A Close Observation

Don Graves said, “If you want to understand how children write, then observe them closely. Write down everything they do and say. Then make a copy of their writing.” This statement was shared at NCTE and it is one that is sticking with me.

Since then, I’ve closely observed 7 primary students. I’ve studied each writer for 10 – 15 minutes, writing down everything they do or say. I’ve asked them a few questions, but for the most part, I’ve tried to stay quiet. Here are my notes from a second grade student. I wrote them first in my notebook, then made a copy of his writing and transferred my notes to the copy. This helped me spend some time reflecting on the experience.

I’ve gone into these observations with this question: What are these young writers teaching me about writing? I’ve observed a variety of writers, from those with little experience to those with a lot of experience. And now I’m looking for the answer to this question.

Here are a few of my initial thoughts:

  1. Most students are working through the entire writing process. They revise by returning to the picture and then to the words. Many young writers are adding to the end of a part/page, therefore, I often miss this as a revision because I assume it was part of the first draft. (I consider something a revision when a student has moved on, then comes back to a previous part, rereads, and makes a change.)
  2. Some of the students who struggle the most are editing the most. I was surprised by the number of edits the least experience writers do. They used different strategies for spelling, stretched the same word a number of times, and added or eliminated punctuation and capitalization. In the end their writing still wasn’t standard, and if I met with them at that point in time, I would be tempted to have an editing conference. Little would I know they had already spent a lot of energy editing their work.
  3. Primary writers work through the process quickly. Although I knew this, I’m beginning to have a deeper understanding of how fast their process is. This makes me realize the importance of helping them s l o w   d o w n  and be more intentional about their writing work. Still, there is a fine balance between slowing writers down and taking away their natural process of creating books.
  4. I would encourage all writing teachers to spend some time in close observation of their students. Instead of conferring with four students during work time, spend time in close observation of one student, then confer with two more. Over the course of a week, you would  be able to observe five different writers and have a deeper understanding of their work as writers.

I’m still reflecting and trying to answer the question: What are these young writers teaching me about writing? I’d love to hear from you if you take the time for a close observation — what are YOUR students teaching you about writing?