GUEST BLOG POST: Taking Time for Reflection.

Julie Johnson, the author of Raising Readers and Writers, has taught for 20 years in both special and general education.  She currently teaches third grade in Hilliard City Schools where she finds great pleasure  integrating reading and writing workshop with technology. She is the 2010 recipient of the Donald Graves Excellence in Teaching Writing Award given annually by NCTE.  Julie’s love of writing took seed when she participated in the 2007 Summer Institute of the Columbus Area Writing Project, an affiliate of National Writing Project.

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.  ~Robert Louis Stevenson

I am an avid gardener, although I spend most of time chasing after weeds!  This spring, I’ve been spending an extraordinary amount of time trying to conquer the prolificacy of weeds that have crept through my garden and flowerbeds in readiness for our son’s graduation party.  Being outside by myself with Mother Nature gives me plenty of opportunity to reflect on the school year.   Have I planted the seeds that will follow my students as they continue to grow as learners?

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what went well and what I want to do differently next year.  Since this is my first year teaching third grade, I know that some projects are keepers.  We collaborated with another third grade class in our district to research our community’s history, where we ultimately co-authored a book and published it using blurb.com.  My students became seasoned bloggers.  What an eye-opener it’s been to see the different topics they chose to write about.  We had blogs about weird and gross animals, family and pet stories, book reviews, and favorite sports.  Through blogging, I’ve been able to peek into my students’ lives and learn more about who they are outside of school.  We just finished creating a digital poetry anthology, which has been a huge success.  The integration of technology, allowing students choice in topic, genre, and publication style has been pivotal in building a strong writing community.

Of course, there are things that I will do differently too.  Usually after launching writing workshop, I begin our first genre study with personal narratives.  As I reflect on the type of writing the majority of students choose to do independently, they most often opt for informational text.  I had begun the previous year with my first graders immersed in informational text and I found it to be a great way to build community and common vocabulary with my class.  Next year, I will delve into informational text with my students for our first genre study and move into personal narrative, as they become more sophisticated writers.

As I reflected on my teaching, I became curious about the responses I might get from my students when I asked them to reflect on their progress as writers.  As we gathered on the carpet, I told them that I was wondering about how they thought they had grown as writers.  They looked at me with blank stares… grow as a writer?  What the heck was I asking of them?  We began slowly by going through their writer’s notebooks and writing folders.  I began to hear whispers like, “Oh, I remember when we did this.”  “I liked drawing a map of a special place.  It makes me think about going to my grandma’s house in the summer.”  They were warming up and beginning to see their writing journey. We charted their thinking: where writers get ideas, revision strategies, what we learned in different genre studies, favorite authors, and special writing projects.  The energy in the room was palpable as students shared their writing memories.

Next, I asked them to write me a letter answering the following questions:

  • How have you grown (changed) as a writer this year?
  • What have you learned as a writer?
  • What have you enjoyed in writing?  Why?
  • What are you good at as a writer?
  • How would you like to improve as a writer?
  • What will you write next?

Their answers were carefully thought out and deeply reflective.  I’d like to share a few excerpts with you.

A, an ELL student from Jordan has lived in the Unites States for almost two years.  He began the year as an emergent reader, knowing only a few letters of the alphabet and writing a string of letters (not necessarily corresponding to the sounds he heard) that represented his thinking.  He said to me in his letter:

Dear Mrs. Johnson,

[At the beginning of the year] I can’t maik no sens. (I can’t make no sense) You helpt me.  I can make sentns (sentences).  I learned my abc.  I ingjoyed (enjoyed) witing (writing) about sharks.  I love them.  I will writing about octopusi. (octopi)

I’ll tell you, my heart was leaping for joy when he read this to me.  This is a young boy who has learned that writing is powerful!

From one of my students who has grown immensely as a writer:

Dear Mrs. Johnson,

When I was just in third grade, I did not like writing at all and my sentences were like this – I like my dad.  I like my mom. – and they didn’t have much detail.  Now I can do a story reread it and add as much detail as I want.

Probably my favorite thing in writing is reading it after it is done because I love to see what I did different from my last story and what I need to work on.  I think I’m good at detail.  If I am writing about a frog and I want to write from the point of view of a frog, well, I can just do that. I’m pretty good at that.

I want to start a story of my own series.

C. is a student who is not afraid to take risks as a writer.  Her writing is varied and she has found her voice this year.

G. is an ELL student that I had as a first grader also.  His comment…Wrighting (writing) takes time.  Hallelujah!  This revelation was huge for him!  He learned that good writing doesn’t just happen.  It takes a lot of work (which means rereading and revising!).

Overwhelmingly, as I read the letters, I found key elements:

  • Students like having choice in topics and genre.
  • Non-fiction writing was a favorite.
  • Using technology to publish work helped engage students in the writing process.
  • It’s hard to revise, but it’s important.
  • Many students thought they needed to improve on using stronger, more vivid words.

And future writing pieces?  I wanted them to know that writing is important during summer vacation.  Some of their ideas:

  • Completing the series of books started this year (or starting a new series)
  • Poetry anthology on sports
  • Research on bearded dragons (or sharks or octopi)
  • Science fiction book
  • Fiction story

I believe I planted the seeds that will stay with them forever.  My students have seen first hand that their words have power.  There is no stopping them now!

NOTE: All of my students have permission to have their photographs published.