Official blog of Partnership for Inquiry Learning

First, convince them they are writers

April 4, 2018

part 1 in a series

by Julie Patterson

This semester, I teach writing in pre-K on Wednesdays, and writing to college students on Fridays. I’m quickly discovering that the only real difference is the texts I use.

This is not my first rodeo with undergrads, so much of what I encountered there the first week was no surprise. Undergraduates come to me jaded and lacking confidence. When I ask them to reflect on their experience with writing to date, they routinely tell me that they made up stories and poems as children but stopped somewhere around 4th or 5th grade, because they sense that the “rules” of writing changed in school at that time, and they simply didn’t enjoy it anymore.

Probably not coincidentally, they pinpoint that same timeframe as the moment they discovered that they weren’t very good at writing. They can name specific assignments that they thought they did well, but they got a “bad grade” on their work, so clearly they don’t know what good writing is, they say.

“I don’t write enough to be good at it,” they say.

“I don’t write well because I’m not interested in the topics I’ve been asked to write about,” they say.

“Even when teachers tell me there’s no right or wrong way to write, they hand back my essays with Bs and Cs on them, so obviously there is a right and wrong way to do it,” they say.

“I don’t write well, because no one has ever showed me how to make my writing better. They just tell me what’s wrong with it,” they say.

My college students tell me all this in the first few days of class: they don’t think of themselves as writers, their teachers didn’t think they were good writers, and society doesn’t think they can write anything but shorthand text messages anyway. (IKR?!)

Undergraduates' collages represent how they feel about writing at the start of the semester. Note the large quantity of frowning faces, question marks, images of "judgement" and confusion.

It should be easier to teach pre-K students who don’t have all this baggage about writing, right?

This semester is my first foray into preschool writing, so like any ambitious student, I did some research first. I re-read everything Katie Wood Ray has ever written about teaching writing. Then I had the opportunity to hear Matt Glover speak and watched him teach in pre-K. I read books Matt co-authored with Kathy Collins. But in spite of my efforts to get smart first, what I really needed to do in pre-K wasn’t completely obvious until I started talking to my pre-K students. They sounded exactly like my college students:

"I can't read yet."

"I don't know how to write."

I’ve got to make them see that they are, in fact, readers and writers, even as society insists otherwise. Hmmm, no small task.

Fortunately, as I mentioned, I’m no newbie to this challenge with undergrads. I already know from experience what those students need at this stage: lots of opportunities to write without being “graded,” choice about what they will write, feedback about what they already know and do well in their writing, and strategies for making their texts more effective. Look what that elicits from “non-writers” in a few short weeks:

Have you ever ridden a bicycle with no wheels? Well, that is my experience with writing. I knew how to write, just like how you know how to ride a bike. Yet there were important parts missing, so like a bike with no wheels, my writing abilities never moved willingly. – Shea Davis
I can write. I can write well. Why do I tell myself I can't? There are concepts that are ingrained in your brain. 2+2=4, the sky is blue, and Jenny isn't a very good writer at all. – Jenny M.

So I’m doing the same thing in pre-K. They need lots of opportunities to write without being judged or corrected. We offer bookmaking as an option during free play time, because that is when “fun” things are available. That’s part of the “choice” in pre-K writing—you can not only choose what you write about, but also whether or not you write today. I sit with students at the “writing center” and try to point out what they know about writing when they share their books with me.

This student knows something about staying on topic. Notice that she places the same character on every page.

One thing Matt Glover told me about conferring with preschoolers has made assessing college writing easier and more constructive, too.

When we provide feedback to writers of any age, we lead with the positive. I’ve known this for years. But Matt said, “You should be looking for something they’ve demonstrated they can do. It doesn’t mean they did it better than anything else, or better than someone else. Maybe they didn’t even do it intentionally. You just need to notice and name something they did on the page.”

This seemed logical in the context of preschool, yet I became increasingly aware that I was getting hung up on how well they did it in college. Instead of simply telling ¾ of my college students that they had demonstrated that they can summarize a text, highlighting an area where they had done this, I instead agonized over whether or not they had included everything they could have. Or if I’d already said, “You do a nice job of summarizing Orwell’s four theories” to too many people and should find something else to talk about. I’ve said that a lot, so maybe that’s a given. Maybe they should already know how to do that by now, I caught myself thinking.

With Matt’s advice still bouncing around in my head, I was able to realize that it is worth noting—and labeling—the summarization. “Summarize texts” is explicitly mentioned in our course goals, and students just finished telling me that they graduated from high school largely confused about writing and lacking confidence in their own abilities to do it.

Notice what they can do, point to it, and name it for them. It’s that simple. No matter what grade level. 

This pre-K writer knows texts sometimes teach readers things–evidenced by her nonfiction book about how rainbows are made. She also knows that writers sometimes make books with a specific reader in mind, as evidenced by her version of a dedication page at the end.

Of course, I’m not likely to convince anyone that he or she is a reader or writer in an hour, or a day, or possibly even a month. No matter if we’re in pre-K or undergrad, that’s going to take time. So check back soon to see how we’re doing—and what else I’m learning.

Julie PattersonJulie Patterson is writer-in-residence for the Partnership for Inquiry Learning, helping make the work that writers do visible to teachers and students in grades preK-8. She is also an adjunct professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and a teaching artist in grades K-12 with Arts for Learning Indiana.

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