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Kids and Writing

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Posted 02-25-2013 at 11:24 AM by Seawaters

On the Countdown Forum and in some PMs, some of us have been discussing writing, or the fear thereof. If we adults have a fear of writing, can you imagine what little tykes feel? Since I was a third grade teacher, I thought I would share what I wrote in the process of obtaining my master’s degree. Maybe those of you who have a writing phobia may be helped in some small way. The way I discuss writing here is EXACTLY what I do—I use a writer’s notebook and I use magazines and other writings to glean ideas and word choices. Thanks for reading!
I remember sitting in school on several occasions when the teacher would announce an assignment of “a theme,” much in the same way as the teacher in A Christmas Story. I was a lot like Ralphie, the main character. Even though I loved writing, I hated the dreaded theme assignment in which the teacher chose what we were to write about. Unlike Ralphie, though, I did not consider using the theme to inform my parents what I wanted for Christmas. As I grew older and entered high school, I became more serious about my writing. I bought a special notebook that held my writing life. In this notebook, I made lists of color words that I read in the lipstick and eye shadow advertisements of Seventeen, Glamour, and Mademoiselle magazines. I would look at the clothes that came out in the fall issues of those magazines and write down their descriptions in my notebook to use in some of my writings, and I would pore over all the adjectives that were used in the ads during the Christmas season. I would also use my notebook to write out the poems of my favorite poets like Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Shelley, Keats, and Byron. I even tried my hand at emulating these writers in the personal pages of my notebook, where I did not have to be afraid of judgment. I kept a list in the notebook of my favorite things and used this list when I wrote in the yearbook of my best friend. When I went on trips, I would write about things I saw, heard and tasted, especially when I made several trips to the New York World’s Fair in 1964. I wrote similar descriptions when I visited Washington, D.C. and when I spent the summer with my aunt and uncle in Groton, Connecticut. When I heard words that I especially liked or that “spoke to my heart,” I would add them to my notebook. I even kept what I called a “gripe list” on which I listed what really aggravated me. I got into the gripe list so well that I used butcher paper to put up on the wall of my bedroom and make my list “public.” When I was a freshman in college, I used the writings in my notebook to develop my ideas for my creative writing class assignments. As I became an adult, the notebook (at this time, it was one of several) became the holder of my memories. I felt it was important to write down what I remembered of my life and to further develop those ideas and produce them in various forms. Throughout my life, though, I felt very protective of my notebook, not sharing the contents per se, but using the entries as a basis of several writings. Then something strange happened, and as Robert Frost said, “And that has made all the difference.”
I was introduced to the writings of Ralph Fletcher during the early summer of 2004. Prior to that time, I was doing some research on writing. I had become concerned about the quality and brevity of writing I was continuing to see in my students through the years and felt guilty about sending students on to fourth grade with underdeveloped writing skills. I had never felt successful at implementing writing workshop because my classes never seemed to work out like the examples in all the literature. My students would generate a few topics but never could do anything with their ideas. I was tired of reading all the stories that were really just a sequence of events, and not very good lists of events at that. Out of the necessity to relieve my boredom, but most importantly to equip my students with the skills and strategies they needed, came my quest for a way to help my students become better writers with something real to say.
Third graders are still willing to take risks, yet they especially need help in organizing their thoughts and information. By virtue of this, one of my writing goals has been to help students become more organized in their writing and more proficient at choosing topics that would lend themselves to actual writing rather than become a rehash of a movie they had seen the night before or a video game they had played recently. In other words, I want my students’ writing to become more natural rather than mechanical and stilted. I want the students to operate on the idea that interesting writing topics can come from our “real” lives and not from Hollywood.
After having read Fletcher’s A Writer’s Notebook and experienced the feeling that he had had a window into my life (especially when he mentioned a student’s having a gripe list), I decided it was time to start fresh with writing workshop and a focus on the writer’s notebook. I wanted to prove to myself and to my students that they are in control of their own writing and are capable of living like the real writers they are.
At first when I introduced the routine of our writing time, like many other teachers, I was met with blank looks from the students. Those blank looks soon turned to looks of anticipation, as students waited for me to direct and lead them by the hand in the writing session. Students finally took pen to paper to write when they realized they were expected to work independently. As the school year progressed, I noticed a gradual focused intensity during our writing time. Not only was there such writing energy, many times there were questions voiced, “Can we write in our writer’s notebook now?”
Initially, students struggled against being encouraged to revisit entries after several days and write in a new way to rework some of their ideas by creating a new form or genre. Announcements of “I’m done!” rapidly became almost non-existent as students began to reread previous entries to get ideas for further entries. As the students began to value not only their notebooks and the experiences and memories they had captured, their voices began to emerge in their writing and attitudes.
In their writing notebooks, students recorded variations of several topics: pets, favorite holidays, special moments, illnesses, and broken bones. I was able to see that students were sometimes inclined to revisit some of their topics that were important to them.
Students appeared motivated to write and showed increased productivity in their writing as evidenced by the volume of the writing in their notebooks. All of the students began writing only one paragraph at the beginning of this study, with many of the students writing at least one page or more by the end. The most surprising improvement came from one of my students who speaks no English yet. I allowed her to write in Spanish. By the end of this study, she was able to write at length (5 pages) about her birthday. When I had the Spanish interpreter translate the story, she told me that the student hardly had any spelling or grammatical errors. An added bonus was the day this student decided she wanted to share her writing with the class. She stood in front of the room, read her writing for that day, and waited until the interpreter had translated for her. The look on her face at the applause she received from her classmates was priceless.
The biggest improvement I noted in student writing was in their writing voices. For example, one second-language student wrote many entries about his little dog. The student’s voice is really evident when he wrote, “I have a dog. His name is Jimmy Smith. That is not his real name but we call him that because he is from our family. My dad thinks that Jimmy is his baby. I like my dog as a twin brother.” The student went on to explain how he and his [real] brother like to play freeze tag with their dog, even though the dog does not cooperate very well at that game!
Another second-language student expressed her voice in the following quote: “My brother makes me go crazy!! He gets into my stuff. He is very annoying. He does not let me hear my music, but he is smart. Sometimes he is nice and sweet. I can scare him very easy.”
A surprising voice showed up in the writings of a quiet student who sometimes has problems with school attendance: “When I was born, my sister always wanted to hold me. I said, ‘Sheesh, give me a break. I want to play.’ When I was born my first word was boba. I wanted it to be mamma or at least dada, but boba, that’s the stupidest thing to say. Boba this and boba that. Let me tell you more baby years of mine.”
Another student wrote about her bout with “namonia” [pneumonia] and one entry she entitled “The Dog’s Masosh” [Massage]. All of her entries were filled with conversation, capital letters for emphasis, and comments like the one about her birth order: “If you’ve got a problem with that, then call 999-9999” [not her real phone number].
A second-language girl wrote an entry entitled, “My Favorite Teacher.” Her voice is very evident in the following excerpt from her notebook: “Mrs. Waters is the smartest teacher in the world. She is pretty but forgetful. She just loves, and I mean loves, COFFEE!”
At the end of our first trimester, I had students write to a prompt on their thoughts of using a writer’s notebook. In every instance, students were positive in voicing their opinions of their notebooks. Several quotes are written below with teacher-made spelling and grammar corrections for ease in deciphering the message.
“…My writer’s notebook is very important to me because I can write about my life. My writer’s notebook showed me how to write a lot. My writer’s notebook is an important thing for me and my family.”
“…You can write about your sister and brother and mom and dad and your stepbrother if you have one. You can write about your favorite holiday. I got to go to recess in a couple more minutes. Bye.”
“…What I like about my real writer’s notebook is I like how it is our own privacy. First I didn’t think about it, but now I know. I know my stories are kind of good. I feel very special because I think this was a very good idea.”
“…I like to write. It’s fun, but sometimes I don’t know what to write. Sometimes I just write information that I want to know when I’m older. It is all mine and no one is to know except my teacher.”
“…I like writing in my real writer’s notebook. I can write about my life and most anything. I can always read what I write. I have already written over 28 pages.”
“…Writer’s notebook is a fun thing to write in. If you had a real writer’s notebook, you will write real things you think of to remember in your life. And one more thing, you can write about things that you don’t like and things you don’t want to do again.”
“…I did not like my writer’s notebook the first time I wrote in it, but now that I write in it more often, I like it.”
“…I think writer’s notebook is fun to write. You can write about everything you know and that you can write almost everything in the whole world. Well, not everything in the whole world. And did you know that you can write about stories and all kinds of things?”
“…I used to think the writer’s notebook would be boring, but now I love it! It is important to me because it has all of my memories in it. I’m going to keep adding and adding to it until I pass away.”
“…I like to write in my writer’s notebook. If you remember memories then it will be easy. If you like to write, then it will be fun. I like to write in my writer’s notebook because I remember a lot of stuff. It helps you think about the past stuff that really happened. That’s why it’s called a real writer’s notebook.”
“…First I thought I didn’t like my writer’s notebook. But then I got the hang of it. Now I write stuff about my life, my things, and the things I do because my teacher said writing is important. Now I’m starting to have more and more ideas and stories, but I don’t have enough time to write all the stories that I want to write.”
All of the examples above indicate improved writing output and a pronounced pattern of student voice. To me, this alone would make using a writer’s notebook well worth it.
A writer’s notebook is a great rehearsal for expressing our thoughts, hopes, and dreams. On a basic level, writing helps us communicate; on a deeper level, it allows us to express ourselves creatively. Results of watching my students supported my personal hypothesis that using a writer’s notebook would have a positive effect on my students as they rehearse their writing life. They were able to generate topics of interest to themselves and to write for sustained amounts of time.
My main intent was to encourage and support students as they made personal choices of their writing topics and as they developed stamina and volume in their writing. Analysis of my students’ notebooks show that using a writer’s notebook has made a significant difference in my students’ productivity, their writing voice, and their enthusiasm for writing. These children are not professional writers, but they are writers nonetheless. Using a writer’s notebook has contributed to developing writing fluency early-on. Without having to focus on language constructs, spelling, or even organization, students were free to express themselves and practice developing their own writing style and voice. Additionally, students were able to concentrate on the messages they wanted to communicate. Using a writer’s notebook to write about real events, memories, wonderings, feelings, and thoughts played an important role in the rehearsal for progressing from a “seed” entry to final composition.
As far as I know, there is no instrument that can take our thoughts and automatically convey them to those around us. Since our students need to experience and participate in written communication in one form or another, we need to give them the tools. I wonder how Ralphie would have fared had his teacher allowed him to use a writer’s notebook before writing his theme. I think many of his notebook entries would have definitely centered on his father’s major award, the ever-problematic furnace, and the gift of his dreams—a Red Ryder BB gun. Who knows? Maybe using a writer’s notebook is how Jean Shepherd came to write about Ralphie’s life in the first place.
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  1. Old Comment
    [B][I]This blog is so brilliant. Thank you for this. Of course, I would expect nothing less erudite from you, Seawaters. You are amazing xo[/I][/B]
    Posted 02-25-2013 at 12:04 PM by caninemom3 caninemom3 is offline
    Updated 02-25-2013 at 01:46 PM by caninemom3
  2. Old Comment
    Seawaters's Avatar
    Thanks, CM3!!!
    Posted 02-25-2013 at 01:39 PM by Seawaters Seawaters is offline
  3. Old Comment
    I think fear is taught. We don't start out by comparing our words, our pictures, our abilities, to others. That's something we learn from our elders. In the beginning, we create for the simple joy of creating.

    If you can teach people (it needn't be kids) what it means to succeed in art--to create something meaningful and true--while not teaching them a fear of "failure," well, I wish I'd had you as my teacher back in the day!

    A journal can help us know the world, and ourselves, a bit better. You've given your students a lovely gift. Keep up the great work. And thanks for sharing.
    Posted 02-25-2013 at 03:54 PM by jimmyolsen jimmyolsen is offline
  4. Old Comment
    Seawaters's Avatar
    Thanks, JimmyO. I have always loved writing and teaching. The only adults I have taught were a short course in American Sign Language and a college course for aides working in classrooms. Hmmm. Maybe I will think about a writing course for adults. Thanks for the comments; they really bless me.
    Posted 02-26-2013 at 02:53 PM by Seawaters Seawaters is offline
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