I am working in a first grade classroom at a very diverse Title I school in Annapolis with my mentor teacher, Elizabeth. We have pretty diverse demographics with many English Language Learners, various cultural backgrounds and ethnic origins, and a wide range of socioeconomic statuses represented. Of this school’s six first grade classes, our class has an overall higher level class. Almost all of our students are on or above current grade level expectations in most subject areas. This is very beneficial when it comes to teaching writing, because we do not have to focus on more basic, time-consuming concepts such as writing letters. All of our students have experience in writing and write sentences on a daily basis, often multiple times a day.
Elizabeth’s approach to teaching writing closely follows Lucy Calkin’s first grade writing curriculum. Currently, writing is mostly being taught and assessed through personal narratives. These are designed as 3-page packets that include a space for an illustration and a space with lines for about two sentences. When Elizabeth introduced narrative writing at first, she modeled it for the students with her own “small moment story,” before having them brainstorm ideas for their small moment narratives. Elizabeth models the writing process regularly when giving instruction. The writing process that we are focusing on write now is 1. Think (of a small moment or something that happened), 2. Plan (touch, tell, and sketch), 3. Write, 4. Revise. During the planning step in the process, the students touch a page and say what will be written on that page (this is sometimes done with partners, and sometimes involves acting out the small moment), then, they draw a super quick sketch on each page to help them remember what they plan to write about. Usually, the next day students begin step 3, writing. During whole and small group instruction time, Elizabeth reviews how to write a sentence (end punctuation, capital letters, sequence words, adding adjectives and other describing words) regularly.
Elizabeth works with other first grade teachers and staff in the school to plan writing instruction for all students. She plans with ESOL teachers and refers to students’ oral language skill levels. The ESOL teachers are a valuable resource when differentiating for ELL students. Elizabeth also refers to Lucy Calkin’s curriculum that has an “If-Then…” book that helps with differentiating for specific needs and in specific areas. During writing instruction Elizabeth and I have both differentiated writing assignments that are related to a text that was read. We do main idea/detail lessons that involve finding the main idea of a text and identifying key details to support it. The students then create foldables with a different detail on each side. We differentiate foldable expectations based on student needs, so some students will only draw illustrations, some will draw and label, and some will be expected to draw, label, and include a sentence about the detail.
Students write a personal narrative about once a week, in which many elements of writing are incorporated, including the process of writing. Narratives are assessed or evaluated based on the students ability to write a story containing at least two sequential details or parts, use capital letters at the beginning of sentences, use end punctuation marks, write at least one sentence per page, and include describing words. The class is currently struggling with punctuation, capital letters, and adding describing words, so Elizabeth taught lessons that covered those three elements last week. Because so much of student learning as they progress to higher grade levels, is dependent on student ability to read and write, we put a lot of emphasis on language arts in first grade. Our morning (9:15am-11am) is devoted to language arts. During this time, the mentor usually teaches a quick lesson, students then transition to literacy centers while Elizabeth and I work with guided reading groups, and she then teaches a more lengthy lesson. Two to three times a week, our schedule allows for an extra 30 minutes of language arts (usually literacy centers or writing instruction) in the afternoon, also.
Elizabeth gives the students various kinds of writing assignments. Three-page personal narratives (or “small moment stories”) are effective in monitoring student progress in writing and give the teacher a good idea of what areas she needs to focus instruction on. We have a literacy center called “Work on Writing” where students have a prompt on the wall, such as “One day…” and spend time writing in their journals using that specific prompt. Another center, titled “Word Work,” focuses on high frequency words and gives students the opportunity to use various manipulatives to practice building and writing the words. As I mentioned before, students create foldables with two-three details from a text (including beginning, middle, end foldables) that involve drawing, labeling, and writing sentences. We have also introduced comparison of two texts, and students created and filled out a double bubble map after reading the text.
As mentioned previously, the students engage in multiple facets of the writing process, including topic choice, planning, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. Students usually spend a day planning what they will write about before they even write. They touch each page and “tell” what they will write (sometimes this is done with a partner, and partners ask each other questions about their writing ideas to build more descriptive ideas and elaborate). Part of the planning process is to quickly sketch on each page to help students remember what they plan to write there. After the planning piece, students write (usually the next day), which would be considered their draft. Next, students reread and revise their work. The goal during revision is to focus on adding detail such as describing words, improving sentences (punctuation, capital letters), using sequencing words and phrases, etc. Sometimes students use revision strips, but we are teaching them other editing strategies for adding words. (We also do not put a lot of critical emphasis on spelling during writing assignments, yet.) Not all writing assignments are displayed when completed, but currently we have two assignments that are displayed in and outside of the classroom. A butterfly comparison graphic organizer is being displayed in the hallway, and a sun collage that has labeled pictures is being displayed on the unit board in the classroom. Students are very excited to see their work in the classroom.
When I consider the writing instruction in my field placement, I am very impressed by the planning process that the first grade team of teachers and other specialized teachers work through. They are very collaborative and I believe it results in effective instruction for ALL students. I think it is so great that the students have so much choice in what they write about when they create personal narratives. Almost always, they are encouraged to think of an idea all on their own (that has to do with their life or something that they did) for each narrative writing piece. I believe that giving more free choice to the students in writing helps them enjoy and become more interested in their writing. However, I do know that sometimes the students get stumped and have trouble coming up with ideas. Having a few sample prompts or sample topics that may spark ideas would be beneficial for students, and they may get more excited when they finally decide what they want to write about. Overall, I think that Elizabeth’s writing instruction promotes effective use of the writing process, free choice, and supports all learning.
I think Elizabeth sees everything that she has to make time for during instruction throughout the day, and does her best to make writing a priority. If lunch, recess, specials, and transitions did not take up so many hours of the day, she would probably give an hour specifically to writing (even if broken into parts) and be able to allow students to get through more than one step of the writing process each day. I think she tries to make up for it by incorporating writing into daily literacy centers, and other reading/writing lessons. With the majority of students on or above grade level, I believe she is beginning to expect more from the students and will be taking instruction and writing procedures to a new level.
One instructional strategy that I have seen being used very little, is shared writing. I think this idea of creating a piece of writing (whether it be a relevant topic to the curriculum or just a free choice/random topic) together that includes something from everyone in the classroom has great potential to increase student motivation and spark more interest in writing. By seeing their idea, something that they came up with, and their name, on the board in a writing piece gives them identity and builds a sense of community and collaboration in writing, along with being equitable. In our class, we are starting to give instruction to the students about adding describing words. We have created a circle map of feeling adjectives in which student ideas were used, and refer to the chart during the third process (writing) of our writing process. However, I think it would be beneficial to create a new circle map each week of different types of describing words. One that the text mentions, is sensory adjectives or writing to appeal to the senses. I think that this would be a good topic to touch on and that the students would be interested in coming up with words about how things smell, look, feel, sound, and taste. We could create a circle map of word ideas and display both that, and the other circle map during their narrative writing time. The downside to doing this may be that it takes up time that may not be set aside for writing.
If I were taking over the class tomorrow, I think that the change I would make would be to implement more shared writing experiences. We have a more than a few students that lack confidence and motivation in independent writing, and I believe that implementing writing as whole group, involving ideas of all students will greatly influence their enjoyment level and interest in writing.
This reflective process informs my perspective on the elements of writing instruction because it required me to look for and examine parts of my mentor’s writing instruction that I hadn’t given much attention to before. It has been a beneficial experience and I am excited about what I have learned and how this knowledge of planning and implementing writing instruction will make me a more effective learner in my field placement.