Tag Archives: discovery drafts

How Come?

Why do most primary and elementary teachers view “writing a complete sentence” as the gold standard for student writing?  Why do kindergarten teachers press emerging writers for complete sentences to the point where they prefer one copied from a chart over one piece of writing by the student  that may be comprised of pictures and labels?  When third grade teachers bring student writing samples to study team meetings, why do they feel that the very least kids could do for them is write in complete sentences?  Why would this be proof of the student’s ability to write?

One issue I feel is at play is that the grammar and syntax of a complete sentence is a quality (a convention) of writing that teachers can easily recognize.  Other qualities or characteristics of good writing are not necessarily in their view because said teachers are not teaching them.

Another possibility is that The Complete Sentence [TCS] represents the entry point into all Correct Written English [CWE] for many grade school (and perhaps middle and secondary teachers, too?).  I meet with strong evidence for the belief that students must get CWE into their heads and hands, and be fluent at TCS before teachers should allow them to write.

And, with the common teacher complaint that Common Core is not “developmentally appropriate” for their students, who asks when should an emerging writer who is learning a new language be expected to write in complete sentences?  And, does the way English sounds to that EL student be conducive to recognizing complete sentences?  I think not.

Facing down a blank page and producing speech and visual ideas on the page for starters does not occur to teachers who are mostly teaching the spatial organization of writing.  They are not teaching fluency, or the moves of writing, with their students. These teachers feel that support  is telling their students where to put their sentences when they write. This “modeling” is a scaffold that seldom gets taken down because it is far easier than modeling one’s own think aloud, revising it and playing with the next thought that might follow.  Teachers seldom really write and share their thinking aloud with students.

Teacher: Write your topic sentence here. [It’s already copied on the chart paper]

Student: (thinking to herself) Okay, but what’s a topic sentence? (copies the chart)

Teacher:  Make sure you use a period at the end. I want to see complete sentences.

Student: (puts a dot after the last word and waits)

Teacher:  Now I want you to write three more sentences that explain your topic sentence.

Student: [writing] I hope this is enough.  I had better put some dots in mine.

I love great picture book read alouds,  for everything they can bring to children’s literacy.  But in particular, I haven’t seen teachers reading aloud with appreciation for the way language works.  The reading skill of letting one’s voice drop and stop when there’s a period, for example.  Readers are pushed to read fast and run their fingers through the text, processing it.  No wonder their writing is often words running on and on.

I believe that one of the goals of writing ought to be to motivate students to put their thinking on the page, in the fresh coherent manner in which we speak [see Peter Elbow Vernacular Eloquence].  However, teachers are often more worried about correctness. The exercise in getting down thoughts is over ruled by the steps needed to address capitalization, spelling and punctuation.  They seem simple, but paying attention to the all at once, while producing written characters on the pace, and paying attention to what you want to say is complex, for an adult as well as a child.  The result in classrooms is that standardization is made more important than student expression.

I have elementary reading intervention students come to me who cannot write without the constant urge to erase.  They try to self-correct the form — even stopping the flow of writing to adjust the formation of a letter.  See me in the group waving them on, “No, pretend you don’t have an eraser.  Let’s get our thoughts and images down onto the paper!”  Their training to “write” in primary grades was more about correctness than goodness [Elbow].

All of this school belief, the metaphor many teachers live by –Write in Complete Sentences! — is the opposite of what writers say that they do.  Initially they “write badly,” as Anne Lamott explains the “down draft” part.  Just get it down.  Next you can do the “up draft” which is to revise.  Finally, if it is going to be published, do the “dental draft,” fixing every letter and bit of grammar and syntax, punctuation, etc.  This is the edit.  True that proficient writers have often internalized quite a bit of self-editing and sometimes employ it while they are revising, but most don’t let editing interfere with the first attempt — the draft.

I dislike erasures for another reason — both in math and in language arts.  The act of “correcting” takes away the traces of my first attempt.  When I make another attempt — find another answer, write a different word, or spell differently — my brain sees no trail. There is no learning in erasing.  There is only the feeling that what I am doing needs correction.  I prefer the less painful, quicker yank the bandaid off approach in drawing a quick line through my writing that I dislike.  It feels more powerful than punitive.  And I can still look back at the offending words later.  Perhaps some of them weren’t so bad.

When I try to write something that feels important to me, or a felt sense that is just a teensy bit out of reach of my next words, I would find it crippling to worry about my grammar and conventions.  I think that young writers do their best work out of that felt sense and often out of an image, not a string of words.  It seems to me that they picture what they have to say and, as they get some words down, more follow.

One way to support our EL writers, and all young writers is to “write in the air” or try out their thinking, pretending to scribble along a line in front of them with their finger as the imaginary pencil.  This allows easy revision with rehearsal and without commitment to paper yet, which is an effort.  The best part is that it allows children to listen to themselves — to test the sound of their language and words with all that they know about speaking [which is quite a bit more than what they know about the rules of CWE].

I often write with exasperatingly weird grammar.  If I had to think about grammar while I pursued a train of thought, I would quit writing.  My ability to write sentences with acceptable flow — with a more natural grammar than I learned in “school writing” — grows as I give myself permission to write more freely, to “blurt onto the page” as Elbow puts it, and to write quickly trying to keep up with the mental flow.

And, often, my best writing is done more in prose poetry mode, where I am using what Don Edwards refers to as “the line.”  I have a line [not a sentence] that is like a live wire, like the germ for the full fledged thought or description which will come about as I write enough to discover what it is.  Why wouldn’t it be okay for a student writer to proceed from a line, one that has some energy or appeal, and flow into the words that line inspires?

When I have to write expository reports, which I dislike, even then, somehow I am able to go back and revise my terrible, awkward sentences and ghastly paragraph structures.  I can hear the places where my writing diverges from what is considered correct by reading it aloud.  I can revise more patiently if I have been free to over write — to say too much and seek within it the good stuff — than by stilted, careful writing.  If I had been required to first organize this post into the “hamburger essay” format, I would have been unable to say what I have explored during the writing.  All this love of putting words and ideas into little compartments is the result of what?  Being overly fastidious?  Control freaks who cannot bear a bit of uncertainty or tolerate the messiness of a typical creative design process?

I wonder. How does a student know when he has written a complete sentence?  How do I know?  I have learned from reading and employing very basic grammar study what complete sentences should look and feel like.  The main trick is in seeing clauses and knowing what conjunctions mean.  Writing a better sentence — sentence fluency –is best taught, in my opinion, by models from literature.  Great sentences by authors of books I’ve read.  The simple act of marking the words into phrasing gave me and gives students the feel for the units of speech.  The feel for what teachers who teach-grammar-to-death [and who don’t wonder why it doesn’t transfer into student writing] are hoping to impart.  Grammar is analysis, which means breaking into tiny parts to try to understand the whole. Sentence modeling is intuitive.

Modeling the syntax of well-written [beautiful] sentences and learning by imitation is apprenticeship, by which many arts and skills are learned.

Finally, I wonder why getting the complete sentence is supposed to happen in student writing by the strange exercise of DOL?  I see classrooms everyday in which the first event — the exciting lead in to a day of learning — is a half sheet of paper with some very so-so, dull sentences that have errors in them projected on the doc cam. The students’ task is to make the corrections, which presumably teaches them to edit.

How far is the gap between knowing how to edit and knowing how to write?

How far apart are my exciting, silly ideas and the confidence that I will be able to put them down in CWE, especially with regard to the honored, revered Complete Sentence?

I think a better standard would come out of the question, “What is good writing?”  Surely the answer cannot be “drivel recorded in correct form, in complete sentences.”










Writing Without Teachers

Tonight I have browsed my 25th anniversary edition of Peter Elbow’s book, Writing Without Teachers.  I felt almost too tired to have thoughts of my own, so I read.  For your writing musings, dear reader, here’s an excerpt [p 53]:


Interaction between metphors is interaction of the most fine-grained, generative sort.  make as many metaphors as you can.  And alalogies, comparisons, examples.  encourage them.  Let them roll off your pencil freely.  Too much.  They produce interaction and cooking just as in the interaction between people or ideas.  When you make a metphor, you call something by the wrong name.  If you make a comparison an analogy, or an example, you are thinking of something in terms of something else.  There is always a contradictions.  You are not just calling a house a house, but rather a playground, a jungle, a curse, a wound, a paradise.  Teach throws into relief aspects of the house you might otherwise miss.  You are seeing one thought or perception through the lens of another.  Here again is the essence of cooking.  As in all cooking, new ideas and and perceptions result.  connections are loosened so that something may develop or grow in whatever its potential directions are.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you are a “literal-minded person” who doesn’t make metaphors:  such people don’t exist.  It is well demonstrated that everyone dreams, and dreams are nothing but metaphors, comparisons, analogies, and examples.  If you find it hard to use them, it meerely means you are out of the habit of listening to them.  Make the ones you can and keep trying to hold your mind open to register the others that are there.

There ends the passage, although Mr. Elbow’s advice goes on…

Metaphors.  That seems a good exercise.  Make more metaphors.

1:1 Assessments

The good part about listening to so many young children read to me, recording and talking about their reading, is that I also get in touch with them again on a personal level.  One little guy, J. read so far ahead of where he left off in first grade.  He told me he kept reading this summer.  (Hallelujah!)

He was smiling and taller.  He’d been to Vietnam and the most exciting thing was that he got to ride through the city on the motorcycle with grandpa.  And there was a lizard on his wall that looked almost the wall color.  Right before he was going to sleep he noticed the lizard about an arm’s length away from his face.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I grabbed him and took him outside,” he told me simply.

This was a way more confident child than I knew last year.  I was hearing more language than in all my time working with him.

“What about food? I asked.  “What was the best thing you got to eat?”

He smiled.  “Watermelon.”

Those little conversations today were the best part of my day.  Oh, and yes, having pulled pork on a little healthy tortilla for supper.

Reading Intervention

When I am asked to assist teachers with any kind of training it usually raises more questions in my head than can be addressed in the -3 hours I am given to present.  For the “Red System” in Leveled Literacy, Fountas & Pinnell, I have been asked to assist RSP and SDC teachers and their teaching assistants with implementing this work.  Or, more specifically, to raise the comprehension levels of the students they serve.  Questions.  Many, without clear ways to address them.

  1. When do we assess elementary readers, how do we decide what we will teach in light of the assessment?

And, what are some of the differences in this elementary program from what we know in primary reading? i.e. the “Green System.”

  1. What should happen every day in reading time?  What would true “program fidelity” look like, based on the need of your students? How do you build a rich literary culture in a classroom where students are EL and have not experienced much success with books?
  1. Comprehension:

Are you coaching students to pause and review; to question the text, to summarize as they read…to picture what they are reading.  Do you show them “think-aloud?”

How much time do we expect kids to attend to instruction? When  do you stop and talk about it, or draw – to do something cognitive with what they’ve read at a stretch?

Have you tried building book talks? I can share some prompts and the teacher role. I found it the hardest, but most effective thing to teach my emotionally challenged struggling readers.

  1. Fluency: What it isn’t.  Question:  What were you taught is important about reading?

Are you modeling it?  Do you have a raft of read alouds that you LOVE?

Do you know that you can be teaching phrasing while students are reading for content?  And that for EL students in particular, getting the syntax and cadence of English is a big help to their understanding of what they read?  Can be.

  1. Helping students know how to read more complex (bigger) words.  So many upper elementary students get into longer texts with no instruction on how to deal with longer words and challenging vocabulary.  Did you know that F & P provides regular, effective games to address word work?  All it takes is pre-prep on your part…

Is there anything that I can show in my teaching, as I take participants to be my sample class that would inspire them to teach reading with all their heart?  There’s something to be said for understanding what it is and not relegating reading to another academic subject.

Sigh.  This is not getting my demo written, is it?  (rhetorical question).

One Little Word (OLW) for 2015

My first thought when I awoke was my word for the year.  I thought, “resistance,” but quickly realized, without the aid of my pot of tea or setting feet on the chilly floor, that word implies polarity and defiance.  So I thought more.

Building up resistance to a disease, then, a word would be immunity.  After I posted yesterday about countering a lack of vision with art, I read on Nova right afterwards that attitudes, happiness, and even body weight can be “caught” like a virus. That the condition of people around a person will increase the likelihood of a condition occurring.  This is fascinating in itself, and provided an intuitive confirmation that I’m on the right track to inject gratitude for parents into our family literacy work, not so much because the parents need it.  They deserve it yes, but the staff needs to do it.  We need it.  And this metaphor of there being a contagious disease I don’t wish to contract works with the OLW.

So, with my tea and nan, here I am at my writing desk checking out Dictionary.com:

In Science:  The protection of the body from a disease caused by an infectious agent, such as a bacterium or virus. Immunity may be natural (that is, inherited) or acquired. See also acquired immunity.

Word Origin and History for immunity n.  late 14c., "exempt from service or obligation," from Old French immunité and directly from Latin immunitatem (nominative immunitas) "exemption from performing public service or charge," from immunis "exempt, free," from assimilated form of in- "not, opposite of" (see in- (1)) + munis "performing services" (cf. municipal ), from PIE *moi-n-es-, suffixed form of root *mei- "to change" (see mutable ). Medical sense "protection from disease" is 1879, from French or German.
2. freedom from obligation or duty, esp exemption from tax, duty, legal liability, etc
3. any special privilege granting immunity


Well, the taste of freedom from unhappiness in my current job position has happened on and off as I have studied and meditated daily.  The injection or antibody for immunity is to SIGN OFF.

Yep, just sign off.  I can unplug my own discontent with my workplace.  I know that discontent narrows my attention.  I know that my happiness is not truly dependent on anyone or anything outside of me.  Cultivating contentment with the way things are, and the way other people are, will strengthen my immunity.
It almost begins to sound like a spiritual New Year’s resolution.  I’d say it is a direction, an intent.

In November I sat down in the morning service at CSE and wrote in my journal, “Still working on patterns of caring so defensively what others think of me.  Dirty looks from a peer at work still affect me with hurt, a feeling….”

And then the lesson started.  I took notes and drew lines from my statement of problem to the solutions being offered by Ellen O’brien.

Caring too much [about what others think] is comparison.  You are not working from your own true self.  (I know this is a bit of a “Duh” for some, but I didn’t realize that my sense of belonging to a staff was bundled up in this mess.)

Self-discipline is really doing “what pleases my soul” — it is not denial, not punishment, not forcing myself to be good.  My authenticity crisis…I don’t need to be good.  I need to be authentic.

Well, when I first got this — really took it on board — there was such a wave of relief and gratitude.  Like I’d been healed of cancer without the chemo.

I have had the privilege of working, creating, contributing.  I work among people who know my faults and weaknesses.  They have seen me fail and succeed.

I am grateful to serve kids and my peers.  I wrote as if I were giving my retirement speech, because I have believed for several months that I need to go somewhere else.  The environment really is toxic.

I really do need the vaccination.

So, in the New Year, what I’m doing first, daily, is signing off from discontentment, even if I work on the same campus until retirement.  I want to enjoy life, care for my aging mother, work in more creative ways, and continue to inspire teachers/students with my love of writing.  Perhaps even, some other position may appear if I don’t go into remission.

Ha, ha, I really like the third definition: any special privilege granting immunity

Keeping my connection to my true self, 
being the artist I am, can keep me healthy 
even in an environment polluted with unhappiness.

That’s my word.  Acquired immunity.

Happy New Year, to everyone, and especially to my teacher friends who write together.