I just finished reading Write, Think, Learn by Mary K. Tedrow. I heard about this book in a blog post on MiddleWeb that Tedrow wrote about the power of writing everyday. In one of my professional book-buying binges, I purchased this book since I am interested in getting more writing into my classroom. I work at a private school that places a lot of emphasis on specials, so my classroom time is even more limited than most teachers’. I want my students to become better writers, and I thought it would be good to get them to just write more. I want them to be better readers, so we read a lot; I figured this could work for writing too.
This book starts by outlining the Daybook, the notebook that Tedrow has her students write in. This is not a journal or diary, but it is definitely more of a collecting space than a drafting space. Students can write openly or the teacher can provide prompts. One of the main messages of this book is that any teacher of any content area can use something like this to connect writing to their content area; it doesn’t just have to be used in English class. She provides a lot of prompts that you can use and refine to fit your needs: prewriting, prereading, reflection, analysis, postreading, prediscussion, postdiscussion, all of these kinds of thoughts can go in the Daybook. She works with high school students, but as a fifth grade teacher, I found all of her ideas and prompts usable for my students.
I found some of her lesson ideas particularly useful. I introduced inference to my students this past year, and while in the end I feel like most of them had a pretty good handle on it, it was a long, hard slog because I didn’t really know how to teach them to make inferences about their reading. We mostly got it through sheer repetition and modeling. Tedrow outlined a great, short lesson about “showing, not telling” that I think could also work well with inference. Write a simple sentence about a person or pet. Something like: my brother is gross (her example). Then, write a short description of an event that shows that character trait without writing the word. In pairs, students can try to guess each other’s traits just by reading the description. A good activity that pushes students as both readers and writers, since the two skills are so connected. And I have found that students struggle with both of these skills.
Another strategy that she talked about was “pulling a line”. This can be done from students’ own original writing or from a text that they are reading. Basically, students pick a line from the text that they think is important or want to explore more fully or think is provocative or even one that they disagree with or have a question about. Anything that will encourage them to think deeply about through writing. Students write the line at the top of a page and then write about it. Tedrow likes seven minutes as a time frame for her short writing activities, but I think any amount of time could work. (Maybe less time at the beginning of the year or with younger students, building up stamina over time. Or I have found it helpful to break liger writing times into shorter segments. Write for three or four minutes then share with a partner. Continue writing for three or four minutes then share with a partner.) I like this “pulling a line” activity because it gets students to think about a text more specifically. It also allows them to get their ideas down on paper before prompting a discussion with a partner or as a class. That is one of the easiest strategies that Tedrow encourages: anytime you want students to talk, have them write first. It encourages less confident students, helps all students organize their thinking, and provides a record of their initial thoughts. Doing a similar activity at the end of a discussion allows students to go back and see how their ideas have changed through the discussion.
Finally, an idea to help with writing essays. I think this strategy could be used for both informative and persuasive writing. Tedrow talks about how students choose topics one of two ways: either they do a lot of research on something first, so they already have a bulk of the thinking done, or they pick something randomly, having to fit their thinking into that framework. Of course, we want students to do the first, but I am guilty of, for the sake of time, having my students do the second. I struggle with my students in getting them to find evidence to “fit” with their topic which never produces very good writing. Tedrow outlines a plan that starts with students listing what their initial thoughts are about a topic. Then, they make a three column list: truths, not-truths, and not-sures about that topic. Not only does this help them solidify what they already know about a topic, it gives them a good basis for what they need to explore next. This activity would be great with a partner or small group to generate more ideas and help clarify truths vs. not-truths. She also has students write different sides of an argument as if they are having a dialogue, loosening the rigid essay format to encourage the flow of ideas. She also has students do this with another student, writing down the dialogue between them. She suggests doing something that I actually already do: writing a “final” draft early on in the process. Lucy Calkins calls this a “flash draft” where students just write what they know about a topic before doing any additional research. They can then use this as a starting point: what am I interested in about his topic? What structures am I already using in my writing? Where do I need more information/evidence? Forcing students to actually put their ideas together into something vaguely coherent but without the threat of a grade allows them to try things out, see where they are, and make goals for what to do next. It is also helpful as a teacher because you can see all of those things too.
I found this book to be really interesting. The strategies outlined here will definitely make an appearance in my classroom this next year, and so will many more of her suggestions. I would recommend this book to any teaching looking to add more writing into his/her classroom, particularly English teachers. I think this book is applicable to any grade level, though perhaps more useful to upper elementary and older classrooms. I’m really glad that I read it, and I feel energized for writing in my classroom next year.