With several decades under my belt teaching Social Studies and English I have finally confirmed one of my most nagging doubts about how we have traditionally taught writing and its mechanics. This past fall when I met my new class of mostly 8- and 9- year-olds, I explained that we would be writing a lot of stories. This was met with several groans and much sinking lower in seats. One brave student asked what they should write about. I replied “anything you want”; this was greeted with incredulous stares. Eventually another hand went up. “But Mrs. Cyr, what is the topic?” Again, I said “whatever you want.” All were quiet for a minute and then several at once asked “will they be graded?”, “does spelling count?”, does capitalization count?”, and, of course, “does punctuation count?”
Once again silence reigned as I answered “no”. In fact, no one moved for what seemed like a long time. I tried again to explain that I just wanted them to write, that I was interested in their ideas and I didn’t want them to think about anything except their ideas. I also told them we could edit their stories later and that that’s how authors write – they put their ideas down on paper and then they fix what needs fixing later.
With great skepticism they got their paper and pencils and started their stories. Freed from the constraints of having to make sure everything was perfect, each of my students began to turn out incredible stories incorporating dialogue, humor, detail, and imagination. This went on for about three months.
Then around the end of November as we were getting ready for our Exhibitions in which my students would show and tell about all the work they had done so far, I went to one of my prolific writers and told her I hoped she would read one of her stories at her Exhibition. I also told her I would help her make it look beautiful if she wanted. She agreed so we took ourselves to a quiet corner along with her stream-of-consciousness story and a pile of clean lined paper.
Before we started I showed her in one of the books we had read in class how the author had used quotation marks for dialogue, had given each character his own line when speaking, and the use of capitalization and punctuation. She nodded and we began to edit, starting with her first sentence which just happened to be dialogue.
Now get ready; here comes the amazing part. After ten minutes and a third of the way down the page, my student-writer understood what to do and, except for my help with spelling, she completed a nine-page clean copy with perfect punctuation (including quotation marks) and capitalization. In addition she had divided her sentences up appropriately and made sure each speaker had his or her own line. It was a masterpiece.
After all that I was thinking it couldn’t get much better - but it did. After she showed her completed story, all of her classmates asked if I would help them make theirs look as good. Imagine – they wanted to learn writing mechanics.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all this. I always knew in my heart those workbooks and worksheets were mostly a waste of time. But I wasn’t confident enough to throw them out and take a common sense approach. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about how adults write. We put our ideas down, maybe more than once, and then, because it’s our writing, we take time to make it good. And I believe that's the key. My students want their writing to look good as well as sound good when they share it with the class. They want their readers to be able to read it. Because its theirs, they are invested and engaged – in writing of all things.
How cool is that?
Mary Ann Cyr
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