Book Review: About the Authors, by Katie Wood Ray with Lisa B. Cleaveland
Summary: Sherry Dolgoff reviews About the Authors: Writing Workshops with Our Youngest Writers, by Katie Wood Ray with Lisa B. Cleaveland, a book for teachers of kindergarten through second grade that specifies how to set up the classroom, how to introduce and teach writing to younger children, and how to assess the final products.
Where was About the Authors: Writing Workshop with Our Youngest Writers during the fifteen years that I taught kindergarten? I could have benefited from this gem of a book that specifies how to set up your classroom, how to introduce and teach writing to younger children, and then how to assess the final products. Katie Wood Ray and Lisa B. Cleaveland have coauthored the very best kind of book for a dedicated teacher—a book that is as easy to read as it is to use as a model for excellence in teaching writing.
Geared for teachers of children in kindergarten through second grade (although I think this format could be adapted for use in any grade), About the Authors is a simple book in the best sense of the word. Any good teacher should be able to take this book, read it, and begin immediately to use the strategies offered in each chapter. In chapter 3, for example, the authors state that "While we know that students won't learn all they need to know about how written language works simply by being surrounded by print, we don't underestimate the power of environmental print to support language learning, either" (40). Through such simple ideas, it soon becomes clear that Ray and Cleaveland know very young children and have used every possible strategy—every technique that might encourage learning as well as those strategies that they know from experience do encourage writing and learning. They know how to teach writing and understand that young children not only should write but can write and must write every day.
These two teacher-authors are pros when it comes to young learners, and through their book they make every effort to share that wisdom. Readers can "listen in" on the authors' conversations with the children as they explain how they introduce students to the writing process from the beginning. "Children love to make stuff," the authors note.
They love projects. They love the mechanics of making stuff, too, the cutting, pasting, stirring, and hammering. In writing workshops with young children, we have learned to use this same energy to fuel the writing. We present it to them in just this way: writing workshop will be this time every morning when we get to make stuff, or more specifically, we get to make really cool books. (6-7)
What child wouldn't want to "make really cool books"?
The text of About the Authors is set up in a straightforward manner, with chapters full of informative suggestions, the rationale and educational philosophy behind those suggestions, and a tremendous amount of student work as examples and support. Seeing the student work is especially important for someone new to the profession or someone working with young children for the first time, since a new teacher cannot know what wondrous things young writers are capable of or what their work looks like. The student work found in About the Authors is used to support the authors' findings; to detail specific strategies such as spacing words, illustrating picture books, using bold print for emphasis, manipulating pictures to support the text; and to offer many other writing-connected ways of thinking. But don't believe for a minute this is childish writing just because a child wrote it. Ray and Cleaveland list in each chapter the skills and strategies that the young authors exhibit in their work. Read and be amazed. Readers will learn as much about writing process thinking as about teaching it.
In the summer of 1992, I became a teacher-consultant with the Coastal Georgia Writing Project. That fall I began using the journal-writing process with my kindergarten students several times a week. Some kids began the year by "drawing" a story then dictating their words to my assistant or me. Some children were a little more advanced and actually tried "writing" themselves, with varying degrees of success. By the end of the year, I had journals for everyone that certainly showed growth over time. I was very pleased with the results. But had I known then some of the basics of what Ray and Cleaveland offer, I believe I would have been even more successful with relatively few adjustments. For example, Ray and Cleaveland note: "When students are given a story starter or journal prompt each day, they don't come to see themselves as people who need ideas for writing" (19). That simple statement—and there are similar statements throughout the book—startled me. The authors are right; I see that now. I didn't allow my students to truly see themselves as writers in the fullest sense. I didn't give them the opportunity to develop as they might have if I had used this approach.
The students with whom Ray and Cleaveland work understand something about writing, and because they do, these first-graders see writing differently, more maturely, as writers themselves. They learn to recognize and imitate a particular genre of professional authors they admire. They become familiar with the structure of a book and recognize an interesting approach of another author. After showing us one of the children's books, the authors tell us:
. . . we notice all the other things Josh knows about writing that are evident in this piece. He knows: One kind of a text a writer can make is a picture book. Books of this kind have title pages inside their front covers. Books of this kind can have a mix of fact and story (a sense of genre). One way to begin a text like this is with a global statement about your topic. Pictures in a text like this are often labeled. A text like this often takes you back in time at the beginning. A text can narrate what is happening in an illustration by using a progressive verb form—making it seem as if it is happening now. A text can have an illustration that stands alone on a page. The narrator of a text can speak directly to the reader in a command or simply as a way of engaging the reader in the moment. The font of a text can be manipulated to make meaning. Two sentences can work together, with the second one stretching the first out and adding more detail to it. A bold font can be used for emphasis. A text like this often brings you up to the present time as a way of concluding. Ellipses can be used to make the reader wonder what will follow. One way to end a text like this is with an unanswered question. A writer can edit a text for spelling (4–5).
Sixteen points to notice about a first-grader's book . . . and the young writer understands what all of these things mean!
While Ray and Cleaveland continually stress "doing what is age appropriate" (6–7) for their students, these children are, in reality, accommodating sophisticated skills. They conceive ideas. They write in different genres. They devise spelling strategies. They use illustrations to enhance the words of their writing or as nonverbal text. They peer-edit—another amazingly sophisticated endeavor—and Ray and Cleaveland list kid-friendly reasons that children might feel the need for a peer conference:
- When I need some "wow!" in my writing.
- I'm just stuck.
- I have a question that I'm wondering about in my writing.
- I need to test-drive my piece.
- My ideas need to be bigger—ask me some questions.
- I need someone to look at my illustrations and make sure they match my text. (189)
These children conference with teachers and classmates and revise their work. They share with the group—a skill important to reinforce ideas and focus thoughts—and they publish. They are indeed writers.
So how do these students do all of this? Ray and Cleaveland's approach has a lot to do with the students' success. What the kids think of as "making stuff" is actually a carefully thought-out plan. When asked how they coax the children to write so much, Ray and Cleaveland answer, "Staples," referring to the multiple-page "books" in which their students write (8). By stapling pages together to make a book—not just using one sheet as I did—the teachers encourage their writers to extend their thoughts. "From the very first day of workshop," the authors explain, "we fold up the paper, staple it together so it looks like a book, and then say to the five- and six-year-olds in front of us, `Come on, everybody, let's make books!'" (6). How clever; how right.
The minilessons presented in this book offer teachers thought for all phases of the writing process—from peer editing to whole-group teaching, to introducing new concepts such as "talking about where writers get their ideas and how they choose topics to pursue" (87). Minilessons are also used for sharing books of different genres and pointing out "smart writing" (student work noticed by the teacher during student/teacher conferences) to be discussed for a particular learning experience with the group. The authors tell us, "Basically, we want children to know that writers often write about things they know a lot about, things that are very familiar; writers often write about the same topics again and again, in different ways, in different books; and writers often get ideas for writing when they are away from their desks, when they're not writing. Writers notice, listen, observe, and think like writers all the time" (159). These same activities are utilized with adult writing groups. No surprise there. But obviously we teachers of writing have been missing a strategic point: This is not just for adults because children—even very young children—can bloom and grow as writers using these same teaching techniques.
The kindergarten and first grade authors presented in this book enjoy books of all kinds, just as any child does. However, these children see books not only as pleasure but also as examples of something that they, as authors themselves, might try one day. They have been taught to look for patterns of writing, different styles of illustration and printing, spacing, placement of words, even format as useful information. Even more impressive, these young writers are learning to be reflective about what they do and what they see other authors do, and then they talk about these ideas in group sharing time. They learn to articulate what they are writing, where the ideas came from, and what help they might need to proceed with their work. Writing, learning about writing, and talking intelligently about the writing process—that's all everyday stuff to these children because it is part of their everyday classroom experience.
In closing, Katie Wood Ray and Lisa B. Cleaveland say that their greatest wish for About the Authors is that it will help others see the extraordinary growth and promise of very young writers. I know these teachers have succeeded because I most certainly do see what is possible for young students and for their teachers, too. Thank you so much for teaching me.