When we moved from our cramped New York City apartment to our house in Vermont two years ago, there were many big changes and a lot to learn. Our house had many features that we had never had before: a yard, a garage, a mailbox, a deck , a water filtration system… In the midst of all this new house-related information to learn, the thing that I was the MOST excited for was the garden.
We moved in to our house in October of that year, so I had all of fall and winter to read books, browse websites, talk to friends who garden, to gather up all kinds of information. Then, in the spring, as soon as the snow began to melt I went to work in my garden…. sort of.
The problem was that all the reading and talking and thinking in the world wasn’t the same as having somebody to show me, in person, how to do certain tasks. The directions on the seed packets said cryptic things like:
Huh? I had a million questions. How “well lighted” does it have to be? What does “sow seeds” actually mean? What is “seed starting formula?” Keep moist? How moist? “Before transplanting” — how do you transplant? What does “indeterminate” mean? And aren’t tomatoes supposed to have cages? I needed someone who knew what they were doing to come over and show me how to do this stuff before I totally wrecked my first garden. I needed some demonstration.
The way I felt about starting my first garden is probably how a lot of kids feel during writing workshop when we give mysterious directions to “add more detail” or “grab the reader’s interest.” The language many of us use during writing workshop probably makes perfect sense to adults–but for kids we need to be more explicit. Teaching just by telling is not enough.
In most writing conferences, small groups, and minilessons, I try to demonstrate my teaching point for kids. Instead of just telling them a new strategy to try, I name it, and then I show them what I mean. I might show them in my own writing and then have them try it out in their writing. I might show them using a mentor text, or I might use a shared story to demonstrate my point.
Four Types of Demonstration Texts:
Mentor Texts: A published book or text written by a professional author. Mentor texts are usually books that are very familiar to the students, and are referred to again and again for various strategies authors use.
Shared Writing: A text written together with the students. In shared writing, the students usually come up with the ideas, and then the teacher writes them down on chart paper. See this older post for more info on shared writing.
Teacher Writing: I carry my own writing folder and/or writing notebook with me at all times during writing workshop so that I can use it for demonstration during conferring and small group work. I usually have several pieces of writing at various stages of completion and various levels of sophistication. I love being able to say, “I just happen to be working on something a lot like yours…” Then I can demonstrate a strategy using my own writing before I ask a kid to try something on her own.
Student Writing: I find that sharing an example from another kid is the most powerful type of demonstration text. There’s is something about a kid seeing an example that visually looks just like something they might have created themselves that makes an impression on kids.
P.S. I eventually did figure out how to plant my garden that year, thanks to lots of help from YouTube and the kind and patient staff at our local gardening center. Plus, I learned the hard way that the word “indeterminate” is actually pretty important if you’re going to grow tomatoes! I wound up doing a lot of tying up and pruning back that year!
Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.