I remember the first time I set up an Authors' Table. I was teaching kindergarten, and since the parents were required to pick up their children at the classroom, I had a captive audience when it came to displaying work at the end of the day. I set up a small table, attached a sign on the front that read, "We're Authors!" and placed a copy of our class book on top.
As I dismissed the students, I overheard a parent say, "Oh! I didn't know little students could write."
Ugh. "Of course, younger students can write!" I wanted to scream. Instead, I calmly explained just what wonderful writers young students are when given the opportunity. Fortunately, it didn't take the whole school year to change that parent's mind!
In the many years I've worked with students in the lower grades, I've heard plenty of myths about their capabilities as writers. I've also learned a few things about how they approach the writing process. Here are some things to keep in mind when working with younger writers.
Because students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade are learning the basics about letters, words, and reading (not to mention the mechanics of handwriting), we sometimes forget what skilled and enthusiastic writers they already are. Most come to us having been exposed to a wide variety of quality books and the ability to discuss them on a much higher level than we might expect.
For example, one autumn I wanted to address the concept of settings and how an author's word choice and use of methods influence readers. To do this, my class and I set out to write a spooky story. We pulled out several delightfully scary books and turned down the lights in our room. While reading, we stopped to discuss how the author's words made us feel and where the story took place. The students (kindergartners) instinctively knew what things like mood and setting were; they just needed to know what to call them.
How can we foster students' understanding about the writing process? First, by giving them the language they need to discuss books and their own writing. Use phrases, such as author word choice and point of view, or words such as setting, genre, and voice. Don't shy away from discussing big concepts. Whatever you'd point out to older students while reading to them, point out to the younger students, too. They'll get it. And even when they don't, they'll feel respected as real writers.
Second, provide younger writers with tools they need to free up their creativity. Just because they can't always write their stories, it doesn't mean young students don't have stories to tell. Provide the students with other means of publishing their writing, or assist classroom teachers in creative publishing. Allow students to record a story with video cameras, digital cameras, or tape recorders. Let them dictate their stories to older students, or allow them to write a story using only illustrations. (There are some fabulous stories without text. Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola and The Snowman by Raymond Briggs are two of my favorites.)
We've all heard, "Write what you know." This adage is especially true for the youngest writers. Everything is new and exciting to them; they are anxious to give a voice to their experiences. Just as picking meaningful books engages readers, picking meaningful topics will engage young writers. Topics, such as sleeping over, loosing teeth, bedrooms, siblings, toys, pets, birthdays, and becoming principal for the day, are all great springboards for writing.
While it might be tempting to let their imaginations run down the highway and even off-road, younger students have an easier time writing if they're given some "road maps" to follow. These road maps are guidelines to help narrow the students' focus.
Allow me to illustrate. As a visiting author, I was working with a group of first graders on using descriptive words and phrases. Since the students were studying nutrition, the teacher and I decided it would be fun to have the children write about food. Instead of having them "just write something about food," I asked them to write a review about the most disgusting food they'd ever tasted. The "most disgusting" road map gave the students something specific to write about. Getting to write terrible, nasty things about something disgusting is fun, and the students really got into this writing activity. The format was purposeful; having students create a review not only gave them an opportunity to work on adjectives, but it also gave us a chance to talk about persuasive writing.
Encouraging students to illustrate their writing is important. Young readers rely on visual cues to decode when they get stuck. Having students create their own illustrations will aid in decoding. It also helps young writers better organize their thoughts and deepens the ownership they feel for their story. As if this wasn't enough, having students illustrate their own work provides you another great opportunity to give them more language of writing. Illustrations, dummy books, thumbnail sketches, gutters, view—these are just some of the terms illustrators use when they talk shop.
Illustrations are also helpful in engaging reluctant writers. Let's face it, a blank sheet of paper can be intimating. The idea of having to fill a whole sheet (when you're just learning to write in complete sentences) can dampen enthusiasm. Illustrating makes filling that empty page less overwhelming. Besides, any publisher will tell you successful picture books are a marriage of both text and art.
Unlike other subjects, writing is a process. There is no correct answer that you find and then move on. It's a constant back and forth, an ebb and flow of ideas. All writers, especially the younger ones who are just dipping their toes in the water, need time to process. Sometimes this means what I call "writing out loud." When we give children a writing activity, we expect them to write— to move their pencil across the page. But if we don't allow children to take breaks, talk, or daydream about their work, we're denying them half the fun of writing.
Admittedly, this controlled chaos can take some getting use to, especially in the library media center. One afternoon, I was working with some second graders who were rewriting "Cinderella." A parent happened to pop in and wondered why students weren't working. I assured her that they were and asked her to walk around and eavesdrop. She quickly realized the students were searching for versions of "Cinderella," discussing their work and other fractured fairy tales. Of course, not all children will be able to stay on-task without a little help. As educators, we can help make their time productive by asking questions such as these: What's the setting of your story? Have you thought about this? Why did you choose that word? Are you happy with the opening? What's the plot? What's going to happen next?
Part of allowing students to "write out loud" is giving them plenty of time. In my experience, younger writers do better with several short writing sessions than they do with one long writing session. This can mesh well with the library media center schedule.
I've been in plenty of library media centers and classrooms and have seen all kinds of wonderful, inviting reading areas. After all, the secret of being a good writer is being a good reader. But we have to follow through. There are few things more frustrating to a writer than to have an idea and no tools handy or space to write. When students are surrounded by good books in the library media center, they're going to feel inspired to write!
Your writing center doesn't have to be an elaborate affair. Simply provide students with a variety of writing instruments, paper, and a comfy place to work. Some students prefer to write at tables while others like to sit on rugs or beanbags. (I've even seen an old bathtub students could use as a writing space!) Clipboards give students the freedom to choose their own writing spot and allow them to use outdoor areas for inspiration. Other things to consider having in your writing center: colored pencils (for illustrating), envelopes, stamps and ink pads, dictionaries and thesauri, scrap paper (for quick notes), and interesting pictures from newspapers (for story starters).
Students in the primary grades come to us eager to be storytellers and writers. They also come to us more capable than we often realize. It's sometimes easy to forget these things because they are so young. But when we give young writers respect and the tools they need, their writing can soar. Next time you hear someone wonder if little students can write, you'll say "Sure!" and direct the person to a copy of one of your young author's latest work.