A week ago, I was doing some school work while my daughter sat at a nearby desk with a pencil and drew pictures of birds. After a while she said she wanted to draw a parrot next. “But,” she said, “I think I need crayons for this one. People won’t know this is a parrot without all the colors.” When I heard this, I was impressed. Even at three years old, she was thinking about her intentions as an artist and the needs of her audience and then making choices accordingly.
Now, let me flashback to last spring. As I was preparing to spend a week at Nancie Atwell’s school, the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, Maine, I was rereading part of In the Middle. It was a passage where Atwell writes about a day at lunch when she asked the other teachers to list the genres they studied in their writing workshops. I noticed something new this time: Atwell, who was the head of the school, had to ask what genres teachers taught, implying that she didn’t already have a list of them. It didn’t sound like they had a comprehensive plan for what to teach from one grade to the next.
During my time at CTL, I asked Glenn and Anne, the current writing teachers of grades five through eight, about this. I wondered how many decisions were made as a whole staff and how many were made by individual teachers. Did they have a scope and sequence for teaching writing? To paraphrase their response, they said that while they are aware of what everyone else is doing, individual teachers make many of these decisions. Everyone does start the year with poetry, everyone writes memoirs, and everyone writes some type of fiction, but otherwise, teachers make decisions based on their knowledge of writing, the developmental level of the age they teach, and their individual students.
Before all of this, I used to think that scope and sequence was crucial, that if my school’s writing curriculum was more organized from year-to-year, this would make all the difference for our students as writers. Now, as I’ve continued to reflect and watch my students at work, I’ve realized that scope and sequence, while having some value, is less important than I used to think. Instead, what matters, is helping students learn to think like writers and develop the habits of writers.
These habits and this thinking develop from authentic writing opportunities, opportunities to not just choose topics, but also to pursue their intentions and purposes as writers and to write for real audiences. Students need as many chances to write as possible, chances to plan, experiment, draft, read and revise, read and revise some more, get stuck and work their way through problems, edit, and do all the other things that writers might do. And, at least some of the time, they need chances to do all of these things without the pressure of a deadline.
When students have an authentic purpose and audience—besides impressing the teacher to get a good grade—and they have the time to figure out how to best fulfill their intentions as writers—with a little guidance from a teacher who understands how writers work—they will learn how to write. And, if they learn how to read like writers, how to read high-quality examples of a new genre closely to notice how that genre works and how writers craft it, students will then be able to take their experiences and apply them in future years to any type of writing that is introduced to them. Even if it’s a type of writing that they weren’t directly prepared for in a previous grade.
It’s our job as writing teachers, then, to create these opportunities, to allow students to develop these habits by making the choices professional writers make every day, to think about their writing like my daughter was thinking about her drawing. When this happens, students will grow as writers and will be prepared for any type of writing they have to complete in the future.
my daughter’s parrot