In summer school at one of Providence's only air-conditioned schools, kindergartners and first-graders are writing "books" at little tables. When music plays, they finish their last thoughts, put away the materials, and gather over on the rug. Dr. Martha Horn sits at the front, in one of those little chairs that make grown-ups look giant. She beams at the students without saying a word until they've hustled into their places.
An expert in the art of teaching writing, Horn has taught teachers across the country. She's now a professor in Rhode Island College's education department, and today she's modeling her techniques for 13 teachers looking to enhance their skills.
Soon enough, the kids settle down without being shushed. And when they do, Horn comes to life, using slightly-exaggerated facial expressions and a dramatic voice. She announces with delight, "Eduardo has drawn a picture for his story about going to the Dominican Republic." Eduardo joins her at the front, nervous about the attention, but excited to tell his story. The kids study Eduardo's picture, curious to see what it's about.
All kids have stories. However trivial to us, the stories matter hugely to them. Horn harnesses kids' interest in their own lives, so their natural drive can carry them through the more tedious challenges of learning the rules of our idiosyncratic language.
When most kindergartners are asked if they can read, they say no. But write? Oh yes! Give them paper and they'll draw, write letters, numbers, names of people they know, sometimes words. Horn says, "They come to school believing in their ability to put marks on paper to make meaning. So we start there: with what children CAN do. Unfortunately, when people speak of literacy, most of the time they are referring only to reading."
Research shows that learning to write greatly strengthens reading skills.
But in our test-driven mania, right answers are all that matter. So in the world of writing, grammar and spelling are minefields of potentially-wrong answers. The pleasure of story-telling quickly gets lost.
Squirming a bit, Eduardo tells us his story about his trip to visit his cousins. His version is sketchy and hung up on getting to the airplane. But Horn inquires about details with the enthusiasm of an adolescent dragging juicy gossip out of her friend. Eventually she's got enough to tell the tale herself, "It was early in the morning, still very dark, when my whole family got in the car and stopped by Dunkin Donuts to get something to eatâ¦" As she talks, Eduardo keeps filling in facts – who's in the car; what his siblings said; the hassle with checking the suitcases – painting ever more vividly the scene and its players.
Again, with her super-curiosity, Horn asks "Okay but what were you thinking and feeling at the time?"
Obviously excited, Eduardo says, "I was, like, oh my gosh! I can't believeâ¦"
Pause. Horn, riveted, asks, "Can't believe what?" Eduardo's hands fly up in amazement, "I can't believe I'm leaving on a plane today."
She addresses the group, "Writers, it is your job to help us think and feel what you were feeling, by how you tell your story." The kids nod.
Again, Horn holds up Eduardo's airplane picture. He notes that he should add a moon because it was night. He says he's very ready to write his story, and looks as if he's dying to run back to his desk and do it immediately.
Horn marvels, to the children's delight, at what good stories they have. She often says, "It's a writers responsibility toâ¦" The onus is on the kids to learn how to communicate clearly and vividly so their audience understands.
So mechanics certainly matter, but already by 4th or 5th grade, many children have started to hate writing. They never got a good feel for their own powers of communication. Many repeat a small, dull repertoire of reliably-right constructions and words they're sure they can spell.
One of Horn's techniques is to include a "proofreading" list in each writer's folder. That list begins with the same 5 rules that all kids must learn, expressed in terms of mastery, like: "I can put a title on my stories." But each subsequent rule is one that individual writer is ready to learn.
For example, in an earlier "conference" (a student-teacher one-on-one), Eduardo had written another story which began, "Wenieyt My pezz i eyt it with mom." (When I ate my pizza I ate it with mom). Throughout his work, Eduardo was misspelling "when" and "ate," leaving no spaces between some words, and not capitalizing "I." Horn picked out one problem – the "I." While she worked with other kids, Eduardo corrected all the "I"s in his story and added to his proofreading list: "I can capitalize I." Henceforth, he'll be expected to proofread his work with this new rule in mind, along with those already on the list.
Kids can't possibly be literate if they don't know the rules. No question. And asking teachers to get all passionate about kids' stories and feelings can feel like huge risk compared with focusing on getting the mechanics right.
But that risk puts fire in the kid's belly. So the kid becomes a more invested, independent learner. And the teacher has a more interesting job.
Next week we'll talk to teachers who've been absorbing some of Horn's techniques.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com . She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected].