Thursday, May 3, 2012

Teaching Squirrels to Read and Write


I've been thinking a lot about how to teach writing and reading of late. It's not a new thing for me. I've been teaching for seventeen years and most every day of that I've thought about how to do the job better. Yes, even during the summer. In my current teaching position I work with terribly reluctant readers and writers. These are the kids who not only haven't done well in their classes but have been told to leave the school completely. They don't even fit in at other alternative programs and so they are sent to us as a last-ditch attempt to get them through. They are especially dumb, but their skills are so dulled and they have met failure so often that they don't necessarily buy the writing and reading ideas I'm looking to throw at them.

Thinking about their experience with schoolwork helps me think of ways to get away from the whole school-as-work model. Honestly, how many times has the word work made you want to get right to it? Let's do some housework! Hey, there's yardwork to be done! Look at all this dandy paperwork to dive into! Give me a break. I would much rather go out and play.

Which is what got me thinking.

So far this year, most of the writing the students have done is writing practice. That's a term I've borrowed from Natalie Goldberg. Writing practice is timed writings, sometimes with a topic attached, sometimes not. The rules are that we write for the whole time (until the timer goes off), we don't worry about penmanship or spelling, we don't do anything else, and we let our brains take us where our writing wants to go. It has taken a few weeks to a few months (depending on the writer) to get used to the idea that during writing practice we don't stop.

These timed writings are good for us all. (I write with them whenever we write.) They teach us that we have things to say. Sometimes we share them out loud. Sometimes we just hand them in.

I collect them and give everyone four out of four points if they wrote the whole time. That's the extent of the grading. I don't grade on quality or length or any of that nonsense. I don't want it to be a competition (they would almost always lose to me) and I don't want to make it into work. I want them to play at writing. And that's just what they do.

I keep wondering how to move to essays and other kinds of writing, but I haven't worked out how to do that without turning them off. It's like approaching a squirrel: if I make a move, they bolt. Right now, they're quite used to what we do. Any changes I make have to be very small and have to stay true to the idea of playing at writing.

It's much the same with reading.

I buy a lot of books for the classroom (with school money, thank goodness) and set aside a lot of our time for reading in class. I steadfastly refuse to test, quiz, or assign book reports (in any form). In every class there is at least one kid who hasn't read a book cover to cover in five years. In half of the classes there is a kid who hadn't read a chapter book ever. Believe it.

Again, my squirrel stalking technique is to give them time to read, find books for them, and see if we can occasionally talk about the books. I have to be careful even here however because they can sense when I'm quizzing them out loud.

The system is all about trust. They trust me to write back to their writing without correcting errors. (Instead of correcting their errors, I use one misspelled word correctly in my response or replicate what they have done but show the correct way; always in a way that they might hear but won't feel as though I'm teaching at them.) They trust that I will find good books for them, talk honestly about them, and not make reading a memory game.

I'm happy with the results so far and happy that I have an underlying theory behind the things I am doing and the things I refuse to do. I still wonder what people will think when they see us at work, but I need to let my insecurity go. It will only hurt the kids.

Instead we read and write on.