Friday, August 29, 2014

Why Writing Students Struggle

In my last post, I wrote about a progymnasmata-inspired lesson I taught on fable amplification. Elizabeth of Treasuring the Moments commented, "I'm intrigued with the thought that it will help kids that might be stumped at writing." This got me thinking...

Working with middle school (grades 6 through 8), elementary (grade 4), and college students, I have rarely encountered students who write easily.

One of the differences between public ed and Charlotte Mason ed (CM'ed) students is that public ed students are taught "literature" using basal readers. Now, there's nothing wrong with a collection of stories, as long as the stories are good. The problem is that stories are not chosen because they're good; they're chosen because the words in the stories have a certain number of letters and the sentences have a certain number of words, they teach specific vocabulary words, and they are different than the rest of the stories in the textbook. I can just imagine a meeting in which editors argue, "We can't include the story about the Inuit child. We already have a story about an indigenous child of the northern circumpolar region." CM'ed students are taught literature using the fables, fairy tales, and myths on which subsequent literature is based. Later, the CM'ed student is able to recognize recurring plots, character types, and themes. (CM'ed students also read the Bible and are able to recognize biblical allusions.) Public ed students don't have that foundation. 

CM'ed students learn to write before they are expected to communicate their ideas in writing. Public ed students must learn these two skills simultaneously. This week, I jokingly asked the kindergarten aide if the children were writing sentences yet. She said no, but they would be by November. Seriously. Five year olds are made to write sentences within three months of beginning their formal educations. As a result, some of my public ed 4th graders still struggle with forming letters. Their letter formation is not automatic. CM'ed students get to learn to write, get lots of practice writing other people's ideas, and then they learn to communicate in writing.

In public ed, students are required to write compositions, as opposed to writing because they have something to say. In an ideal situation, children would be so filled with great ideas that a teacher couldn't hold them back from their pencils and papers. I kid you not, I had to give an assessment a couple of years ago in which the prompt was "Imagine that you wake up to find an elephant on your doorstep. Write a story about your day." Seriously?! Some of my students live in apartments that would make this ridiculous scenario impossible. Some of my students would get hung up because they didn't know the meaning of "doorstep." Some of my students have never been to the zoo to see an elephant in real life. If I were given this prompt, I would fail the assessment because I just don't enjoy writing fiction. I don't believe students should be made to write fiction unless they feel inclined to. Charlotte Mason never required her students to write fiction. Why require someone to go on for five paragraphs when they have nothing to say? CM'ed students wrote what they had read in literature or history, what they'd experienced that day, news of the week, etc. Fiction writers write fiction because they must, they can't be held back, and they will write in addition to what is required.

Many students struggle to organize their ideas, so we teachers are to encourage students to use "graphic organizers" and "thinking maps" such as flow maps to help them. This brings us back to ideation. If a student doesn't have ideas to organize, a graphic organizer is useless.

Students struggle because they feel overwhelmed by the task. When I was teaching middle school, I had students write about what they did not like about writing. My students all said the same thing. They hated having to write a lot about something they didn't know very much about. When required to write about a topic, students will ask how long the composition must be. How many sentences does our paragraph have to be? How many paragraphs do I have to write? How many pages do I have to write? If a student is writing because she wants to write, because she has something to say, she will write until she's said it.

Students struggle because they don't know how to spell a word or they don't have the vocabulary to express themselves or because they don't understand mechanics. While fixing spelling is part of editing/rewriting, and students are supposed to put off worrying about fixing spelling until that stage, students do get hung up when they don't know how to spell a word. CM'ed students see more correctly written language - from transcription and studying dictation passages - than public ed students before they must write their own ideas.

Another reason students struggle is perfectionism. Their papers don't turn out the way they want them. The majority of 4th graders I've surveyed don't name Writing as their favorite subject. Why? Because Writing doesn't have a right answer. The winner tends to be Math. There's a right answer, and - in early elementary school - it's fast, not slow and tedious like Writing.

Writing takes time. It's a slow process. It requires the habit of attention, a habit in which CM'ed students are trained early. Public ed students are required to sit quietly and write for a long time, much longer than a CM'ed student. For district and state assessments, they must sit for an hour. CM'ed students (based on Parents' Union Schools timetables) - when they begin composition - write for half an hour and that's only once a week. PUS students in Class IV only had composition once a week too, but the time was extended to forty minutes. Contrast this with the teachings of Lucy Calkins who advocates the daily hour-long Writing Workshop.

I disagree with Calkins on two pretty big points. 1)Writing as a subject does not need to be given an hour of every day (and I LIKE writing - I like writing so much that I kept going back to school to learn more about it). 2)Elementary students should not spend an entire month writing one piece. Charlotte-Masonites will agree with me.

Calkins' "Writing Workshop" does not turn public ed students into lifelong writers. It's an admirable goal though.

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