Teaching Kids to Write About What They Know! - National Council of Teachers of English
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Teaching Kids to Write About What They Know!

The following blog by Dolores S. Perez is reprinted from the NCLE Literacy in Learning Exchange, where it was originally posted in the online group Write for Texas.   

The Write for Texas group is focusing their collaborative inquiry on writing instruction in all content areas, grades 6 –12. To see updates on their learning, visit their NCLE group page and click Follow. (If you don’t yet have a free account, you’ll need to create one here.)

So, I teach fourth grade in Texas. That in itself should tell you that I spend an enormous amount of time teaching writing to students who, based on their initial writing samples from the first days of school, had probably never been pushed to write as much as they have this year. This year, I changed my approach — tweaked it, if you will — to allow students more time to prime and polish their work.

In a nutshell, I asked them to spend more time in the idea development and planning stage, and another chunk of time in the revision and editing phase, in order to bring their writing up to par.

Mind you, this year I decided I would “work smarter, not harder.”  Even though my students are not churning out as many essays as I have required in the past, they seem to be revisiting pieces they created this year with more purpose, just like good writers do.

End products of this measure seems to be that they dread writing less than ever before, they keep their editing and revising lessons at the back of their minds as they write, and they seem to be warming up to the idea of using some sort of structure in order to crank out one of two types of writing: expository and the personal narrative.

In the idea development phase, I ask them to write about what they know, to use the language of the experience or discipline in order to sound like the expert they sometimes overlook in themselves. A case in point: while reading a personal narrative, it was very clear to me that the young girl who wrote about spending a wonderful day at Disney World had never stepped foot in the place. I could tell that the details were very much on the surface, extracted from a Disney commercial or maybe from something she had seen online. Although I told her she could make up a narrative as long as it was realistic, it just didn’t make for interesting reading.

After pulling her in for a conference, I started asking her about some of the places she visits locally. She mentioned an orchard, a panaderia (Mexican bakery) and the Pulga (the local flea market). Somehow, she thought that the place she should write about had to be of “substance,” or have a BAM effect! DisneyWorld seemed to be that kind of place, but I reminded her that the vivid details and vocabulary emerge when she writes about something she knows.

I pulled out the picture book by Carmen Lomas Garza called En Mi Familia, and proceeded to show the pictures of how her grandmother prepares chicken soup, the illustrations of the church fair, the backyard birthday cookouts I remember so well, a visit to South Padre Island where I remember recounting the time we ate bologna sandwiches with sand and cut open a large watermelon my mother kept on ice the whole afternoon. I made clear that writing from experience is the best way to write, the only way really.

When I read the same girl’s story the next day, about visiting a local flea market, she described the colorful bottles of a sugary syrup used to flavor “raspas,” or snow cones. She wrote about walking from one row to the next, playing with the many chicks in coops, picking up heavy used tools for sale on a fold-out table, and the many herbs her grandmother purchased for her garden. I vividly pictured the “papa spiral,” or spiraled fried potato, on a stick smothered in red chili powder, or the corn in a cup, bathed in melted butter, mayonnaise, with chili on top. Yes, everything at the “flea” has chili on top. I knew this girl was on her way to writing like the expert she did not know she was (is).

I also read Xavier’s story about going fishing for the first time at a pier, placing a bacon-wrapped slice of bologna on a hook, and casting the line over his shoulder for the first time. He wrote about using the right kind of lures, a Styrofoam float, the tackle box, and the type of curved knife he used to “gut” the fish. He made a distinction between the thickness of the nylon string he used for fishing, and how important it was to use the right kind, lest the fish snap the line.

Don’t get me wrong, all this doesn’t happen organically! Writing with students who are not used to writing is sometimes painful, and reading some of those first drafts sometimes feels like I may never see the light at the end of the tunnel. Slowly, but surely, a little flicker begins to appear . . . sometimes it doesn’t.

We push on.

Dolores (Lola) S. Perez is a fourth-grade Bilingual teacher in the Brownsville ISD, and a member of the Sabal Palms Writing Project. She can be reached at Dsantperez@att.net.

Related resources on writing instruction from the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE):