Sunday, January 1, 2012

Teacher Mary Bieger & 3rd Grader Arya

I started teaching elementary school children twelve years ago, and I have always been amazed by my students' ideas and thoughts. I have spent much of my teaching time struggling with the balance between curriculum, testing, and letting their imaginations run wild. Kids always want to write, and they usually want to share what they write with others. For years, I was careful to look over punctuation, grammar, and I would always check to make sure words were spelled correctly. At times I would stop a child mid-sentence to correct their spelling or wording. By the time I was done with my "editing" of a writing piece, it would look polished, but in retrospect, I'm not sure if the writing piece still belonged to the child. This was the way I was taught, and I assumed mechanics were the most important aspect of writing.

Just recently, I have discovered the magic of letting students have their own writer's notebooks. A place where they can write whatever is on their minds. A place where they can try new writing techniques and be free of the correcting teacher's pen. A place where they can be themselves and explore their thoughts. Personally, I love to write, and I'm not sure why it never occurred to me to allow this kind of freedom more often during writing workshop.

I learned about writer's notebooks through staff development, and it just felt right, like I had found the missing piece of the puzzle. I did a little more digging on how to implement this idea and decided to give this a try with my third grade writers this year.

We started the year decorating our notebooks using photos, magazine pictures, stickers, and various fun things to make each notebook a unique special place to write.  With notebooks ready, they jumped right in and started to write. 

 Each day during writer's workshop, I begin with a story, poem, discussion, idea, and then allow the students time to write. Sometimes they reflect on the story or poem they have just heard. I might read a book to them, talk about the author's style, and then they open up their notebooks and try to write a few lines as if they were that author. Sometimes they write what is on their minds. I suggest ideas, but I never tell them what they have to write about, and I never bring my pen into their notebooks to make corrections.

Sometimes I throw out a topic, such as Favorite Places or What Would You Do With a Million Dollars? and ask the children to write a list. Occasionally, the material from the lists or entries will be the beginning of a beautiful writing piece.

I have now learned to allow the ideas to flow in the notebooks, leaving mechanics to be discussed at a different time. Allowing students the freedom to write what they want has been an incredible experience for me as a teacher. I have watched their stamina as writers increase exponentially. They will write now for 15-20 minutes and be disappointed when I give a two minute warning. Not only have they become motivated writers, but they are often anxious to share various entries with their classmates. They have learned that their ideas will only be encouraged, not criticized, and they are not afraid to try new things as writers.

We now have new motivation for writing in our classroom. My students have been trying to earn compliments from other teachers to add links to our "Compliment Chain." Our chain has grown long enough to reach our class goal, a class pet. We have recently added Shelly and Carl, two hermit crabs, to our classroom family. These little creatures have been an enormous inspiration for writing. My kids are busy researching hermit crabs, writing non-fiction text so that others can learn more about hermit crabs as well. After reading a book that led to a discussion about point of view, the students tried writing a story from the point of view of Shelly or Carl. To watch the ideas come pouring out of these children is an incredible experience.

I would like to showcase one of my third grade writers. Arya is a creative child with a kind spirit, and she has agreed to share some of her writer's notebook with the world. In her own words, Arya talks about her notebook...


Although I offer an opportunity for kids to reflect on a story or poem, sometimes the children decide to write a journal entry. I think it is important for them to write what is on their minds, so I never limit this kind of writing. Here is an example of a day where Arya wrote what was on her mind.


(FYI - our next goal is to earn a "hotel" for Shelly and Carl's crabitat.)

About a week after the crabs arrived, we started talking about point of view. During her writing time, Arya decided to write as Shelly, the hermit crab.


Earlier in the school year, we spent a great deal of time reading and writing small moments. Inspired by Lucy Calkins and the idea of a "seed story" within a watermelon, Arya tried to write about the snapshot moment of getting on a roller coaster rather than her entire day at the amusement park.

I like this entry because Arya revisited this page days later when we talked about adding dialogue to a story to make it stronger. She also added how she was feeling. Eventually, she published this small moment, and we worked with the mechanics as we went through the steps of the writing process. It was fun for me to see how this writer's notebook could help to grow a written small moment such as this.


Here is an example of a list in Arya's notebook. The topic for this list was Things I Am Thankful For. Arya's list went for two more pages!


Writing in my classroom is no longer about the perfectly written piece. It is about exploration, sharing, trying new things, and growing. It is amazing to see how confidence in writing has grown in my class. Allowing the time to write daily has almost eliminated the problem of "I don't know what to write about!" and the pencils are moving freely. Implementing the use of writer's notebooks every day during writer's workshop with my students has allowed me to grow as a teacher I am truly thrilled by the creativity and beauty inside a child's mind, and the writer's notebook is a perfect place for students to explore their ideas and grow as writers. My hope for my students is that they continue to write in notebooks long after they reach the last page in the writer's notebooks that we started together.

Mary Bieger is a third grade teacher in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District. She holds teaching degrees in both Elementary Education and Music Education. In addition to teaching third grade, she also teachers music and art classes to young children at Rolly Pollies.

Born and raised in Buffalo, NY, Mary finds spending time with her family most important, and her favorite activities include: camping, reading books, playing piano, and playing with her two boys, ages two and seven. Mary has recently started writing alongside her seven-year-old son each night. He writes about hockey players and is creating adventures about fictitious teams. She records their daily family adventures in her notebook, which she plans to give her boys when they are grown.

1 comment:

  1. Have you seen the book AFTER THE END by Barry Lane? It has a great section on snapshots.

    Also, for poetry, try Georgia Heard's FOR THE GOOD OF THE EARTH AND SUN.

    These are two of my favorite teacher resources. Lane's style is more direct while Heard's is more heart centered.

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