National Writing Project

Waiting It Out: Months of Writing in a First Grade Classroom

By: Debra E. Weller
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2
Date: Spring 2002

Summary: This case study concludes with a piece of advice for teachers at all grade levels who see only limited progress as students work through their writing processes: be patient.

 

Note: Student names in this article have been changed.

It's the first day of first grade and nineteen timid faces stare up at me in anticipation. We sit knee to knee, forming a circle on our classroom carpet as I explain that we will begin each school day with "talking circle." Each student will say her name and tell us something important. I don't expect much this first day, and most children, in trepidation, barely whisper their names.

Delia K. Mayer is another story. When it's her turn to talk, she breathes in deeply, inhaling our attention as if it is the sweet fragrance of a rose. "I have a song to sing to the class," she proclaims and, taking another deep pull of air into her lungs, she straightens her shoulders and begins to sing. A strong, clean melody pierces the quiet of the classroom. She grabs words for her song from the surroundings and I realize she is composing impromptu. At first I'm impressed. Then, when I realize Delia would love to monopolize the class attention for at least the next ten minutes, I clap my hands sharply together in applause. The other children join me. Delia beams.

The next day during talking circle, Delia sings us another song. Then she adopts a Jamaican accent while speaking to us. Later that morning, she volunteers to read and the Jamaican accent is still present. I've never met a child like her. Her lack of inhibition is astounding. Her verbal dexterity is impressive. She reads at a second grade level. I am sure she will be a prolific writer.

But I am wrong. As we begin to write, she produces stories that begin and end in rambling dialogue with no apparent purpose. The characters in her story are conveniently picked from whoever is sitting next to her in the classroom. She loves the sound of words; what those words mean is of secondary importance to her. I realize I'm reading melody and rhythm that Delia has put on paper.

For the entire month of September, Delia's contribution to our daily "talking circle" is a song. Her writing continues to be meaningless—when and if she chooses to write at all. How am I going to get Delia to write a coherent narrative or several sentences about the same topic? Then one day in early October, I have a brainstorm.

When Delia makes her typical announcement, "I have a song to sing," I declare an ultimatum. "Delia, you may not sing to us unless you have written your songs out on paper first." My plan backfires. She never sings again during talking circle, and during writing time, she visits with the other children and wanders around the classroom making long circuitous trips between the pencil sharpener and her desk. She does not even draw.

It is students like Delia that make me question the validity of daily writing time in the first grade classroom. After all, time is a teacher's most precious commodity. Could I be directing Delia's time in a more productive manner? Still, I refuse to abandon our daily writing. I am convinced that this daily experience with composition, this practice with putting words on a page, is more meaningful than fill-in-the-blank exercises or contrived editing drills. So I encourage beginning writers to engage in the production of text, understanding that not all of their writing will end up as neat story packages ready for distribution.

The next day while I talk with a student at Delia's table, I notice that Delia is drawing pictures of naked people, seemingly trying to steal attention from the other students at work. As I take notice, Delia stows her contraband picture in her writing folder and begins to write.

I know that my presence stimulates Delia to write, but my goal is to foster independence. When will Delia be motivated to write without my direct supervision? I have no idea. I wait to see what happens.

On October 4, Delia tells me she is writing a story about her brother's birthday.

"Would you read it to me?" I ask.

My Ice Cream My only 7 brother. He loves me. I kissed my brother. He kissed me today. He kissed me. I love my brother.

I ask Delia to tell me more about the birthday. As Delia talks, she easily recalls the details of her day and repeats the dialogue and the events of the party in sequential order. I repeat the key points of her elaboration and suggest that she add to her story. But when I read Delia's story again later, I see that she has ignored my suggestions.

Then on October 22, she writes a story about her father and staples it together with the birthday story as if they are page one and page two of the same story. Am I surprised? No. Exasperated? Yes. Delia's decision suggests that she has ignored multiple minilessons about finding the focus in her writing.

Delia writes:

Daddy
I love my daddy. He loves me too. I love my Mommy. She loves me too.

"Why did you staple this story about your daddy with your brother's birthday story?" I ask.

"My daddy was there, too." She explains. Her explanation encourages me. Perhaps she is beginning to think beyond the once-and-done approach many beginning writers employ. Perhaps this is a version of revision. I am detecting movement, but, as my next encounter with Delia's writing reveals, not much movement.

The next day she writes:

Me and My Daddy
One day me and my daddy was going to the store and I was talking all the way. I said, Daddy where are we going? We are going to ——I was good. Yack yack yack yack yack dad yack forget it!

"I'm done," she announces, uttering those words—spoken part in triumph, part relief—that have caused many a teacher's heart to sink. I suggest that she reread her story to be sure. She changes the title from "Me and My Daddy" to "My daddy and Me."

We talk again. I try heartfelt praise—that usually works. I laugh with her about the ending, comment on her skilled word choice, then prompt her to tell me more. Again she relates a detailed narrative. Again I suggest that the details of our conversation would interest readers. Again Delia seems to ignore my revision prompts. So much for heartfelt praise.

On October 26, Delia begins making a picture book.

"Why did you choose to write a picture book?" I ask.

"Because there's not as many words," she states.

Because Delia seems to love words, this surprises me. But at some point, almost all my students take some unexpected turns. The one constant that dictates my contact with all students is patience. It's hard to allow time and space for the seeds of independence to grow. It would be so much easier to tell beginning writers what and how to write. Over time, I have found that the willingness to wait is the beginning writing teacher's most valuable commodity.

But the fact that I am committed to patience does not mean that I am not also impatient. The tension between process and product is acute. I know what these first grade writers should be able to do at the end of the year. At times, it seems that the gap between my expectations and the developmental level of the kids is as wide as the Grand Canyon. Daily practice as readers and writers narrows the gap for the students. I am tense, but I trust, I reflect, and I wait. Recalling my past experiences as a writing teacher gives me the courage to continue. I remind myself that it's a long, often laborious process to create a climate conducive to composition in the first grade classroom, a yearlong endeavor to encourage kids to engage in the construction of story.

By January, first-graders are able to write short anecdotes containing five or more sentences. Encouraged by this progress, I have often set my sights too high. Many of these anecdotes don't lend themselves to the construction of a story line. I should know by now that if I insist that personal narrative be crafted into story, the result is often writing that lacks tension, is flat and flippant, and does little more than list events. But that does not stop me from trying to squeeze a few drops of sour juice from a dry orange. I make this mistake with Delia. She writes:

1/21/2000

Heaping Snow
by Delia K. Mayer
I was out side in snow. It was cold out side. It was glamorous sparkles outside my door. Did you have some snow too? Yes or No

Delia is quite content with her poetic description of the snow. I prompt her to tell me more. Then, in the name of revision, I command that she write. She continues. Her finished story reads:

Heaping Snow by Delia K. Mayer
I was out side in snow. IT was cold out side. It was glamorous sparkles outside my door. I loved it so much. I was with my Uncle Ron and my sister. I hit my uncle's head with a snowball and I hit my sister in her head too. Then they fell on the ground. They hurt their heads. They had an aspirin and a glass of water because they had a headache and after that they went to bed.

I insisted that Delia create a plot to justify her description of the snow. And what did I get? A contrived plot with a simple premise. When we see moments of brilliance in our student's writing, it's tempting to push for more than they are ready to give. As with so many things in school, the balance between requirement and invitation is precarious.

Fortunately, students learn in spite of my mistakes, and by May, our first grade classroom is truly a writing workshop. Finally, in a flurry of fluency, first-graders begin to think like writers and the momentum of composition becomes self-sustaining. Erica revises a story called The Invisible Angel, Carmen writes a chapter book, and Richard writes a story called Bridging up to Wolves. No one crowds around my desk. No one seeks my approval. No one wonders what to write about. Everyone works quietly writing and reading their own writing or that of friends, even Delia.

Delia sits in the editing corner with Cynthia. They edit a draft of Delia's poem called "People." Delia has begun to label most of her writing as poetry. Poetry seems to allow her the freedom of expression she craves and frees her from the organizational rules of narrative, which she still finds cumbersome.

People are nice.
People are cute.
God hates evil
And god loves
His people so much.
God is our Dad
And in God's
Way we are all
Sisters and
Brothers and
We are God's
Kids.

Delia is unsure how to spell the word people, but she knows where to find the correct spelling—in her poetry book. "My People!" she exclaims. She begins to recite the poem by Langston Hughes, and Cynthia joins in. Their faces beam.

The night is beautiful
So the faces of my people
The stars are beautiful
So the eyes of my people
Beautiful also is the sun
Beautiful also are the souls 
of my people

After this recitation, Delia pulls her poetry anthology out from her desk to copy the spelling of people on her draft.

As I reflect about Delia's growth as a writer, the lesson I've learned seems to be about time. The growth that happens in a first grade classroom happens after months of writing first-and-only drafts. The substantial revision efforts that take place in a first grade classroom are not the ones that occur within a week or a day. Revision doesn't happen when I demonstrate technique or when I insist that kids rewrite. Revision begins when young writers internalize the idea that writing can be revisited after months of abandonment, that another look at an old topic can help us find the fresh voice we seek to express ourselves and impress others.

Given the time to write every day, the time to consider and then reconsider ideas and how language works, children like Delia begin to understand that revision is a possibility. If I hold the door open to that possibility, they will step through and experiment.

Each child comes to school with an individual version of literacy, a variety of experiences, and a complex social network, all of which influence everyday classroom performance and the propensity to learn. But in spite of these differences, I am convinced that all kids benefit from the opportunity to stretch their imaginations, to apply the skills of literacy to their personal narratives, to engage in composing the stories of their lives.

Teachers today are presented with "new and improved" scripted teaching guides, additional curriculum mandates emphasizing isolated skill development, and an increased focus on standardized tests. Yet, my experience has shown me that none of these programs and demands will replace the key elements that make writers out of first-graders: lots of writing and lots of time.

About the Author Debra Weller is a co-director of the Tidewater Writing Project, Norfolk, Virginia, and a fifth grade teacher at Windsor Woods Elementary School in Virginia Beach, Virginia. This article was written while she was teaching first grade at the same school.

An earlier version of this article was published in The Journal of the Virginia Writing Project (January/February 2001).

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