I am often conflicted when making instructional choices. If I could rewind my teaching reel and go back to the year 2000 you would see that my writing instruction looked a lot different than it does today. Back then, a major focus of my instruction was helping students to become fluent writers who knew their voice. They wrote all kinds of pieces. Some were journal entries. Some were imaginative. Others were informational. They wrote scripts to accompany "how to" demonstrations. They wrote poetry and they wrote book reviews. Over time, each of my fifth graders would find that writing was for them. Each eventually found his or her niche. My instruction honored the art of teaching writing.
Early on in the school year it was all about volume. Generally students didn't come to me as writers. Getting them to a place where they could fill a page with their own thoughts was a small feat. Honestly, it wasn't about quality in the early days of the school year. I remember celebrating a dyslexic little boy who filled seven pages in his composition notebook with a story about a fly who had an adventure of his own by attaching himself to one human and then another. The little writer even included famous "humans" like Forest Gump. What he didn't include was a single period! It didn't matter. He had filled seven pages with his own words. It was a small miracle for this kid who for the first time, saw himself as a writer. That is what it was about. Once I had a classroom full of writers, I could start focusing on the power of vivid vocabulary and including just the right amount of description and just the right amount of dialogue to hold a reader's attention. MCAS was a new thing. It hadn't really made its mark on our teaching yet.
Today I photocopied a page from Charlotte's Web. It was a lengthy description of the Zuckerman's barn. The focus of my lesson was using text evidence when responding to comprehension questions. Today's question was: What is your opinion of Zuckerman's barn? Use evidence from the text to support your opinion. Aside from the obvious goal of getting the students to form an opinion based on text they'd read and then supporting that opinion with evidence from the text, my goal was go get my students to write a decent paragraph. Ideally, it would open with a sentence that introduced the topic. They'd fluently include at least three details from the text that supported their opinions of the barn. Ideally, they'd be able to wrap the whole thing up with a concluding sentence. Oh ick!
Truly, this isn't the only kind of writing I teach. Aside from technical writing, I do teach creative writing. Our state standards demand that we teach narrative writing in addition to opinion writing and informational writing. While we are able to have a little fun with the narrative writing, it all seems so formulaic. Teaching narrative writing isn't really enough. Our students are often asked to read the start of a narrative and finish it as if he or she was the author. Sometimes, they're asked to compare two texts and synthesize the information. There is so much to prepare them for. And because I'm doing all this preparing, I'm not so sure I'm growing writers.
I work hard to keep some of the fun of writing alive. My students write letters to Harry Potter every week and we have pen pals. They're senior citizens from our town. But writing isn't quite the same for me as it once was. I keep thinking that there is some balance to be struck. I look for that place where I can coach my students towards proficiency. I take the charge to address the standards seriously. I just haven't found the balance and I just really miss the art of teaching writing.