DerryNews.com, Derry, New Hampshire

October 17, 2013

Column: Enjoying sixth-graders as works in progress

John Edmondson
Derry News

---- — In June, teachers take a step back and marvel at their students’ growth and development. But I enjoy September and October even more. That’s when I witness the dogged determination that’s required to become a better reader and writer.

It’s darn near miraculous that I became a published writer. My passion for words and stories was almost extinguished by the dogmatic approaches of my well-meaning teachers. If I wasn’t nodding off during yet another “adventure” starring those fun-loving tykes, Dick and Jane, I was buried alive in heaps of workbook pages, struggling to identify gerunds, whatever they are.

I’m lucky to have always been a reader, and just as fortunate to have had a couple of great teachers along the way who encouraged me to keep writing.

Reading and writing skills form the foundation for all other learning. Reading is thinking. Writing is thinking. It’s impossible to do either well without thinking hard. I work to improve my students’ literacy skills by making complex tasks as simple as possible.

In my Reading Workshop class, I first teach my students how to choose a “just-right” book that truly interests them. I’m amazed that many students won’t independently read a book’s summary on the back or inside flaps. But if books are routinely chosen for kids, there’s less incentive to first wonder what they’re about.

I teach students the importance of visualizing as they read, something accomplished readers do automatically. The kids track their thinking as they read with sticky notes, using inferencing skills to question’s a character’s actions, or to notice clues an author drops throughout a story that point to theme.

At first, many sixth-graders make superficial connections with a character — Jack likes watermelon, and I do, too — but gradually they begin to ask questions that reveal deeper thinking — ”Why did the author not tell us the elephant’s name? She’s an important character.”

In Writing Workshop, my students focus on one genre at a time. I teach them to activate their writer’s antennas, take in the world around them, and be on the lookout for stories begging to be told. They learn the power of active verbs and concrete nouns, and that adjectives are useful, as long as they’re not overused.

And adverbs? Many students initially write sentences like, “Joe walked briskly across the road.” In time, they learn that “Joe scampered across the road” is more economical, and just plain better writing.

I enjoy watching sixth-graders get serious about reading and writing. Without prompting, a student asks me if they’ve written a “fat” (thoughtful) question rather than a “skinny” (surface-level) one as they take a deep dive into their novels. Another one scans my “action verb wall” to find just the right one to describe how their cat treats a mortally wounded mouse. After some reflection, she decides “toys” is the one she wants.

The finished project is a joy to behold, but overseeing a work in progress is more rewarding.

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John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.