Stella Villalba teaches English as a Second Language at Beechwood Elementary in Columbus, Ohio. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she started her career in education teaching ESL in Asuncion, Paraguay. Stella also publishes articles on the topic of teaching ELLs at Choice Literacy and is a teacher consultant for the Columbus Area Writing Project. Stella keeps a teaching blog called “My World/Mi Mundo.” Stella loves to write while enjoying a delicious American breakfast.
“I get by with a little help from my friends.” The Beatles remind us with this song that we all need somebody regardless of what we do. We live in a community and we depend on one another to grow and build on each other’s strengths. That’s my personal philosophy in life that I try to carry with me in the classroom. Teaching writing to English language learners, or ELLs, through a writing workshop framework is like building a community of writers where we grow and build on each other’s strengths.
During writing workshop we count not only on each other’s support, but we also invite authors to come into our workshop time and share their writing lives with us. You might be thinking, “Wow, how can the school afford all those authors visits?” Well, the magic of making this happen relies on you my dear teacher friend. Last year, my younger writers grew as writers with the help, experience, and words of Todd Parr, Mo Willems, Amy K. Rosenthal, Jan Thomas, among other authors. They never visited our classroom physically, but we felt their presence by reading their books every day.
Writing time for my younger writers includes an in-depth year-long study of the authors whose books, words, and lives we study, analyze, and discuss. I believe an important component to any workshop model is immersion in children’s literature. I read books aloud to my students by authors we are studying. We read books over and over and over. We allow ourselves to get completely soaked with authors’ words. First, we allow them to entertain us before we start reading books like writers and asking ourselves the key question, “What do you notice about how this is written?” Understanding this concept of immersion in reading, as a teacher of writing, is very important to me. I can’t expect my young writers to understand how something is written before they have enjoyed that piece of writing as readers first.
Once we have soaked up the works of a particular author, the magic conversation happens… We start a discussion of how we envision ourselves making that kind of writing. This envisioning part is critical since it allows students to see themselves as writers. It allows them to imagine the possibilities of creating a piece of work inspired by the craft of another writer. It is this kind of writing life I intentionally work on every year so my students understand and begin to live this way.
Another important ingredient in a model like this is the use of consistent language so students understand what is expected of them and the kind of thinking it would be happening in this kind of environment. By asking every day, “What do you notice about how this is written?” or by asking frequently, “what can I learn from this that I might try in my writing?” we are facilitating higher-level thinking processes in our classrooms.
It is my goal and my intention that my ELLs will grow their knowledge of authors’ work, their style, and their craft. In addition, I want them to gain an understanding of how important it is to read other people’s work in order to understand and grow as writers. Teaching students to keep themselves accountable for this kind of learning is also critical. When I confer with students, I like to ask them a simple yet powerful question, “What did you try today as a writer?” It is no surprise to hear my students describe their work and mention an author who inspired them.
Today, I invite you fellow teachers, bloggers, writers, and lovers of words to invite an author into your classroom so you can allow for this kind of magic to develop and grow. A wonderful starting point for further reading and understanding is About the Authors by Katie Wood Ray. She explores this topic in depth by working side by side with Lisa Cleaveland.
But most importantly, I invite you to bring your own writing life into the classroom and share your thinking with your students. After all, a community of writers is only going to get stronger with the help of other fellow writers like you.