits with most of her students. In the fell and spring, along with her husband who coaches soccer, she helps teach writing in the after-school soccer/writing program. She
works well with her two team mates, although she states she would like to have a more collaborative relationship with her colleagues.
Marcy believes in setting high expectations for her students, and holding them accountable for their work. She runs a well-organized and fairly structured classroom. Children state that she cares about them, and also that it is clear what her expectation are for classroom behavior and writing. Writing is Marcys least favorite subject to teach, and she has said that she is much more comfortable teaching math.
One of Marcys strengths as a teacher is her reflective practice. She is constantly assessing herself, what children learned, and how things are going in her classroom. Her reflective nature is one of the reasons that I asked her to participate in this study. Throughout the study Marcy and I talk about the children, their work, and our lessons on a regular, informal basis. Often our conversations were a way for me to check the reliability of the data (LeCompte & Goetz, 1982; Lincoln & Guba, 1984). We would chat before school, during lunch, immediately preceding a lesson, or while the children were working. Many of these conversations were documented, either on tape, or in observation notes.
The data were analyzed with special attention to maintaining the integrity of the childrens perception. As I went through the data and began coding, I made every attempt to use the childrens own language to create codes. For each piece of data I did a two part domain analysis and a taxonomic analysis as described by Spradley (1980). I found that instead of doing two distinctly different analyses, it is easier to do a thorough analysis the first time around using both domains and taxonomy, and then do a second analysis on what I had found the first time. For example, the first time through I might make a note of the different genres that children talk about. I then made lists of what children actually said, making notes about what they knew about various genres. The second level of analysis allowed me to evaluate what domains had emerged after the first analysis. During the second analysis it became clear that genres fit very nicely under the larger heading of childrens experiences in writers workshop. Thus the two part, multileveled domain and taxonomic analysis were created for each of the data sets (see Appendix B).
For a second analysis I chose to do a narrative analysis of what emerged from the data. My intent is to stay as close to the childrens own words as possible, while trying to bracket my own thoughts and prejudices, as is recommended by Van Mannen (1990). I found that I am very reluctant to place my own perceptions on those of the children, and resisted trying to interpret
meaning or motivations beyond what they actually said. I also created componential tables (Spradley, 1980) to look at strategies and genres that the children talk about, and to create a better picture of who is regarded as a good writer by their peers (see Appendix C).
Dependability, and Confirmability
Lincoln and Guba (1985) offer four criteria of soundness on which qualitative research might be evaluated: credibility, transferability, dependability, confirmability. Credibility refers to internal validity, whether what is being studied can indeed be identified as the focus of the research, and whether it is believable. In this case, credibility means that it is believable that what I observed and documented can be identified as examples of childrens perceptions and experiences in writers workshop. Credibility is evidenced by the five month time span spent collecting various types of data, and the debriefing conversations with Marcy that served as a means of triangulation (Anafara, Brown, & Manione, 2002).
Transferability refers to the external validity of the study, or the ability to generalize the findings of this study to other populations or settings. This is often the most problematic of the soundness criteria inasmuch as qualitative research often is specific to the context being studied. For the purposes of this
study, the thick description serves to present as much of the present context as possible for others to use in future studies (Anafara, Brown, & Manione, 2002). Listening well to children requires that we begin every new relationship with a fresh start Using similar methods, in this case informal interviews, to collect data similarly allows researchers to reach conclusions based on childrens own perceptions. Childrens perceptions, however, will necessarily reflect differences in context understanding, and experience.
The dependability, or reliability, of this study can be seen is reflected in the adaptability that made it possible to change my method of interview during the course of the research to more accurately capture the childrens perceptions, understandings and experiences in writers workshop. When the original plan to collect data from short classroom writing conferences resulted in conversations that were primarily about content, I switched to a longer interview format to give children more time to talk about what learning to write is like for them. Triangulation, or looking at data from various sources, also strengthens the dependability of the current study. Triangulation is evidenced by the use of participant observation, questionnaires, interviews, and conversations with the classroom teacher.
The last construct, confirmability, is synonymous with objectivity (Marshall & Rossman, 1999). My conversations with Marcy primarily served the purpose of confirming that what I observe is emerging from the data, and
not being colored by my own perception. Confirmability is when the conclusions are clearly apparent from the data. As you will read in the findings of this research, what children had to say about learning to be writers emerges naturally, and honestly, from conversations with the children.
Qualitative, ethnographic research faces several limitations. Some of these limitations are specific to particular methods, or to this particular study. Others are limitations that are general, and are true of all ethnographic studies.
One such general limitation is the size of the sample and length of the study (Eisenhart, 2001). Choosing to work with just one classroom means that the results from this research are more specific to the demographics of the group observed. External time constraints dictated only five months to collect data, whereas Cresswell (1988) recommends six to twelve months to collect data for ethnographic research. Eisenhart (2001) and Spradley (1980) talk about observing a full cycle, which would have meant an entire 9 month school year.
Specific to research on children, there are limitations due to the role of the researcher. Despite all attempts to invite children to fully participate in the study at every level, including asking them choose their own pseudonyms, there will always exist issues of age and power between an adult researcher and a ten-
year old (Fine, 1987; Mandell, 1988). In addition, Marshall & Rossmans (1999) suggestions that the best way to approach interviewing children is through the role of friend were complicated by my role as coach and teacher.
Reliable reporting is always limited by the honesty of the researcher and those responding. Questions about the reliability of childrens responses are further complicated by the age and perception of the children (Van Mannen, 1988). It is with full intention, and without counter indications, that I chose to accept all answers that the children provided in this study as being true and honest Marshall and Rossman (1999) point out that an additional limitation to interviewing is the interviewers own expertise at listening and asking questions. It is plainly evident as the study progressed that my skill at interviewing improved with practice.
This research attempted to capture as much of the childrens perspectives, understandings, and experiences as is possible. Structuring the research in this way is important because it facilitates looking at current curriculum reform from the point of view of those most directly affected, the students. By setting aside longer periods of time to talk with children about their writing, this study hopes to have captured students own voices as they discussed their experience of learning to be a writer.
Using participant observation is the most natural manner to collect data, given my role as a literacy coach in the classroom. Inviting children to choose the writing pieces they felt were their best is another way of making room in the research for the childrens subjectivity to be represented. Conversations with Marcy are included both to integrate the teachers perspective and to help provide some validity for the data. In all, decisions about how to collect data, and conduct this project were made with the hope of preserving participants perspectives in the final results.
CHAPTER 4 FINDINGS
What makes her the best writer is her writing.
This study examines the ways in which children understand what it means to be a writer, perceive themselves as writers, and childrens experience learning to write in a writers workshop. Rich trends emerged from my conversations with the children in response to all three research questions:
1. In what ways do children understand what it means to be a writer?
2. In what ways do children perceive themselves to be writers?
3. What is the nature and extent of how children experience writers workshop?
What children understand about being a writer includes purposes for writing, both their own and those of others. Children talk about writing for work and school, speak of writing to express their emotions, and also identify characteristics of good writers. In answering how children perceive themselves as writers the conversations turned to how they evaluate themselves as writers,
what they like about their own writing, what they see as being the obstacles to being a better writer, and their goals for themselves as writers.
This chapter is divided into three major sections that address, respectively, the ways in which children perceive themselves as writers, how children understand what it means to be a writer, and childrens experience learning to write in a writers workshop. The first section looks at what children had to say about the reasons people write and their understanding of what makes writing good. The second section uncovers childrens perceptions of themselves as writers, what they perceive to be easy about writing, the challenges, and their goals for themselves as writers. The last section talks about the nature and extent of how children experience writers workshop. In particular, this section looks at what children have to say about actually learning to write, both what they remember from their experiences as emergent writers and what the experience is like now in fifth grade. Since writers workshop is about the process of writing, the children share their experience and understanding of the writing process, before discussing the genres and strategies they have mastered as a result of participating in writers workshop.
Mendoza Elementary is housed in a fairly new building that is built to replace the old neighborhood school that stood in its place. It is built during the
era when open classrooms were in vogue and thus the majority of the classrooms are organized around a central corridor. At the center is the school library. There are three pods, and while they used to be identified by color, a recent repainting has left them all a uniform eggshell. To get to the pods you walk up a flight of stairs, where there is one pod to your left, one on your right, and one in front of you. To get to the one straight ahead, you need to walk around the library. At each pod there are two sets of stairs, one going up to three classrooms, and one going down to three classrooms. Given the fact that Mendoza has been losing students steadily due to a shift in the neighborhoods demographics, the classroom in the middle of each pod is empty, providing a buffer, and an extra meeting space, for the classrooms on either side.
Marcys classroom is located upstairs, on the right, in the farthest pod. The walls are institutional cinder block, covered in a nondescript off-white paint, and the walls in between the classrooms are movable, allowing for expanding or shrinking the rooms as needed. These moveable walls are made of bulletin board material which makes them ideal for hanging charts and samples of the childrens work. Unfortunately, due to new fire regulations, only 40% of the total wall space in a classroom can be covered with paper.
This means that the aged, beat-up bulletin boards are exposed for all to see, without the benefit of the usual dressing of colorful butcher paper and borders. While this limitation has left many of the classrooms feeling rather dingy,
Marcy has figured out how to put up just enough so that the room, while sparse, is still inviting.
The desks are set up in groups of four, with two desks facing two desks. Because of the low number of children in the class, only three children sit at each set of desks, identified by continent names. One single desk, Australia, is placed slightly out of the way, facing the rest of the class. The children rotate through Australia as needed, based on the teachers assessment that the particular child might benefit from a few days without the constant stimulation of sitting with others.
The classroom is set up so that the children sit perpendicular to the front green chalkboard. A square bulletin board frames either side of the chalkboard. At the far end of the room are built-in cabinets, above and below the counter, and a sink. There are two industrial grey cabinets, one for files with four drawers, and one with large doors that hide shelves for storage. Also along the back wall are hooks for coats. Under the coat rack is a low book case where Marcy keeps texts books. There are no closets in this room, and no storage other than the cabinets in the back and the ones that have been brought in to supplement them.
Marcy has a large, old fashioned teachers desk on which sits a small computer. There are several small bookcases that help frame a seating area on the floor facing the moveable wall. On the other side of the bookcases, as you
walk in, there is a kidney-shaped table that the para-professional uses to meet with students in the afternoons. On the other wall, not taken up by cabinets, the moveable wall, or the chalk board, Marcy has established her well organized library. Because the children are at different levels of English acquisition, her library is extensive, including easy fiction books, non-fiction, and more difficult texts, most of which are in English.
Most of the time when I came in to observe, the children were still working at their desks, either reading or finishing up math work as a whole group with Marcy. Time on die floor with the whole group varied, depending on the lesson, but most often is between 10 and 20 minutes. This left 30 to 40 minutes for the children to write at their desks, and 10 minutes to come back and share at the end of the hour.
During whole group meetings on the floor, some of the children claimed certain places in the circle. For a while, Alberto always sat by Marcys rocking chair. Antonio usually sat directiy across the circle from Marcy, and Pepe spent most of the first five months hoping we wouldnt notice that he is sitting behind the bookcase, or a foot behind everyone else. Several of the girls chose to sit next to their friends and chat, until Marcy separated them, permanendy.
Understanding What it Means to be a Writer
This first section discusses childrens understanding of what it means to be a writer. This section will look atVhat children identify as purposes for being a writer, and qualities of good writers. The categories in this section, as in the sections that follow, are those that emerged either from answers to specific questions on the student questionnaire, or from the childrens own responses during the writing interviews, as documented in the two part domain and taxonomic analysis.
Beginning with their understanding of the purpose of writing, the children touch upon the practical and the romantic. Discussing practical reasons people write, some children talk about writing to get a job or to get smarter. Others talk about writing to express emotion, to communicate, and to remember. Children also talk about what it feels like to write, the special moments that can be revisited while writing and then again, in the future, when you go back to read what you have written.
When talking about the qualities of good writing, children talk about the need for writers to write quickly, to write large quantities, and to pay attention to conventions. In addition, children talk about how good writers use creativity and imagination to make their writing interesting. They also talk about then-understanding of how word choice can improve a piece of writing, and how good writers make sure that their stories are organized and make sense.
Creating real purposes for writing in an elementary classroom can be one of the more challenging aspects of teaching young children to write. Yet as so many constructivists would argue, teaching writing without any purpose is not a worthwhile endeavor (Dewey, 1938; Brooks and Brooks, 1993). The children themselves cite many reasons for writing, including practical reasons such as writing being a necessity for grown ups, functional kinds of writing, and writing to learn and get smarter. However, more of the responses were about writing for pleasure or enjoyment, writing to express emotion, and writing to remember.
Talking about why learning to write is important, Christina gave a typical answer, The most important thing is that you have to keep writing cause when you get a job theyre going to give you a paper and theyre going to give you a test (9.25/13.21-22). Pepe also says people write to get their jobs done (Q2). Christina says that they will have to know how to write in checkbooks (Q2). And Wendy says, Because they have to write when they are big, so they can be smart, not dumb (Q2).
From the view that writing has educational purposes, Nancy talk about writing to leam new things about life (Q2). Matthew is fairly pragmatic about why people write. He says, based on his own experience with the written
word, People write so kids learn to read (Q2). And Alberto, who often struggles as a writer says that people write, Because if they write they can learn a lot. Because you can have a lot of power in your brain (Q2). Pepe isnt as sure about his explanation, but had this to offer, If you dont write you wont pass grades. [Being a writer] means that you have to write in order to get a degree or something (9.25/4.19-21).
The Jovs of Writing
Of course, some people write because thats what they do. Teople write because sometimes they think its fun or because they like to write (Freddy Q2). Often these people who enjoy writing become authors, Teople like to write because they could be writers of books (Trish Q2). Or maybe they become writers of books because they like to write. On the other hand, Teople write because they might have a great idea or story says Antonio, who always worries about how good his own ideas are (Q2). And June is already thinking about how keeping a writing notebook now might have meaning later on in life, Like when you get bigger you maybe you want to be a good writer you could go back to your notebook and find a good one and put it on a piece of a book (12.08/10.203-204). In talking about why grown-ups write, Freddy contrasted adult writers with grown-ups who only write a little bit, much like what he sees at home.
Sometimes theres like authors that write books and all that stuff, poems, and fables. And thats why grown ups like to write, some grown ups like to write a lot. And some grown ups just write a little bit; they just go to work, come back and go to sleep.
Few of these children have role models at home who spend time
writing. Part of the introduction to the workshop is an attempt to pay attention
to all the writing that adults do, and to see that it all has a purpose. Matthews
understanding of why people write is about sharing information. He says
people, write notes to each other. They can write anything, well, not anything,
but the news and the weather, thats also writing (12.09/1.16-18).
Last year die writing coach spent a lot of time talking about how writers
use their writing to express their emotions. Even though very little attention
has been given to expressing emotions this year, the children often refer to
writing in terms of emotions and feelings. June, Andrea and Matthew each
write that people write to express their feelings (Q2). Maggie starts off by
talking about why people write, but like Freddy above, ends up speaking from
her own experience of writing as a way to mediate her own emotions.
They write because sometimes they dont like to share that stuff that they just want to make a book out of it and then like copy it and like sell it and people will hear what you have to say. And know that that person is a good writer. Writers want to share what they have in their head and just tell other people if theyre mad or theyre sad or theyre happy and just write it down and give it to that person. Its actually easier to write it down than to say it. Like if youre mad at your friend or something you could
just send them a letter. Its just easier like if you just write it down than just to say it
For Andrea, its important to know how to write, not just to
express your feelings, but because it gives you something to do when
you are sad, or mad, or just plain bored.
Because you can express your feelings. Like if youre sad you could take out a paper and pencil and start writing. Cause sometimes youre mad with somebody and they dont want to talk to you, and you got nothing else to do and you could write.
Perhaps the most insightful reason to write mentioned by the children is
to remember. June says, grown-ups write about their lives and what theyve
been through (12.08/9.200). I think having a sense of history is difficult for
children who are ten and eleven years old, yet Freddy is able to capture the
sense of nostalgia that often inspires people to keep journals.
I know that its like youre writing the times that you had in your life in a notebook, so whenever you dont know what
happened when you were a kid you look back in your journal and see what you did in your life.
Sandra talks about two reasons that people write. First, she says, People write because they need to make projects, and then she added, they can write to not forget (Q2).
Being a Writer
One of the goals of the writers workshop is to encourage children to enjoy writing. It is gratifying to report that all but two of the children say that they liked to write. Many of the children say they think writing is fun, interesting or cool (Ql). In explaining why she likes to write June says, You can tell what you feel about something and then you could make them into stories. And you could tell what youre feeling, like being... like how is your life is different from other peoples (June 12.08/4.88-5.90).
Sandra and Freddy are the most articulate when it comes to explaining their own perception of what it means to be a writer. There is something about writing, particularly writing about happy memories, that seems comforting to the writer. Mem Fox (at the CCIRA conference, 2004) said that a good childrens book provides solace for the reader. According to Sandra, theres a solace to be found in writing as well. The best part of writing is that you like what you write and you feel comfortable, what you write about. You feel fine about what you write (Sandra 1.21/3.57-60). She goes on to say the best part of writers workshop is writing about happy moments (Sandra 1.21/1.16).
When I ask Freddy to tell me how it felt when he is writing his story about going to the mall, he says kinda excited or something. When I press for more details he says, Well, I felt like... it is important to write it or something like that... (Freddy 12.09/2.31 -33). Many of the children, when choosing their
favorite piece, select pieces not to demonstrate their skills as a writer, but for how special the topic is to them, how it makes them feel to write about it.
Nancy writes about her friend Abby because she is really special to me. Like if she is my sister (Nancy 10.2i/16.97) And Antonio chooses a poem about his dog saying, I wanted to show how much I like him (Antonio, 10.2ii/1.8-9).
He also picks a description of his friend because, he is a really cool friend of mine (Antonio, 10.2ii/8.165). What makes the writing special is the connection the children have to their subject. I suspect, as Sandra stated, that part of what makes these stories and poems special is the way it makes the children feel as they are writing about it.
Aside from being fun or cool, the children expressed a plethora of reasons for being writers. Among the more predictable answers, some students, like Antonio and Maggie, say they write because they have to (Q3). Others share reasons that are purely practical, to become better at writing (Nancyl0.2i/15.80), or to learn so I can write on a paper when I get a job
(Q3, Wendy). A few, like Matthew, mention the desire to become an author when they grow up, I write because it could inspire me. That means that you get used to it and you might be able to write books and things, and be able to publish them (12.09/1.22-23).
Nancy, however, is quite philosophical about why she writes, I write so I can become a better person and know more about the world (Q3). But it is
Maggie who really surprises me with her insights. Maggie talks about using writing when you dont want to confront someone in person, Its easier, she says, Like when youre mad at a friend, to just write it down than to just say it out loud to them. Like you say, I dont like you, I dont want to be your friend, you could just write it down and send it to them. Sometimes they can understand it, and they like wont hang around with you anymore (Maggie 12.2/9.186-189).
Qualities of Good Writers
Since we spent quite a bit of time at the beginning of the year reinforcing the idea that good writers write about what they know, it is gratifying when Wendy, telling about why she thinks her friend, Nancy, is the best writer she knows says, She knows how to write about what she knows (Q13). Identifying qualities of good writers ranged from those who identify what good writers do, to those who identify qualities of good writing. For some, good writers are those who write quickly or write large quantities. Of course, there are those for whom writing is still about conventions, and when these children identify good writers they know it is based on the writers ability to spell or penmanship. There are more children who identify good writing craft as the mark of a good writer.
While Nancy says of good writers, They know what to write. Like the teacher tells them to do something and they do it, quickly. Think about an idea right away. (10.2i/l 8.143-146), Trish seemed to think that Andrea is a good writer for the very opposite reason, She doesnt write fast and she has a good attitude (Q13). Later Nancy added that the sign of a good writer is that they write a lot (102i/19.165). Freddy also seems a little preoccupied with the quantity of writing that is produced. When I asked him to talk a little about what is different about writing this year than past years, he says that last year he really didnt write that much, telling me how last year he only filled up half of his writing journal (12.09/6.106-107) This year, however, is a different story. Freddy reported that there are already five others in the class who are already on their second journal. He goes on to say that he is committed to writing daily so that he too can receive a second notebook (12.09/6.112-115).
Consistently, Alberto and Matthew focus on conventions. Like Wendy, Alberto identifies Nancy as the best writer he knows. His assessment is based on the fact that she knows how to write good in cursive (Q13). Matthew identifies Marcy and me as the two best writers he knows. When pressed to explain on what he based his selection he says, You know how to use the computer and you know how to write by print and that you know how to spell the words good (12.09/5108-109). Wendy also talks about correct spelling,
but only after saying that good writers make sure that their writing is good. And their stories sound good (10.2i/9.202-203).
Sandra identifies Maggie as the best writer she knows because she is good at making up stories (Q13). Elaborating, Sandra says, [Maggie] has creative ideas, and she makes them good. Like the time that she made the watermelon that is fighting with the other one. She had a lot of imagination. I really like her stories (1.21/180-182). Maggie, for her part, identifies good a writer as someone who has, Good ideas with good characters that are sort of like ordinary. They stand out from other people. Like say this ordinary person has brown hair, this person will have orange hair (12.2/6.128-132). It seems like Maggies understanding of how to modify ordinary characteristics to create interesting stories is a strategy that serves her well, and is recognized by other students as a strength of her writing. As Antonio says, She makes poems that rhyme and that are funny. And theyre interesting (10.2ii/7.149)
The best writer she knows, says Andrea, is her teacher, because she tries to write wondrous words in what she writes (Q13). Wendy says of good writers that, When they write good stories or poems they sound interesting and they make you want to read them again (10.2i/9.182-188). This assessment of good writers seems uncharacteristically mature for Wendy. Unwittingly she has identified one of the characteristics of classic stories, they are the ones people want to reread over and over. Christina also shares a rather mature way of
identifying good writers; she says, Sometimes if youre in their class or youre in a group with them and then you have to read and write something, like parts are missing, and you can tell if theyre a good writer by whether or not the story has all the parts, or makes sense (9.25/14.15-17).
Children speak from their own experiences when expressing their understanding of why people write. They state practical reasons for writing and joyful, expressive purposes for being a writer. Maggie and Andrea both talk at length about how you can use writing to communicate when face-to- face conversations are awkward. Freddy talks about writing as a way of documenting your life for posterity. He and Sandra also talk about the solace that can be found as a writer. In their conversations about the qualities of good writers, children share their understanding of how quality and quantity can be important attributes, along with conventions. Having creative ideas and using imagination are also important attributes for good writers. Wendy talks about how good writers write in a way that makes you want to read their pieces over and over again. From their responses, children demonstrate a clear understanding of what it means to be a writer.
Self-Perception as Writers
Most of the children talk about what they can do well as writers. Children are aware of writing for an audience, and some gauged their success by readers reactions. Children also have a sense of their own development as writers, based on the effort they apply to their writing, and the improvements they see in their own writing. Their perceptions of themselves as writers emerge from their understanding about being a writer, and what writing strategies they have internalized. For some, conventions still hold the key to being a good writer, while others recognize craft strategies, such as being creative as part of their identity as a writer.
In an attempt to uncover what children think about themselves as writers, much of our conversations center around favorite pieces of writing the children choose to share with me. As the children talk about their writing, they identify their reasons for picking specific pieces. Often, pieces are picked for how they depicted special people, friends or family members, or special events. As the children talk about their reasons, they touched on the power of writing to evoke emotions. June talks about the power of writing to persuade, while others talk about how certain pieces demonstrate their mastery of various strategies and genres.
Children respond to questions about what is most difficult about writing, what their goals for themselves as writers are, and what advice they would
share with other writers. Predictably, many children talk about the challenges of conventions and talk about the difficulty of generating ideas, both as a goal that they are working on, and advice they can offer to others. Children also talk about how they would like to improve as writers, such as improving their vocabularies and using more humor in their stories. Listening to what children offer as suggestions to others provides a glimpse into their own perceptions of being a writer. Again, categories emerge from specific questions on the student questionnaire, and from patterns in what children report during interviews.
Are You a Good Writer?
How the children respond to this question seems to reflect their deeper perception of what it means to write and how they see themselves as writers. When asked whether they think they are good writers, all but four say that they are. For those who are unsure of their writing ability, three are able to articulate why they are doubtful. Wendy says that she thinks her stories arent that interesting. Andrea expresses concern that she needs more strategies. And Maggie says that she does not think she is a good writer because she does not know what to write about (Q14). Only Matthew is vague in his reasons, saying simply that he does not think he is that much of a good writer (12.09/5.112-113).
For the rest of the class, there are as many reasons for identifying oneself as a good writer as there are children. For some, there is a sense of audience, effort or improvement over time. Nancy says she is a good writer because, My friends say I write pretty good. I think I write well too (Q14). Andrea says, I think Im a good writer because everyday I try harder. Trish wrote, I think I am a good writer because I write a little better than last year. Christina talks about how her audience reinforces her sense of herself as a writer, I do think Im a good writer because every time when I do a sentence I have to reread it to my brother and he tells me if it makes sense or if it doesnt (Christina 9.25/13.5-8).
Antonio and Sandra both report that they think they are good writers because of what they write. Antonio because sometimes he writes something cool and Sandra because she writes creative things (Q14). June is a bit more equivocal when I ask if she thinks she is a good writer, Kind of, she says, I have good ideas about what to write about (12.08/3.66-4.67). When I ask if she thinks she is a better writer now than at the beginning of the year,
Esmeralda says, Yeah, at the beginning of the year I didnt know how to write poems or fables (12.08/5.105). Matthew also cites poetry as an indication that he is a good writer.
What Children Like About Their Writing
One of the most enjoyable parts of my conversations with the children is when they shared their favorite pieces. At first when I ask why they pick a particular piece, they want to tell me their stories. This is exactly what we have taught children to do in previous years. Often I have to stop my partners and remind them that I am more interested in why they picked this piece as their best than I am in hearing them retell the story itself. Just as Carl Anderson (2000) suggests, as we have more of these kinds of conversations, children get better at talking about what they are doing as writers.
Students pick stories to share that are funny or scary. They write about their family, friends, and emotions. Some pick pieces of poetry, others fables. They choose pieces for their creativity and to show-off what they know about personification. Pepe is the only one to choose a scary story (Q7), and many of his journal entries are wild fantasy with more than a hint of the macabre. Many of the pieces borrow from television cartoons, or movies, some more than others.
Before coming to work on the west side of town I was under the impression that there are two kinds of cheese puff snacks, the old fashioned, bright orange, puffy ones and the equally bright orange crunchy version. Now,
I have been introduced to the wicked joy of hot cheetos, the crunchy version covered in red chili powder, and the after school snack of choice for most
Mendoza students. June tells me about a description shes written of hot cheetos, Its good. You kinda want one, because it kinda describes how it is. When I ask her what the best part is, she says, The description. They are skinny, red, crunchy, and have chili all over your hand (Junel2.08/8.176-179) (see Appendix C).
As we talk more about this description June tells me that the idea came from the movie, The Lion King. You know when the hyenas are there and the lions are going? I got the idea to use good instead of ugly, I put good. Thats where I got the idea from (June 12.08/9.184-188). I know that shes talking about a part of the movie when the lions are making fun of the hyenas, Man, are they ugly. June demonstrates that she knows how to borrow ideas from the world around her in ways that are meaningful.
When children write about what they know, they can focus on the craft of writing. Children wrote about their fathers, their cousins, their baby brothers, and their mothers. I like this one better because it shows how much I love my mom, says Trish (9.22/12.21-23). They wrote about their friends, and about their pets, about dinosaurs, and often, about parties that theyve had.
Some of the most powerful talk about writing touches on emotions, as when Andrea tells me, The best thing I have written is when I moved from this school. I like it because I wrote about how I felt (Q7). She also picks out a fable to share with me, explaining how she uses personification, The animals
were trying to act like if he is perfect, but he isnt and at last he had like a challenge and he gave a big speech about how he isnt perfect. I put an animal that acts like a human. I put interesting words (Andrea 12.10/5.6-10). Sandra also talks about choosing a favorite piece based on how it makes you feel, You like how its made up, or like I tell you, you feel something inside that makes you write about it and you like it (1.21/5.102-103).
Conventions are Tricky
In my interviews I ask children what the most difficult part of writing is for them. I also ask them what they would like to do better as writers. Their answers to both questions are similar and speak clearly to their understanding of themselves as writers. Among the most commonly mentioned difficulties or strategies in need of improvement are conventions. Despite all of our efforts towards focusing on the process of writing, the children in Marcys class are still concerned with perfecting their spelling and handwriting.
Concerns about spelling come up again and again, first in the questionnaire, then in interviews, and always in classroom conversations.
Freddy talks about struggling with spelling when I ask what is difficult about writing. When I ask what he would like to do better as a writer he says simply, Spell the words correctly (12.09/9182-183). This sentiment is echoed by many. Several of the children are able to offer one of two solutions to the
spelling problem. Some, like June, know to ask someone else (Q9). Others, like Trish, know that they are supposed to sound out the words that I dont know and try to write them (9.22/9.4).
A few of the children are still working on cursive penmanship. When I ask Alberto what he wants me to know about him as a writer he writes, I want you to know about me how I write in cursive (Q15). Pepe is working on making his writing as neat as possible (Q12), and Trish tells me that she has a little problem with my cursive (Q9) and that what she would do better as a writer is always write in cursive (Q12). June, who is one of those kids who always has a mess in her desk, has just received her second journal, but not without being admonished to keep it neat and clean. Its kinda messy. Marcy didnt want to give me a new book. Cause I was kinda messy. She told me that I was messy with the one I had. I had to write neater. The other [new] one is kinda neater than this [old] one. She told me I have to be cleaner (12.08/8.161-170).
Learning to Generate Ideas
According to Maggie, Wendy, and Pepe the toughest part of writing is coming up with ideas (D&T 23). No one exemplifies the struggle of generating ideas better than Antonio. Antonio is a good writer. His work is fresh and
original, and he knows how to infuse his writing with voice. Antonio is still trying to understand himself as a writer and his relationship with generating topics. Antonio says he doesnt really like to write a whole lot, because its hard to get ideas (10.2ii/3.64-68.) He worries about whether his ideas are good or not (10.2ii/4.86-88). When we meet for the interview Antonio rewards me with incredulousness and a sly smile, when I tell him that there are lots of writers who struggle with coming up with ideas. His eyes get wide when I mention that there are writers who spend days on each sentence worrying about whether the ideas are good or not.
Lucky for Antonio, hes not the only one in the class that needs help figuring out this first step in the writing process. Soon after the lesson on writing about being stuck, Marcy puts up a chart of Things / Could Write About. The list contains over thirty possible topics, much to everyones relief. Even so, the children could generate their own chart of Things to Do When I Get Stuck (see Appendix B). For example, Maggie suggests, Take a time out. Stay right there so I can work on a new idea, sometimes I go into my desk to find something, or at home I just watch TV until I come up with a good idea. I just write it down. I try, like before I start to write I try to think of a title, then Ill try to get the story in my head and then how to put it on the page, to see how much to write, a page and a half. And then when I think that Im ready I just write it down (12.2/5.101-111).
Christina offers two different solutions. First she says, I just keep writing,(Q9) and then, similar to Maggies solution, I just stop and dont do nothing. And just look at something, and just stay staring at it, without blinking and then a memory comes in your head (.25/11.10-11). Pepe articulates the relief of having a list of things to write about to help get the creative juices flowing, Sometimes I look at the list that we have. Sometimes 1 can remember what happened to me and I could write about it. Something interesting. Like if it has action (9.25/4.7-12).
While this is true that most of the children are still struggling with generating ideas, there are a few exceptions. When I ask June what the easiest part of writing is, she says coming up with the idea for her star poem. When I see out in space, a bunch of stars, theres one star that I like in particular
(12.08/1.13). Sandra is a little more ambivalent, but, nonetheless speaks to the increasing ease of coming up with topics to write about. I think getting your ideas is kinda easy. 1 think getting ideas is the hardest part, but then when you make it, it gets more easy and easy (1.21/8.169-172).
Identifying Writing Goals
In addition to conventions, spelling, and handwriting the children begin to identify stylistic goals for themselves. At the beginning of the year, the children are aware of always put[ting] the same words (Alberto, Q9) and how
to use hard words to make die story more interesting (Andrea 12.10/6.7-10). Andrea, the wordsmith, says, I would try to write more wondrous words (Q12).
The children demonstrate an understanding of how description and dialogue, while challenging, can improve their writing (June 12.08/1.16, Daniel 12.09/10.214-215). Antonio and Maggie talk about getting cool ideas and writing better stories (Q12). Wendy, always looking for a laugh, writes about wanting to be able to make my stories more funny (Q12), and Trish notes that she is working on adding more details to her writing (9.22/9.16).
As the year progresses, the children become more sophisticated at expressing the challenges of writing, and their goals for themselves as writers. Matthew and Freddy best articulate broader writing goals for themselves, despite their preoccupation with spelling and handwriting. Matthew says he would like to write books and give advice in them. Like in the poems I would say that a true friend is someone who tells the truth about you or that never lies to you. Because I have a poem that I wrote about that (12.09/5.96-101). And Freddy, while a bit distracted by the need to fill three notebooks this year, says Id like to write a lot more and Id like to tell more about my life, and write a lot more poems (12.09/9/182-183).
Advice for Other Writers
I love hearing what the children have to say about how they can help other writers in their class, or the advice they give to writers who are having problems. First, because I think that what they offer as suggestions to others are solutions for the same issues that they have encounter as problems in the past, but around which they now feel a sense of competency. And secondly, because simply asking them what they would do to help implies that they too have knowledge they can share with others about writing. In addition to general suggestions, what emerges from the childrens responses are two major areas where the children feel comfortable problem-solving: spelling and generating ideas.
The children are happy to offer assistance to others, and a few seem confident that they could help regardless of what the problem is. Wendy and June say that they will help with whatever the writer in trouble needs, I could ask whats the problem and help them with the problem (Q10,11). Pepe is more specific, his advice to others is to Concentrate on their writing, instead of goofing around (9.25/7.4). Trish had this solution to offer, I would help them telling them [to] write slow, (Q10) which I think comes from the tendency some of the children have to rush through assignments only to have the teacher tell them to do it over, slowly. Pepe and Christina offer advice based on effort.
Pepe says, The advice I would give them would be for them to try his or her best While Christina encourages with, I will tell them to keep trying (Q11).
Spelling is an area that children feel they have some expertise to share with others who might be struggling. Not surprising, most of the advice for spelling involves copying words or sounding them out Andrea, however, has a more laissez faire attitude about spelling, I will tell them to try to write about something and do their best on spelling (Q10). Nancy relies on sounding out, We can help them how to write the words and if they cant spell it they could pronounce if (Q11). Sandra says, Tell them to sound out the words and read again the story (Q10). Her advice for all writers is that every day they should write on a piece of paper and practice words (Q11). Alberto also prescribes remedial spelling for those who are struggling, I will help him with his spelling and his writing. I will give them a word and then I will tell them to write it on their notebook (Q10,11).
Children also feel comfortable dispensing advice about generating topics. Maggie would tell other writers to write about their life (Q11), and Andrea would tell them to look at a chart that we have in our classroom and read it (Q11), while Nancy and Freddy would just give ideas or tell them what to write about (Q10,11). Antonio agrees with Nancy and Freddy, only he makes sure he is giving them better ideas (Antonio 11).
One day, early in the year, Marcy asks the children to go back to their desks and write in their journals. After the first few minutes I notice Antonio slouching in his chair, staring at the ceiling. I walk over and tell him that he needs to keep writing. He picks up his pencil, and I move away, thinking I will give him some space. When I turn around again, he is just playing with the pencil, still slouching down in his chair. After a few more minutes, I ask him what die problem is. I cant think of anything to write. I suggest that if he cant think about what to write, he should just write about not having anything to write about
When I check on him, Antonio has written an amazing piece on not
having anything to write that completely stuns me. It is funny and powerful.
1 cant write about anything and I can't think of anything. So thats why I have stopped writing. Right now I can V think of anything. It is just like my brain goes to sleep and wakes up like in an hour. I can V wait for an hour to pass. I have to do something about my brain. Now the thing is that my hand is hurting because 1 already wrote a lot. But the thing is that I just can't stop writing. Even though my hand is hurting or burning like a lot of people say.
Antonios piece about not being able to think of what to write about is filled with voice. It is the first of many lessons for the students that draw the main teaching point directly from a peers experience in the classroom. When we come back to the whole group to share at the end of the workshop period I ask Antonio to share what he has written with the class. A few weeks later on the
questionnaire, Pepe sums up this lesson when he says, when I have trouble thinking what to write I write about being stuck (Q9).
We use Antonios piece as an example of what you can do when you are stuck without an idea (see Appendix B), in addition to creating a chart of possible topics. Since then we have never again heard I cant think of anything to write. Using an example from the childrens own writing makes a big impression on the rest of the class, especially Pepe. When asked for advice he would give someone who is having difficulty writing, Pepe offers two possible solutions, I would tell them remember something of your life that is exciting. Or they could write about being stuck (Q10,11). Sandra also addresses the issue of getting stuck for an idea, although she also talks a little bit about what she knows about the writing process. First think about what they want to write, and then get more, some ideas, and they could get better and better. If they get stuck, they can write about that (1.21/5.110-111).
Christinas advice to others addresses the importance of making sure all the parts of a story fit together, and offers a glimpse into the mental rehearsal that goes in preparation for writing. That you have to think about the story in your head. Like the parts that you already got, just go back (Christina 9.25/14.5-8). Finally, Andrea, always the wordsmith, says that she could help with ideas and also with revision, First, if they didnt know what to write, I
would give them an idea and at the end, if the story didnt sound good we could add some words (12.10/6.17-18).
For the most part, the fifth graders in this classroom perceive themselves to be good writers. They are aware of writing things that are cool and creative, and feel comfortable writing poetry, although for some, being a good writer still means knowing conventions and having neat handwriting. When discussing their own writing, the children talk about different genres, such as description, and strategies that help make their writing more interesting. When children write and talk about what they know, from their own experiences, they become more confident in their writing, and more willing to take risks as writers.
Concerns about spelling and penmanship come up often as children talk about themselves as writers. Antonios exploration of generating ideas and writers block is a topic that he and other children come back to often. As for setting writing goals for themselves, children talk about everything from choosing more wondrous words to being funnier, to expressing a desire to write books. Children perceive writing as requiring hard work and perseverance, as expressed by their advice to others. They offer suggestions about spelling and how to mentally rehearse ones writing before setting the words down on paper.
Based on their responses the children in this class give the impression that they perceive themselves to be confident writers.
Experiences in the Writers Workshop Findings about the nature of childrens experiences in writers workshop can be divided into three distinct sections: how children experience learning to be writers, what children know about the writing process, and what children know about the craft of writing, specifically, about genres and strategies. These categories emerged from what children said during the interviews. After analyzing the data, it is clear that children possess a hitherto unknown amount of information. When I began to look deeper into what children know, these three categories most clearly identify what the children are talking about.
The first category addresses the nature of learning how to write, first as an emergent writer, and then as a fifth grader. This section also talks about what the children see to be differences between the writers workshop this year and in previous years, including the use of class-generated charts (see Appendix B). Since daily writing homework is an integral part of the workshop and conveying the sense of being writers, this section also talks about the childrens experiences with writing at home.
The second section, about childrens experiences in the writers workshop, addresses what the children know about the writing process itself:
choosing a topic, drafting, revising, editing and a sense of audience. The third section talks about what children have learned in the writers workshop.
Children speak about the nature of their knowledge about genres such as description, poetry, and fables. They also talk about what they have learned about strategies, including onomatopoeia, word choice and dialogue.
Learning How to Write
As I was preparing my own questionnaire 1 looked at questionnaires devised by others such as Fountas and Pinnell (2001). One of the questions that appears on almost every writing questionnaire I examined is How did you learn to write? This seems like an important question to ask children in order to understand what the experience of learning to write is like for them. The students responses are fascinating. Not so much because of what they said most of them said that they learned to write either at home or at school, or a combination of the two but because of what they seem to think writing is all about. For most of the children, learning to write meant learning to write letters and words. The idea of crafting stories, the process part of writing is completely absent from their answers.
Most of the children talk about learning to write in school. What they remember is revealing and helps explain their current concern with handwriting and conventions. Matthew, for example, remembers every day we had to do a
packet We had to do three lines of a, three lines of b, and then we started to do the words (12.09/3/68-73). Three of the children are able to remember learning to write the alphabet Wendy, Andrea, and Sandra all mention learning to write the ABCs (Q8), before going on to more advanced writing, like copying words.
Sandras memories about writing circles and sticks (1.21/4.84) echoes familiar teacher-talk for guiding emergent writers how to make letters. Freddy shares the following:
I mostly started off in kindergarten, I just learned how to spell my name, they gave me this little orange paper and we had to spell our names beside that and we always had to, it is like homework or something like that, and we had to give it back to the teacher next day if we got it right.
Then I just started to get more better and better through the years.
Andrea also expresses an understanding of improving over time, I first started to learn to write little words, and I wrote little stories. And each day I got better at it (12.10/5.13-14).
Several children talk about learning to write at home, either with the help of parents or siblings. Pepe twice credits his mother with teaching him how to write, first saying, I learned by watching my mom write (Q8). And later explains how, My mom, she gave me a pen and grabbed my hand and moved it (9.25/3.11). Nancy also talks about learning to write at home,
although for her it is an older sister who provides guidance. When I was little my sister used to show me a lot. And then I got a little bigger, I got to know a little bit and she used to show me [more] (10.2i/16.109-110).
Learning to Write in Fifth Grade. Part of the expectation of the literacy program is that all children will write every day. Most afternoons the fifth graders in Marcys classroom spend anywhere from sixty to ninety minutes working in their writers workshop. Occasionally there are other activities that take precedence, such as art projects, field trips, and assemblies. The workshop follows the format described earlier. Children come to the floor for a whole group mini-lesson, have 30-40 minutes to write at their desks, and then come back for some closure, usually in the form of sharing with one another.
One of the things that became apparent while looking over the data, is that the children lack an explicit understanding of the workshop structure. Trish came the closest to articulating what writers workshop means to her,
Workshop is when you have a folder and you have a notebook and when they tell you to get it you write about what you have learned or stories (9.22/8.17-18). Sandra, with her abundant enthusiasm for writing talks about what the process of writing in workshop is like for her, You start with something that you like and then you make it like a story and you keep on going. Like you like what you wrote and you get some ideas and you start writing about it (1.21/4.79-81).
The children have internalized their teachers expectations for behavior
during the writers workshop. Its clear that writing is serious business, and that
writers require certain conditions in order to write well. Christina does the best
job of summarizing the rules of the workshop for me.
Ill tell you that one of the rules is dont talk to your neighbors, because it mostly distract you and your neighbors, if its your neighbor talking to you like Im right now talking to you and youre doing your writing, its going to distract you an you write something else, cause that mostly happened with me. When Sandra talks to me. Its kinda distracting. You forget what you were going to write. That youre not supposed to be messing around in your desk. And when youre writing youre supposed to keep your hands to yourself. No moving around. No pushing people. Dont try acting like youre writing like that, cause teachers will get you.
One of the integral elements of the writers workshop structure is the time for sharing at the end of every workshop. One teacher, who has been using the workshop model for many years told me that the time for sharing, for students to listen and comment to one another, is the most important part of her workshop time (J. Wilson, personal communication, September, 2002) because the children learn important lessons about being a writer from peer modeling. Antonio, who is still struggling with coming up with good ideas, understands why the sharing part of workshop is the most important. He says that he likes listening to other people read their stories because, they give me ideas (10.2ii/7.142).
Perhaps the most gratifying responses are to questions that ask the
children to compare learning to write this year with their experiences in past
years. Three children are able to explain exactly why learning to write is easier
for them this year than in previous years. For example, Maggie says,
Its a lot easier for me. Last year she would tell us to do a summary, but she wouldnt tell us how to write a summary. Like with dialogue [this year,] I didnt really understand it at first, and then we kept on working on it, we spent more time with it, and I sorta got it more, and now I get it.
Matthew also says learning to write is easier this year. For him, the freedom to write about anything is what makes the difference (12.09/10.219-221). Andrea, one of the better writers in the class, talks about getting better at spelling and getting more interesting ideas (12.10/5.21-23). She also reports that she thinks she is learning mote in writers workshop this year than she learned about writing last year (12.10/7.19).
So. What Makes It Better? Most of the first quarter is spent focusing on poetry. The outcomes for the unit include being able to identify and incorporate in their own writing key elements of poetry. We begin the unit by reading poems aloud to the children. Then we brought in dozens of poetry books from the library and invited the children to spend a few days finding poems they enjoy to share aloud with the entire class. Using the poems that were shared, the class generated a list of what these key elements are (see
Appendix B). Their chart includes the fact that some, but not all, poems rhyme; poetry sounds good, often it has rhythm; it looks different from stories; often it expresses emotion; and other key characteristics.
As Maggie said earlier, Marcy knows how to provide structure and explicit modeling that allow the children to feel safe trying out new strategies and genres, and supports their sense of being successful writers. She makes us poems, copies them out of a book. It gives you an idea how a poem is supposed to look (Wendy 10.2i/6.136-138). In addition to appreciating the time to share with their peers, Wendy also talks about how Marcys sharing from her own writing journal impacts how the children experience the workshop, She tells us, she makes poems or stories out of the book she has, that journal. And memories (10.2i/5.94-96). Certainly a great deal of the pride that the children seem to have in their writing abilities comes from the reinforcement they get from Marcy. Wendy says learning to write is fun (10.2i/4.92), and Alberto confesses to liking writing more than reading (12.08/1.9).
In this classroom, according to the children, having fun and being funny are the two most worthy achievements to which one can aspire. Thus, it is really Antonio who bestows the highest praise on his teacher and how she facilitates writers workshop, Its fun writing in Mrs. Sevilles class. She tells you poems that are funny, and you can write about them and funny descriptions and stories (10.2ii/6.126-127).
The most notable finding that emerges from my conversations with the children about what writing is like in their classroom is the sense that in addition to genuinely enjoying the workshop, (Wendy 10.2i/4.92, Alberto 12.08/1.9) there is a sense of pride as they explain what they have learned. I think it is interesting how Freddy begins by talking about the genres hes learned, goes on to talk about actually writing stories, but then makes sure to include something about conventions in his answer. I learned how to write poems, fables and all that stuff. And I like the way I got to write stories and that stuff. And I like the way I got to learn how to spell most of the words and know how to capitalize and put periods and all that stuff (Freddy 12.09/8.172-174).
1 think Antonio actually surprises himself as he talks about what he had learned in the first semester of fifth grade, Learning more stuff to leam about. Like poems. How to write poems. Descriptions and things like that. What you see. And contraction words. What they mean (Antonio 10.2ii/6.117-118). Trishs list of genres demonstrates her emerging understanding that writing goes beyond the writers workshop, Teaching you things like poems, descriptions, biography, stories and sometimes you could write about social studies... (9.22/8.12-13).
Classroom Charts. One of the teaching strategies of which the children are explicitly aware, or at least talk about often, is the use of class generated
charts (see Appendix B). These charts cover everything from characteristics of particular genre, to examples of specific strategies. Wendy is particularly aware of how to use the charts to help herself as a writer. She talks about referring to the What Makes Poetry chart when she tells me how she decides to write a funny poem, It said right there on the chart that you can make it be funny or sad (Wendy, 10.2i/6.125). She and Antonio both talk about the list of ideas as a support for deciding what to write. In explaining the difference between writers workshop this year and previous years Antonio says, The problem is when we didnt have the charts, I couldnt think of anything. Now I can (Q9). For the students such as Trish, who are still developing vocabulary in English, the importance of charts as reference materials is made clear as they talk about how they found words from charts to use in their poetry.
Writing Beyond the Classroom. Among the goals of the writers workshop is writing outside of class everyday. Thus every child takes her notebook home to write every night Most homework assignments are extensions of class work and are fairly directed, although occasionally children choose what they write about. Fifth graders are required to write a page and a half outside of class every day. While some write more and some write less, for the most part children do a pretty good job of writing the allotted quantity.