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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with Pinellas writing instructor Holly Slaughter



Slaughter photo In the past month, we've heard a lot about student writing  -- but not the positive news. Stories about template writing and why it's bad came out of the Florida Department of Education as FCAT scorers reviewed student writing exams for similarities. Pinellas writing instructor Holly Slaughter says she can understand the pressure to perform on the test, but writing education should not rely on stock phrasing to get the best results. Slaughter, who recently published her first book on K-5 writing instruction, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the best way to get kids to write well.

What do you think is the most important part about getting kids to write as we enter this new school year? Do we need to start right away? Or is it something that can come over time?

We believe writing Day 1. Day 1 of kindergarten we introduce the concept of writing. I think the most important thing that we can do for kids is to get them to understand that their lives are significant and things happen to us all the time, and we can write about them ...

Kids first and foremost should choose their own topics. We know that the writing is better when we care about what we are writing about. So we start the school year, whatever grade you are talking about (K-5) ... with personal narratives. ... They've just come in from summer. They've had a lot of things happen to them. The other thing is that writing is a community builder. When kids tell the true stories of their life and then share that writing, they get to know one another ... and grow together as a community that way.

It sounds like the complete opposite of the template writing issue we heard about just a month ago. Because it sounds like you're saying kids should not be given pat things to say.

I've read about the template writing. ... I don't know exactly what the issues are. ... But to go back, our whole writing curriculum K-5, we really push teaching kids to write in different genres. We're pushing cross lessons. Again, kids are choosing their own topics. That's first and foremost.

Then we have this idea of the state. They have to develop an assessment. They have to have a measuring stick. They've developed a 45-minute timed test and they give kids a prompt. So we have to respond by not just teaching good writing all year long, K, first grade, second grade, third grade. But once they get to fourth grade, we have to then sort of address this. You've learned all these good strategies. You've learned these structures and cross lessons. You've learned about being focused and organized in your writing. You've learned about support and conventions. But now we're going to look closely at how to take all of those lessons and apply them to situation where you have a deadline ... and you are given a prompt. You are given the topic.

That sounds hard for some adults.

It does. And so, the state sort of sets up this high stakes writing test and it essentially invites this formulaic approach. Because we all -- the state, the teachers, the districts, the parents -- we all want our kids to do well. We all have that in common. And the state is saying we have to have a measuring stick, and the teachers are saying we have to respond to that by giving the students a way to write well with a deadline of 45 minutes. Some adults can't write something well in 45 minutes. ...

Now that being said, we're using formula, we're using structure. ... I have read that some teachers are teaching specific phrases. That's not part of our curriculum. That's not what we are doing. ...

Let's talk about what are the proper things that teachers are doing and should be doing, that parents should be looking for in their classroom when dealing with writing.

Again, going back to the idea of exposing kids to different types of writing. So we're writing narratives, we're writing non-narratives. We're writing procedural type writing. That kids are choosing their own topics within those genres. And we're focusing on writing process. We value process. It starts in kindergarten. We encourage kids to choose their own topics. In kindergarten, they're starting out with sketching, really. They're really not writing. They're starting out by telling stories, but they're using representations.

As they progress up the grade levels, we're doing all the things that writers do in the real world. Kids are collecting or generating ideas. They're developing those ideas. They're drafting. They're spending lots and lots of time on revision. They're editing. They're publishing. And they're celebrating their work. And we repeat that process over and over again across the school year. And I think what's happening is you'll see pieces coming home. ... You may see pieces in different parts of the process. So that kids aren't publishing everything they write, but they're selecting the pieces they care most about to publish. That parents aren't too critical about spelling, or mechanics, or stuff like that.

Why not? Why should we not care about things that are supposed to be part of good writing?

I think we care. We definitely care. Which is to say, we instruct around conventions, especially around the editing process, and we bring that work forward. ... But all the pieces aren't going to be all the words spelled correctly, all the conventions in place, because they may not have taken that piece that far along in the process. For instance, when I'm drafting, I'm drafting at such a fast pace that I'm not going back and worrying about if each word is spelled correctly, or do I have the correct conventions. I'm just sort of getting my ideas or thoughts  collected. Later on I'll go back and revise and do some really deep editing. This happens all the time. Everything I write ... I don't take it through the process. Probably 95 percent of the things I write don't go anywhere. But the things that I write that I care enough about to go to publication, those are the pieces we ought to look at with a more critical eye.

Are there other things that parents ought to be doing at home to encourage this kind of good writing process?

Sure. It's sort of tricky. As a parent and a teacher, I walk that sort of line. But I think that one of the things that is really helpful -- it helps me as a parent -- is to tell lots of stories. Orally tell stories. My kids love to hear about the day they were born sort of stories, or the day they took their first step. And they ask me to tell those stories and retell them over and over again. And because of that oral telling of stories we started, my kids will tell and retell me stories over and over again. It's kind of silly stories, like the day we were driving and the bird pooped on our windshield. They love to tell stories about that. ... Sometimes we'll take parts in the car are we're driving. I'll tell the beginning, my one daughter will tell the middle and my other daughter will tell the end.

At bed time, I read stories but I also tell them stories and then they'll tell me stories. Another thing, we can just be careful observers out there in the world. In the park, walking in the park with our kids, noticing little things and zooming in on those details. Seeing a butterfly flying through the park and then talking about the way it's fluttering through the air. Or, the color of the butterfly. And being descriptive. Then saying, what do you see? Getting them to practice saying these things out loud will transfer to their writing in the classroom.

So we're training them all to be reporters.

Exactly. It's getting them to understand that story telling takes many forms. But oral rehearsal is huge.

It's really about do's and don'ts with parents at home. I don't overly criticize. ... My 5-year-old sat down last  night and wrote a six-page story. It's about a window breaking. Did she spell break correctly? No. She's 5. She's writing b-e-k. But she has pictures that go with it. So what I'm doing is talking to her about the story she's writing and I'm getting really excited. I think for me especially growing up I wasn't taught writing process. I was taught the basics. I was taught the difference between a noun and a verb, and how to diagram sentences. ... I don't know how much that has helped me out in the real world. I don't ever diagram my sentences.

I think we can do a better job understanding why. Why as a writer would I want to know the difference between a noun and a verb. So I think for parents it's easy to hone in on what we know. And we know when we write that words should be spelled correctly. Right? We know sentences should have end punctuation. ... We hone in on that. And then it tends to take on this negative impact. ... Honing in on the details of the story and getting excited about it, that helps our kids.

Why do you think that schools and the state focus so much on writing?

I think there are a lot of reasons. We're driven by accountability. ... The big buzz in education has been reading and math. And writing has sort of fallen by the wayside a little bit. But it's something that we all need to be able to communicate with each other effectively, even if it's texts or blogs. We use writing to communicate. And it permeates all aspects of our lives. My father is a general contractor. He uses writing to write up bids. My mother is a social worker. She has to write patient notes. It permeates our lives.

And I think the bigger issue is that writing is discovery and writing is truth. We can be better people and we can live our lives differently with each other because of writing. We see it in our classrooms every day. It's a community builder. It's an effective way to build community if you can do it well. Or it can serve in the opposite, that people can read your writing and be turned away -- not from the message -- but just turned away because of the way it is written.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:32am]


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