Actions, Reactions, Interactions, and Transactions
In my post Becoming a Writer, I discussed the experiences which have contributed to the way I see the teaching and learning of writing. In my opinion, successful teaching and learning happens in an environment in which teachers allow students to take action for their own reasons, react to the students’ needs in a positive, supportive matter that takes into account the students’ resources, and provide opportunities for students to transact with other students, with the teacher, and with the curriculum they are studying in meaningful, productive ways.
During my first year as a teacher, I spent most of the time correcting my third graders’ grammar. At the end of these grammar-focused correcting marathons, both the students and I were frustrated with each other. From their viewpoint, I had made too many corrections and had erased any ownership of their work. From my viewpoint, they still needed to learn English language rules for academic purposes.
One Monday afternoon after school, I found one of the papers in the trash can. A student commented “Mister, it’s easier to start again, too much to correct.”
Thinking back, I now see that his reaction and those of other students were warranted. I was the one transacting with the papers, not the students. From that point forward, I no longer focused on delineating all the errors; I instead focused on two or three that I could address with the help of mini-lessons.
This change made a significant difference for student writing in two ways. First, students kept ownership of their papers. Second, they focused attention on how they could improve a few specific areas, and embraced the process of writing.
As time went by, I learned that literacy in the early grades was about giving students a voice to explore their own questions. I learned to ask more questions about what my students were trying to say, and to help them find a way to say it. I focused more on promoting student interaction among the students, between the students and me, and between students and the texts they were reading. I became good at setting the stage for students to take an active role in the classroom, and as a result, my students were participants in all the activities.
One challenge I've continued to work with through my years as an elementary teacher and now as university faculty has been moving from creating opportunities for students to interact with one another to helping them create meaningful transactions (Rosenblatt, 1978) for each other. I'd like to talk about this further in my next post.
Writing about these experiences helps me keep in mind the most important lessons I've learned as a teacher:
- As teachers, we should spend less time correcting papers and more time conferring with students about their writing.
- When correcting papers, it's most effective if we focus on two or three key areas to improve student writing—more, in this case, is not better.
- In the classroom, all writers can experience success if we give them meaningful opportunities.
Of course I learn too from my colleagues. Talking and sharing about teaching practices with colleagues in person, and online as part of the Northstar Writing Project team, is helping me push my reflections about writing instruction to a new level.
What have been your experiences working with young writers? Have you found it valuable to share observations and reflections about instruction with your colleagues?
If you're willing to offer your thoughts, I hope you'll join the conversation via the Comments box below.
Explore these additional resources from the Literacy in Learning Exchange:
- Take a step-by-step tour of a virtual protocol for looking at students' writing.
- Read Cathy Tower's inquiry into how educators can improve nonfiction writing instruction in What’s the Purpose? Students Talk about Writing in Science.
- Eileen Murphy Buckley believes examining student writing collaboratively is a powerful way to effect school change.