Saturday, September 5, 2009

Starting out with writing

Well, seven days of school have gone by. The kids are reading books--some have even finished two chapter books already! But another important task has been to get the kids writing.

I've tried quite a few methods for doing this. Just handing out journals and saying, "Now write about whatever you like!" does not work for every student. There are some who eagerly begin stories from the summer, but many just sit there.

So I tend to choose a concrete visual to help get kids started. This year, I had great success with a dragon puppet. "Remember the journals that I gave you?" I told students, as they gathered on the carpet with me. "Today we're going to begin writing in those journals." There were some scattered cheers among the students. Yes, cheers--fourth graders really do like to write!

I held up the dragon egg puppet. "One of the amazing things about writing is that we get to ask questions and explore new ideas," I said. "Suppose that I found this egg in my classroom this morning. What would be some questions that I might have? Turn and share with your partner."

The room buzzes with talk--Where did it come from? What is it? Will it hatch?

"Then I watched the egg for awhile, and look what happened!" Dramatically, I make the baby dragon start to poke its head out of the egg. They watch, murmuring comments to themselves--It's a dragon! Does it have wings? A tail? Where did it come from? Does it talk? I pull this part out, making the dragon wave to the students, show his wings, and pretend to be a little shy.

"You have lots of questions about this dragon," I said. "As writers, you get to create the answers. Where did the dragon come from? What can you imagine?"

A few volunteers shared their ideas. I kept the dragon puppet on my hand and made him react to their comments. (I admit it--one of the best parts of being the teacher is that I got to be the one who had the puppet first.)

Then it was time to get them writing. "When the dragon rings the chime, you will return to your seats. You can write some answers to your questions about the dragon. If you like, you could write some questions for the dragon. You could even write to describe what just happened right now. You are the writers, so you can make the choices." The kids watched as the dragon fumbled for the chime, and they returned quickly to their seats.

And we all wrote happily ever after! Well, not really. This beginning was enough to get some kids writing. Others needed more support. I quickly put some of their ideas on the whiteboard for their reference. Then I walked around with the dragon puppet for a few moments, so they could see it more closely, and then took it off for students to pass around. The students were responding in many different ways. Some did take off with a story. Others wrote questions in neatly numbered lists. Some just did describe what had happened--"Mrs. Kissner had a dragin puppet." One student wanted to write a pet care book for the dragon. I showed him "The Care and Feeding of Sprites" so that he could see the conventions of pet care books.

By the end of ten minutes of writing, everyone had something on the page. And this is what is so important about the first few days of writing. Writers know that something is better than nothing. For my fourth graders, the dragon puppet gave them something interesting and novel to write about.

Our next step: Starting a routine for sharing what we write

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