The importance of exercising writing regularly
“Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.”
— Jane Yolen
The parallels between writing and exercise are so many it is almost scary. Take the following sentence – How much time do your students spend writing each day? Only include time where students are generating the writing themselves, (not scribing). Now substitute the word exercise for writing, you for students and watching for scribing. The parallels continue; the need for frequent periods of writing/exercise during a week to build a habit, warm ups and variety to maintain interest and build the intensity.
Growing the habit: Donald Graves stresses students need to be engaged in writing at least four days out of five, and for a period of thirty-five to forty minutes, beginning in first grade. This supports students to learn to think through the medium of writing. Three days a week are not sufficient. There are too many gaps between the starting and stopping of writing for this schedule to be effective. Nikki Grimes, children’s author, supports this. “You can’t be good at it without doing it a lot.” http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/author-nikki-grimes-exercises
Warming up: This is what our modelling and mini lessons allows for. Gentle stretches for the writing muscles. ‘I do then you do’ – a new skill, craft, planning tool or convention. Maybe a Quick Write or a Think Feel Wonder to ‘change it up a bit’.
Variety: Are you an assigner or a teacher of writing? Is it all genre based with little student choice or do you diversify with student choice through Writer’s Notebook, journals or Project Based Learning? Along-side time, choice is essential for building engagement and commitment to a habit of writing.
I have just been speaking to mum on the phone about a boy she works with at school. She wanted some advice on a situation that occurred with him last week at school. My Mum is an integration aide (or an ESO in the new language) and is currently working in a grade 4/5 class. She described the situation to me and it turns out it was a scenario that is no doubt played out in schools every day around the globe: A boy has been asked to write on a specific topic, he wants to write about something else, he is told he must write on the chosen topic and in the end he cracks it with the world and ends up writing next to nothing for the entire lesson. Does this scene sound familiar to you?
When Mum finished describing the scene I asked her to ponder the original aim of the lesson. Was the intention of the lesson to teach the child to follow instructions or was it to help him improve his writing? In the case of the lesson in question I would think that the aim was firstly to get the students writing (as it is only 2 weeks in to the school year) and secondly to then use this writing as a basis for improvement. The fact that the boy lost his temper and ended up writing very little not only means that the lesson intention was not met, but that the precedent for the tone of future writing lessons has now been set in this boy’s mind. To help Mum with her dilemma I read the following excerpt to her from Ralph Fletcher’s Book ‘Boy Writers: Reclaiming their Voices’ (p45)
“Boys crave choice when they write. I surveyed nearly five hundred boys, trying to unearth their attitudes and experiences about writing, both in and out of school. At the end of the survey I asked them to complete this sentence: “When we write in school I wish we were allowed to…” The overwhelming response to this question was a plea for more choice.
- Create our own topic.
- Write whatever we want.
Here’s a radical idea: let’s bring choice back to the writing classroom. Just let them write. I don’t know a better first step to create an environment that will engage our boy writers.”
I love this paragraph as it really makes us wonder why on earth we don’t let students (and boys in particular) choose what they want to write. It is so obvious! Kids love sharing their oral stories with others- just think of the buzzing atmosphere on a Monday morning as the students excitedly share their stories from the weekend (or the even more excited atmosphere after the holidays). Why is it then that when we get to the writing lesson that we only let them write about topics we have chosen for them? It makes sense to let students select their own topics as it means they will be automatically engaged with the topic, a situation in which quality and quantity can only be winners!
This situation is another mark on the board for why teachers should introduce a Writer’s Notebook to their students. If students spend the first few weeks of the school year writing about things that are important to them in their Writer’s Notebook not only will they have a collection of ‘starting points’ for further mandatory genre studies lessons (aka NAPLAN preparation lessons), they will develop a positive attitude towards writing itself and, in an environment where attitude determines altitude, the value of this can never be underestimated.