Why would we expect our children to become skilled at something if they never see a skilled practitioner doing it?

I have spent the last several years of my educational life as an administrator and a consultant. But I remember with considerable clarity my time as the teacher of a combined grade 1 and 2. I was determined to make every one of my students literate,  numerate and able to think as effectively as possible.

I read to them a lot. They read every day and in every spare moment. They also wrote a lot. But it dawned on me that they saw plenty of adults around them reading, but they hardly ever saw any adults writing in the extended, creative and thoughtful manner I was trying to develop in them. Children learn to talk by being immersed in language and striving to join in with the communicating buzz that envelopes them. They learn best to read when they see the adults doing it, when their drive for mastery and independence insists they become able to do it for themselves. How do they become writers if they never see it modeled? I decided  to do something about this.

At the beginning of the next writing period I told my six and seven year olds that I didn’t see why they should have all the fun, that I was going to write too and that I didn’t expect them to bother me. I took a large pad of chart paper to the floor and sat down in front of it, felt tipped pen in hand. Our routines were pretty well established by now, so the kids were all sitting at their tables or sprawled on the floor. Some were drawing and labeling, others  were writing their own often almost indecipherable sentences and some were putting together pretty well formed paragraphs. I had taught them what to do when they got stuck – ‘ask three before me’, check the words on the walls, go to a book and look and just ‘have a go’. They were becoming increasingly independent during this first drafting stage.

But when I started thinking out loud and writing they became curious. They heard me say things like, “Right, what will I write about?” “What is my first sentence going to be?” “That’s a boring word.” “Oh dear. I’ve already used that word. What else can I use?” “Hmmm. How many syllables? What’s the first syllable?” and so on.

One child asked “What are you doing?” and I replied “Shhh. Don’t distract me. I’m thinking.” Another wandered up to me and asked me how to spell a word. I feigned impatience and pointed wordlessly at the chart on the wall that listed what to do when you are stuck on a word, and kept on writing. A little later I sighed dramatically, scribbled through some of what I had written, muttering in a stage whisper “well that sounds just plain silly” and rewrote. I got up, went up to a word chart of adjectives, ran my finger down the list, said “yes!” enthusiastically and then went back to my writing and used the word in the sentence. Every now and then I took a surreptitious look around the room. The curiosity had gradually abated and almost everyone was industriously focused on their own work again. When the bell rang for play time, I exclaimed. “Oh, no. I was just getting in to it. Do you think we could do some more writing after play?” The kids looked at each other, a bit bemused that I was asking their permission, but enthusiastically said “yes”.

We moved together that week from first drafting, to editing to publishing of our stories and reading them to one another. From time to time I would have a parent in the room to help with the process. I still have my little published book “The Day the Teacher Sneezed”. This opportunity for my children to see how it is done provided the boost in their writing that was needed. They had the opportunity to see what the practice of writing actually looks like. In particular they saw the intimate link between thinking and the act of writing. Why would we expect our children to become skilled at something if they never see a skilled practitioner doing it?

1 Comment

Filed under Language and literacy, Thinking

One response to “Why would we expect our children to become skilled at something if they never see a skilled practitioner doing it?

  1. This is a lovely story! But when I worked as a teacher librarian in a school in Melbourne, the librarian and I used often to read for pleasure at lunchtimes in the library, to model reading behaviour. Many of the children were utterly amazed to see grownups reading for pleasure – it was clearly a highly unusual sight for them.

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