Switching Gears: What To Do When Nothing Works

by Susan Zimmerman-Orozco

susanSusan is an elementary ESL teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools and consultant with English Learner Portal. 

The school year is rolling along as the temperatures drop and the hurricanes move out to sea. Back in the classroom, students of Lucy Calkins have stepped away from narrative writing and moved on to non-fiction or persuasive writing. Except, as it turns out, they haven’t. After two weeks of intense instruction and support, pre-writing planning conversations still went like this, “One day, my dad and I were in the car. Then we saw a dog.”  Not non-fiction, not an opinion…a story.

It all started off so promising. Two weeks ago in grade 1 and 2, we wrapped up our narratives with a publishing gallery and tea party. We celebrated!

Then Monday arrived. In Grade 1, with our Content and Language Objectives duly formulated, we prepared children for their adventures in non-fiction, Writing Teaching Books with Independence, with a read-aloud Sharks!  Then, we had them think of themselves “teaching” about a topic, and imagining things they were experts at.

octopusHowever,  tasking 6 year-olds to come up with something they know and could teach someone about proved to be challenging for some students and their first efforts tended to be whatever topic their teacher had chosen for the lesson objective. Or, for reasons still not understood, octopuses.

So, the next day we scaffolded strategies for coming up with many things first graders IMG_1224can be experts on. For example, even Mrs. Zimmerman’s grandson EJ, can be an expert!

Once we had topics, we practiced using our fingers to tell what we know.  Then we used our fingers to tell our partners all about it!

In Second grade we began our journey into non-fiction and opinion writing by reading The Great Kapock Tree by Lynn Cherry. We learned how good writers use reasons to persuade their readers. Then we explored our own opinions by tasting and choosing our favorite cookies.

We came up with reasons to persuade our partners why our favorite cookie was the best. We practiced talking about it! We even used graphic organizers to help us remember our reasons.

IMG_9923

Finally, we chose topics to write about and planned across our fingers.  Using our sentence frames and our fingers, we shared with our partners again!

At last, having anticipated our students’ misunderstandings, having formulated both Content and Language Objectives, and having scaffolded their intended language production, we were ready to write. And this is what we heard…

“My dad and I were in the car.  We saw a dog…”

And this is what we read…

“My mom said, “ We’re going to the store…”

So, now what?

IMG_9927We picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and started all over again with a mini-review. And then…we LISTENED!  We hunkered down with each of our students (something a lot easier to do in a co-teaching situation) and listened to what students were saying and what they thought they were writing. We pointed out confusions, prompted for opinions, gave thumbs up, and moved on to the next child.

Maybe the most challenging aspect of the Lucy Calkins program is that we tend to forgetIMG_9924 how important student conferencing is.  Those of us in highly diverse schools are so caught up in the minutia of scaffolding what good writing should look and sound like that we forget the point of it… “[We] are teaching the writer and not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by ‘what might help this writer’ rather than ‘what might help this writing’” (Lucy Calkins, 1994)

IMG_9922Student conferencing – working one on one with students – is too often a catch-as-catch-can occurrence, when in fact it is one of the most important tools in the LC writer’s toolbox. It needs to be carried out regularly in an an intentional and purposeful  way. Good writers make connections with their readers – whether they are telling a story or writing an opinion. Good teachers make connections with their students. As you travel through the changing focus of your writing program throughout the school year, please don’t forget the reason we are teaching writing in the first place: to connect and build relationships with our most important audience, our students.

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