An outstanding teacher’s example: A first-grade writers’ workshop

Diverse Elementary ClassBy modeling what it means to be a writer, Maryrita Maier displays extraordinary skill in creating a dynamic community for literacy learning. Joanne Larson, University of Rochester, who researches literacy learning, studied Maier’s classroom for a full year. She found that Maier’s students produce large quantities of complex texts that go far beyond what is commonly expected in first grade. Larson’s purpose was to analyze how Maier models her writing processes so that students begin to copy these processes in their own writing.

Entering Maier’s class at Sodus Primary School, Larson was immediately impressed with the number of children’s books – almost 6,000 – that she has collected during more than 20 years of teaching. Through author and theme studies, guided reading, and read-alouds, Maier makes about 120 books per week available to her students. Students write for at least an hour and a half every day. They write chapter books, songs, poems, and memoirs that are published at a monthly Authors’ Tea. At the final Authors’ Tea of the year, students read their published stories to invited guests in the school auditorium. Each student receives a bound parcel containing every story he or she wrote during the year.

Maier’s students are not simply guided by her as an expert writer; she views them as valuable members of the writing community. Writing, in this environment means becoming an author. And authorship involves active and enthusiastic participation in writing all kinds of text. Maier and her students are co-authors, struggling
over questions and problems and solving them together. Writing decisions are based on understanding the role of the audience and the purpose of the text. Maier composes her stories jointly with the whole class, and she works one-on-one helping students with their stories. Students also help one another.

Year-Long Study

Maier’s is the only first-grade classroom serving an isolated rural area. Fifty percent of her 22 students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Larson selected six students for in-depth observation: three boys and three girls, one pair each of high, average and below-average writing ability. During the entire school year, Larson videotaped the children’s literacy activities on a weekly basis. She then viewed, summarized and coded the tapes to identify key vocal and non-vocal elements. These tapes reveal that both the students and the teacher shifted roles as teacher, author, co-author and observer in discussing text construction.

Reading and writing permeate all classroom activities. Maier integrates all content areas into a curriculum that is grounded in literacy learning. Describing how she creates a close community in her class, she writes: “All can tell you is you need to spend time with them. You need to eat lunch with them. I’m with them a lot. I make time for them. I write to them every day. I know everything about their personal lives I could possibly know. I know the names of their dogs. I know the names of their family members. They know about my family. They know what I like to do. I know what they like to do and I think the familiarity helps. You can’t have a sense of community if you don’t have time, spend time…. You really have to give yourself to them.” The intimacy between the teacher and students in this class is evident throughout the day. They stay and eat lunch family style rather than go to the crowded cafeteria. They freely discuss their lives. Maier radiates the joy of being with her students.

A Typical Day

Maier gets to school an hour before her students. As soon as students arrive, the book exchange begins. This is the home-reading component of her reading program, in which students take home a set of books every night in a zip-lock bag that includes a parent comment form. Students read the books with their parents and bring them back the next day. An aide or parent volunteer checks off the returned books and enters new ones. As this proceeds, students go to their desks to read and respond to Maier’s daily comments in their journals. There is also a math activity to think about and complete. The rest of the morning consists of an integrated math, science, social studies and language arts curriculum. Children are responsible for completing their work and for checking with Maier before going outside for recess.

The reading program has three other parts: shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. Although her classroom is full of boxes of books, she makes books available to students only after she reads them aloud. As she reads books during the day, she places them in baskets and on tables around the room. In this way all available books are familiar to students so they do not sit down with a book that she has not read to them first. The only exception is the current “author of the week,” whose books are made available even though Maier may not have read them all aloud. As students read books, they write their name on post-it notes and put them in the inside covers of the books. Books are filled with colorful notes with the names of all the children who have read them.

The Writing Workshop

The writing period begins when children return from recess. Maier uses a modeled writing activity at the start of each day’s writing period. She never asks students to write until she has written her own story on a big tablet at the front of the class. Students learn about writing conventions such as topic selection, spacing, paragraphing, punctuation, spelling, sequencing, etc., from working with her on her story. She integrates the teaching of these conventions as she makes her own writing processes explicit. She models authorship as a meaningful, interactive process. This is not a five-or-10-minute mini-lesson disguised as writing; she writes real, often lengthy, personal narratives that come from her daily life.

Six discrete segments

Analysis of videotaped writing periods reveals that the modeled-writing activity is divided into six discrete segments: topic selection, picture drawing, writing the story, “I likes,” questions and revision, and student topic announcements. During topic selection, Maier opens the session sitting next to an easel with the children sitting on the carpet in front of her. She says something like “I have sooo many ideas floating around in my head today,” followed by a list of her current ideas. Students participate in this and all segments of her writing. After she has decided on her topic, she writes the date on the top of the page and proceeds to build excitement by drawing a picture as a clue for students. (She phases out the use of picture clues as the year progresses.) Students enthusiastically guess at what she might be drawing. By the time she starts writing, the students are completely focused on the text, waiting excitedly for the tale to unfold. Maier verbalizes her thoughts and actions as she constructs her story. Listening to her audible self-monitoring encourages the children to mimic this process in their own writing. Students participate in writing her story by calling out the next word, offering one another assistance in understanding new words and pointing out writing conventions. Next, the students tell what they like about her story, often pointing out conventions that they are working on in their own stories (spacing, punctuation). The questions-and-revision segment consists of students asking Maier questions about her story that lead her to either explain what she means or to revise her story. Maier consistently praises their rereading/revising strategies as something that “good writers do.”

Dialogue between Maier and her students continues throughout the modeled writing segment. But Maier also shifts to explicit instruction about specific writing conventions as they occur in the course of her writing. She interrupts one story, for example, to teach students the purpose of quotation marks. She briefly shifts roles from author to writing teacher. Maier emphasizes, however, that she rarely introduces new skills while writing a story. About 90 percent of the time she teaches skills by pointing them out in texts already familiar to her students, often flipping back to a previously written story to show them something. She talks a lot, always explaining what she’s thinking and doing.

The “I likes” segment of the activity tells children to think first about what they appreciate in the author’s text before offering suggestions. This protects students when they share their writing. When Maier asks for questions, students model the kinds of questions she has asked them during conferences about their writing. They ask about story detail or sequence of events. She repeats the student’s question as she looks over her story. She frequently revises her writing in response to questions that point out possible improvements. As she changes her text, she models editing tools such as carets or crossing out (What do authors do when they mess up?”) as she enters new sentences or words. And she models an author’s right to reject suggested changes.

Student Writing Time

For the remainder of the 90-minute period, students write at tables of four. Students having difficulty thinking of a topic sit on the sofa for a few minutes. Maier sits with them and asks them questions designed to focus them on a topic. As each child selects a topic, she or he picks up a piece of paper and sits down for the afternoon of writing. Once all students have begun writing, Maier circulates around the room, stopping to work with individual students. Students sitting nearby listen to her conversations and offer suggestions. She always begins with a positive comment about their story. She does not point out grammar or punctuation at first, but focuses her questions on adding story detail. She assumes that the child has the necessary information to add and she uses questions to scaffold his putting these details into the story. Her practice is to let errors go until the piece is published. Then she grounds the teaching of correctness in the context of the reader’s need to understand: “I think invented spelling has its place and that is to allow the writing to happen. But it’s important in first grade …to know that for other people to be able to read their writing, there are times that it needs to be right.”

Spontaneous interaction during student writing time reveals what students are thinking and what they learned from the modeled-writing segment. Maier’s rule “Read to three, then me” fosters a community within which conversations about each other’s writing are an essential part of the learning process. Students control their own interactions and model what they see and hear Maier do. They elicit more story detail, taking into account information a reader would need to comprehend the story. Given this context, these first graders are able to help each other write in sophisticated ways.

A community of authors

Learning to write in Maier’s classroom means learning to become an author and this is linked to becoming a member of a learning community. Good technique is necessary but not sufficient in the teaching of writing. Maier’s concept is that learning to write is an ongoing process of participation in a community of authors. It is an interactive social process. Maier creates an intimate, coherent, predictable, purposeful and interesting environment where language learning takes place.

“Co-Authoring Classroom Texts: Shifting Participant Roles in Writing Activity” Research in the Teaching of English Volume 34, Number 4, May 2000 Pp. 468-497.

Published in ERN September 2000 Volume 13 Number 6.

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