Writing is such a subjective, personal method of expression, which makes teaching writing a very difficult and very humbling act, which was shown very evident through the TEA State results for the 2016-2017 school year. Only 63% of Texas state students in fourth grade could pass the writing state exam, STAAR, which I am sure, is making writing teachers in Texas feel helpless and even a little afraid. After teaching fourth grade writing for five years, coaching a few colleagues through the curriculum, and studying writing toward my masters program, I have discovered a book that has truly helped focus my writing instruction and philosophy.
Jeff Anderson’s book 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know is a gold mine for writing teachers, curriculum writers and instructional coaches. In these next blog posts, I will be taking a part and highlighting ideas from his book while making connections to lesson ideas I have used in my own classroom that have worked to help teach these Important Ideas Writers Need to Know.
‘Zoom in tight on what matters.” – Jeff Anderson
I love this idea, and it is in this idea that makes me excited about teaching writing. I’ve used Lucy Calkins’ Watermelon vs. Seed idea which compares a broad topic to a watermelon full of seeds and the specific, focused idea to a small seed. The students understood that analogy, but I think that Jeff Anderson’s Pizza Slice idea will connect to the students that I teach currently as a pizza is more concrete in their lives than a watermelon. By comparing the broader idea to a large pizza and the more focused idea to a slice of pizza, students will have the opportunity to take a piece of the pie and capture their audience.
‘The more specific you are, the more universal you are.’- Nancy Hale
When teaching ‘details’ to students, I always enjoyed using the ‘popcorn lesson’. https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/5-Senses-Popcorn-Investigation-FREEBIE-1422869
This is a scientific discovery lesson for k-2, but I have always used this to help teach 4th grade students how to write with details. It was always a great HOOK to introduce the idea of writing with clarity to the reader can ‘experience’ the ‘pizza slice’ of what it is you are writing. Jeff Anderson talks about ‘Detail appeals to the senses, making images readers can reach out and touch, see, smell, taste, and feel.’ (Anderson, p. 61). Chapter 4 of his book 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know is about details telling the story in narrative and expository texts. I knew details made a writing piece come alive for the reader, but the way Anderson talks about ‘Show Rather Than Tell’ made me think of the ‘Popcorn Lesson’ I have always taught. The lesson started with me bringing in a popcorn popper to allow students to hear it popping, smell it while it is popping, get the opportunity to taste it, feel it, and see it before taking the time to write about the small moment or the small pizza slice. Not only do students get to experience their writing, they also get to eat it- which I have always found gets students to remember the lesson better: a great Shock and Awe Introduction to detail.
Another idea Anderson talks about in Chapter 4 is building character and setting by “refining our ideas about what effective detail is.” (Anderson, p. 64). He brings in mentor texts to help students identify author’s craft (which is such a great way for students to use reading as a writing focus). I love how he brings in many examples of excerpts and high interest pieces of text to drive the discussion. The Discussion, in which, is driven by author’s craft on how the author reaches his/her goal and why the author did that. The discussion then leads to students having the opportunity to write using those same methods. I think the most important part during this method is allowing the discussion to occur. This connects to everything he spoke about in Chapter 1 and 2; using mentor texts and using conversation to collaborate on the best method. (more in Part 2, coming soon).
Finally, in chapter 4, he shows the reader that it is okay to look beyond the mentor text and utilize other formats to drive the discussion and observation; pictures and songs. Writingfix.com has some really great lesson plans based on the lyrics of the song. One of my favorite lessons is using pictures to prompt the writing http://writingfix.com/classroom_tools/picture_prompts.htm
And another lesson is taking the mentor chapter from Roald Dahl’s Twits (an author I always gravitate toward when trying to model good writing. Roald Dahl has a way with details, figurative language, and humor that always captures my classroom audience.) After reading the chapter about Mr. Twit’s dirty beard, students are asked to sketch a picture of what they saw through the words by the author; moldy green stuff, slime, maggots, and crusty bread are just some of the ideas that make this beard disgustingly beautiful for our 4th grade audience. After each student is finished quietly sketching, they are asked to compare drawings while noticing what is similar in each photo and discussing why each drawing included similar details. http://writingfix.com/Chapter_Book_Prompts/Twits1.htm It is a wonderful lesson to reiterate the importance of detail in writing, collaborating with each other, focusing on author’s craft all while utilizing the published writing of a wonderful mentor author.
Focus and Detail are just 2 of the 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know if they plan on making a change through their words.
Anderson, J. (2011). 10 things every writer needs to know. Portland, Me: Stenhouse Publishers.