Week of May 15—Writing Lessons My Students Taught Me
Monday, May 16—A Clear Goal—Gertie
I spent last Tuesday with second graders at my school. I went from class to class reading some of my favorite books and listening to the students read their writing. Gertie was in the first class I visited. I’ve worked a lot with Gertie’s fourth grade brother, but haven’t spent much time with her. While Gertie’s teacher was finishing the reading lesson and I was settling in on the carpet, I watched this little girl who perched in her chair, chewing on a fingernail, and fiddling with things in her desk. She’s the type of kid you think is never listening, but always is.
Gertie was the first to volunteer to read. She threw her hand in the air, waved it around, and did that “Ooo-ooo-ooo” thing kids do (and that teachers hate). When she came to sit by me, she wanted me to read her paper aloud. I could tell with one glance I couldn’t make sense of her handwriting and encouraged her to read. The story was about five friends on a journey of discovery. The friends happened to be the vowels A, E, I, O, U. Each character had its own distinctive letter-ish personality. Gertie also showed me a story on the bulletin board that she had typed on the computer at home and had brought to school. This story was a fanciful tale of kings, queens, dragons, and wizards.
I caught up with Gertie’s teacher later in the day. “She’s a great story teller and loves to write,” the teacher said, “But her handwriting is too difficult for anyone to read.” We planned plans for me to stop by and conference with Gertie the next day. This was our conversation:
Sanders: So, Gertie, I’m thinking you must really like to write.
Gertie: Oh, yes, I love to write. I write all the time.
Sanders: Why do you want to write?
Gertie: Well (dramatic pause), when I’m dead and gone I want people to be able to read my stories and like them and remember me.
Sanders: That’s a great goal. Unfortunately, I couldn’t read your story. So I may never know how wonderful it is.
Gertie: You couldn’t? Why?
Sanders: Two big reasons.
Gertie: Oh, let me guess . . . my handwriting and my spelling.
Sanders: You’re half right. Your handwriting and you often split words at the ends of lines . . . for instance you put li at the end of one line and ke at the beginning of the next and it took me forever to try to figure it out.
Gertie: I could fix that.
Gertie: I could rewrite it and make my handwriting neat and not split my words.
Sanders: Ok, do it.
And she did. In less than fifteen minutes Gertie had rewritten the story in legible handwriting, corrected her word-splitting issue, and was listening in delight as I read her story aloud.
I think it’s remarkable that a seven-year old already knows the ultimate goal of writing—to write so others can read and enjoy our writing (and hopefully remember us in the process). Even more amazing, is that she could accurately diagnosis her own problem and then be willing to fix her writing to meet her goal. That is what real writers do.
Thanks for the lesson, Gertie.
It’s Your Turn!
1. Do a Gertie today. Articulate the goal for your writing and then analyze what you need to do to improve your writing for your readers. If a second grader can do it, surely we can!
NOTE: All names of the children in this week’s posts have been changed to protect the confidentiality of my students.