Week of May 15—Writing Lessons My Students Taught Me
Wednesday, May 18—Confidence Built on Skill and Hard Work—Luis and Kim
Luis is new to our school. In fact, he’s been in the U.S. less than a year. He is classified as ELL—English Language Learner. I worked with Luis and four other fifth graders one day last week. All five needed to pass a benchmark assessment to pass their fifth-grade writing requirement. (Either they hadn’t passed the state writing test in fourth grade or weren’t in our state to take the test as fourth graders.) The students and I spent about forty-five minutes talking about writing, reviewing what they knew, and getting ready for their writing test. Luis had in interpreter sitting beside him and their quiet exchange continued throughout the instructional time.
Because of Luis’ ELL classification he gets extra time for testing and the use of a Spanish-English dictionary. Not a dictionary with definitions, but a translation dictionary. One part translates English words to Spanish and the other portion translates Spanish to English. The interpreter cannot help him in any way. Luis was on his own to write.
Most of the other students had finished planning and writing within the “normal” 45-minute time limit. But Luis took an hour and a half just to plan his writing. He looked in his dictionary for the translation of every word. Imagine thinking of an idea and then stopping and looking up the translation of each word of each thought of your idea. Then he started writing.
Luis’ story was simplistic but showed potential. Using his writing, the translator and I made instructional plans to help Luis revise his writing and to guide him in his next steps as a writer. I have no worries about him. He is bright, he wants to learn, and above all, he is a hard worker whose work ethic rivals anything I’ve ever seen or experienced.
Kim, a fourth grader, was a total wreck when she came out to the hallway on Friday to find out her writing score. She laughed nervously as we sat down at the table. I knew she had done well and I stretched out the conversation to build anticipation. When I finally told her the score, Kim was ecstatic. The end of conversation went like this:
Sanders: So what made you so successful, Kim?
Kim: You know I’ve been working hard on writing this year, Mr. Sanders. I’ve been doing everything you taught us.
Sanders: That’s true, Kim. But what did you do on the day of the test that helped you?
Kim: I looked around the room to where all of our posters used to be. (Note: For state testing, all posters and resources have to be covered or removed so students can’t use them.) I looked over to the windows—that’s where the transition words were. The poster said to use transitions to move my story along. I remembered them and used them. In the front of the room was our writing craft board. It had signs about sensory details, and specific nouns, and attributes . . . I thought of them and used them. We had another poster with vivid verbs and I said to myself, ‘You’ve got to use some vivid verbs.’ I just did what I was supposed to do. I guess that’s what helped.”
That’s exactly why those posters were displayed, added to, and referred to so often during the school year. . . so students remember them and use them. Here was Kim doing exactly what she was supposed to do She was stopping to think of what to do, not just plunging in headfirst. She worked one step at a time through her writing, making sure she constructed a piece that included what she had learned made a good story.
A work ethic is impossible to teach, but it can be learned. I think it’s most often learned by being around others who work hard, other times it may be more intrinsically motivated. While hard work is impossible to teach, it’s also impossible to not notice it when you see it! Luis and Kim, I’m proud of your hard work.
It’s Your Turn!
1. How committed are you to your writing work? Are you committed enough to struggle word-by-word-by-word to get it right? Are you willing to consciously think about and use what you’ve learned? I’m hoping some of Luis’s and Kim’s work ethnic rubs off on all of us!
NOTE: All names of the children in this week’s posst have been changed to protect the confidentiality of my students.