Holding a list in his hand, my fifth grade teacher looked out at all of us. “Okay, those of you signed up for beginning band, please take your instruments and go with Mr. Scirocco.” Eagerly, a handful of my classmates and I stood and made our way to the side of the classroom to pick up variantly sized music cases. Straining under the weight, I grabbed my father’s old, brown leather-covered saxophone case and followed our new band teacher out of the school to the church across the street (no, our school did not have a bandroom). So excited, I couldn’t wait to start playing– in a band, even! Once arriving in the church basement where our first lesson would begin, I opened up the brown case. In shock and horror, I gazed at the gleaming saxophone parts. “It’s in. . . pieces?” I thought, panicking as I had expected it to look like… well, a saxophone. Suddenly a reassuring hand touched my shoulder, Mr. Scirocco’s hand. “Let me show you how to put that together. You can do it.”
For many of us, June is a time for new resolutions. It’s not exactly like September, a time when we feel great anticipation for the students that will come walking through our door in a few days or hours; nor is it like January the First, a time when we take stock, declaring new goals and ways of being for ourselves for the coming calendar year. No, for educators June typically evokes a unique reflective spirit born of metacognition. We think back. We look forward. And I venture to guess, a great many of us think to ourselves, “What worked well this year? And what might I try next year that will make my teaching of writing even stronger?”
For me, I am currently thinking about ways to better leverage parent support. Parents can be a tremendous educational resource. Yet, in middle school it can be challenging, as developmentally our students are beginning to morph from children into young adults. Leveraging parent support has sometimes felt like opening my saxophone case for the first time– I want to put this thing together so I can begin to create something great, but I just don’t know how. And in my twenty-four plus years of experience in education, I have learned that when it comes to supporting writers at home, many parents feel the same way. Parents often want to support their adolescent writers, but are not sure the best way to do so.
Thinking about next year, I have drafted some ideas for partnering with parents on how to help their kids become stronger writers. How might parents provide support in the way writing workshop teachers believe is most helpful? Here are a few ideas:
- Teach the writer, don’t fix the writing. It is more than likely that the majority of our parents did not grow up in writing workshops. Much of my experience as a student writer in elementary and middle school consisted of a heavy focus on making sure the writing was “correct” (e.g., “You need a period there,” and “That sentence is too long, so fix it.”). This kind of coaching will often result in stronger writing, but not necessarily stronger writers. As author and staff developer Carl Anderson once said, “The old thinking was that if [adults] are editors, correct everything and punish students for incorrectness, they will learn how to write; the fallacy there is that [adults] already know how to write.” So, what if we helped parents think about helping kids as writers? Of course, it is unrealistic to think parents who are not trained as professional teachers of writing could magically take on such a role. That said, what if we spent some time clarifying our vision for writing instruction, including the concept of “supporting the writer”? What if we provided some helpful prompts? In her article entitled, “Parents as Writing Partners” (Educational Leadership, April 2014), Mary Ehrenworth offers prompts to support parents in helping kids, for example, rehearse their writing, such as (I’ve selected just a few):
- “How will your (story/essay/article) go?”
- “What do you want your reader to know right away?”
- “What will be the most important moment/part in the piece?”
Such prompts are transferable and can support kids in thinking through how their writing piece will or might unfold.
We might also consider teaching parents how to support writers in saying more in their writing. In her article, Ehrenworth points out that kids will often say much more than they will write. So we can teach parents other transferable phrases to say (see article for more ideas), such as this suggested prompt from Mary Ehrenworth (2014),
- “There was one thing you said that was really cool…It was…Do you want to get that in there?” (Educational Leadership, p. 26)
Whatever prompts we come up with, the big message is that as teachers, mentors, and parents, we want to always be thinking about teaching our writers, not fixing their writing for them.
- Nurture your young writer’s identity. The concept of a “writerly identity” is conceivably a foreign concept to our parents. As a literacy leader, this has me thinking about ways I can help parents support their kids’ identities as writers. In a school setting, this can mean such things as: (1) validating a writer’s ideas; (2) complimenting something specific about a writer’s piece; (3) acknowledging a writer’s efforts. Generally speaking, it means making a student’s writerly endeavors the important subject of multiple conversations. What if we taught parents to do this kind of work at home? We might provide such stems as:
- “Wow, so one thing I think is so great about your writing is . . .”
- “You know, that’s a cool idea. I’m noticing you have such great ideas when you write, like that time when . . .”
- “Gosh, you can write so much more than you used to!”
- “Writing is so tough, but I’ve noticed you working hard at it lately/this year, which is so important!”
Most of us know how vital it is that kids see themselves as writers. Partnering with parents on forwarding this notion, then, seems like a good idea.
- Build a vision of what improvement looks like. Not all parents may share our vision of what becoming a stronger writer looks like. As Ehrenworth writes (2014), “Often, kids and parents are working in a kind of void, without any clear notion of how to raise the level of writing.” (Educational Leadership, p. 26) She suggests that as educators, we provide access to tools that will support a vision of what strong writing can look like, such as exemplars and checklists. We can also teach parents the value of practice and volume, as these factors are often overlooked or not even considered when helping writers at home.
For the last few years, I have co-hosted a Family Literacy Night at my school, in an effort to generate enthusiasm around literacy and provide parents resources and information about supporting readers. This coming fall, I am hoping to include support for writing, as well. As a fifth grader, I really wanted to learn to play the saxophone. But without Mr. Scirocco there to show me how to attach a reed to a mouthpiece, affix the neck to the body, curl my bottom lip beneath the reed before blowing, etc. it just would not have ever happened. In a similar way, I am realizing that as educators we can help parents know how to support writers at home, perhaps through:
- school literacy events
- attachments in email blasts
- social media
- other home communication
By doing so, we will be taking an important step in supporting our writers. Here’s to June Resolutions!