The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 29, 2002


Reading and writing in the time of television
Students learn to love writing when they write about what they love

The scene is a typical middle school classroom: desks are arranged in clusters — not the soldierly rows I remember from my school days; white-chalk words float on a vast blackboard; books and papers erupt from tabletops around the room. The requisite computer and printer nestle near the teacher's desk.

The teacher, a slender man with unruly, graying hair and beard, stands in one corner, a phone pressed against his ear. Four young teens, three girls and a boy, clamor around him trying to get his attention as he tries to listen to his voice mail messages.

Suddenly, as if returning a serve, the teacher takes the question being posed to him in the phone message — the type of question he's heard before — and he lobs it to his students.
Teachers Sue Helenius-LaPorte and Steve Bober talk about their program (Photo by Midge Eliassen)

"How do we teach you to be interested in writing when there's so much visual stimulation?" asks the teacher, paraphrasing the question that I, a writer and interviewer he's never met, have left on his voice mail.

"You make us care," says one teen.

"You show us good stuff and good books," volleys another.

"You show us good writing."

The scene is the Carlisle Public Schools, and the teacher is Stephen Bober. But as I would discover when I interviewed Bober and a colleague, Sue Helenius-LaPorte, this scene is decidedly not typical of most American schools. Many schools employ the "writing process," an instructional approach that provides the foundation for writing skills, and ultimately, better communication skills. Carlisle offers something special.

"It seems that students and teachers in Carlisle are more enthusiastic about their writing activities," says Bober, "more authentic in their engagement, and more successful in their development of writers' voices."

Television, movies and videos have not been the death knell for reading and writing in our schools. "Many parents probably see TV and books as competitors," explains Bober, "but they aren't mutually exclusive."

Passion as a path

The interview took place on the afternoon of February 14, Valentine's Day. I expected to see corridors lined with hearts cut from red construction paper and trimmed with lace doilies. If such childlike expressions of caring did exist, I didn't see them. When I sat down with Bober and Helenius-LaPorte, their dedication for teaching reading and writing — their uncontained passion — was impossible to overlook. It was so overwhelming that I did something I've never done before as an interviewer: I sat back, abandoned my prepared questions and simply let them talk.

Passion is one of the writing program's early lessons. Students are taught to identify their passions and to talk and write about them.
Sofia Manganella and Anya Kaufman writingin their first grade class. (picture Rik Pierce)

"If you walk into some of our classrooms and ask children what they are writing about," says Helenius-LaPorte, both a reading specialist and the early literature coordinator, "they will tell you about their passions." Students are taught that authors often write about their own passions. In the primary grades Donald Crews, author of Night at the Fair and Bigmama's, is used as an example of passionate writing. In her six years as a Carlisle teacher, Helenius-LaPorte admits to "learning many moves" from author Cynthia Rylant, best known for Scarecrow, The Whales in November and The Relatives Came.

"Their emotions matter," Bober says of the students, "and writing is a tool for expressing them." In addition to teaching seventh-grade English language arts, Bober, a 25-year veteran of the Carlisle system, is the language arts curriculum coordinator. "If students feel they are being respected," he says, "then they feel empowered to self-expression. They learn that what they say matters."

Living a writerly life

"We understand that writers live a writerly life," continues Helenius-LaPorte, referring to a 1992 study conducted by Columbia University. The study explored the question, "How do writers know how to write well?"

"They notice, observe and think about the world around them," she says. Students are taught that writers save important or precious moments of their lives by writing them down. "We're teaching children to do the same. Students in the second grade keep notebooks that have observations, interesting words and thoughts that may stay as they are or be used as seeds for developing into longer pieces."

The Columbia study revealed a simple truth: Writers learn to write well by reading. So in the Carlisle Public Schools, the writing process begins with reading. "You can still mesmerize a whole class with a good book," beams Helenius-LaPorte, a composed woman with short, stylish hair and expressive eyes. Last year she attended a summer program on the teaching of writing held by Columbia's Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. In the evenings she had homework — writing assignments called Try Its.

Reading comes first
Samantha Blue and Brendon Geoffroy, first-grade students in Mrs. Horgan's classroom, open their notebooks and go to work on an addition to their Writing Treasury folder. (Photo by Rik Pierce)

Teaching about the relationship between reading and writing begins in kindergarten. "Some read and some write," explains Helenius-LaPorte, "but all of them tell stories." Some of their stories were on display in the Spalding Building.

Using Alexandra Day's popular book, Good Dog Carl, as a model, students were encouraged to tell a story based on a personal experience. Working with hand-drawn pictures and no words, the kindergartners created three panels. Even without words, their stories — which included subjects such as a family of cats, a trip to the zoo and how the Patriots won — had the basic elements. Each had a beginning, middle and end.

Once they enter the primary grades students become more engaged in reading. They are taught to approach it in three ways: to think about what makes good writing; to read like a writer; to think about their own thinking.

"When you read like a writer, you read differently," explains Helenius-LaPorte. "You notice the author's craft." Students are taught to examine the texts they read and to look at the structure. "We help them see these structures as possibilities for their own writing," she says. "We also ask them to look at the way authors use words, and we have them try the technique in their own writing." A walk through the Robbins Building proved the success of this endeavor. In one small section the wall was papered with stories full of unexpected and marvelous words.

Second graders had studied Katie Wood Ray's Wondrous Words and then emulated her use of beautiful language to add detail, paint images or use the senses. Ray participated in the 1992 Columbia study. Wondrous Words, which draws on the study, has created a nationwide impact on the teaching of children to be better writers. In the Robbins display, one Carlisle second grader told a story about birthday candles with a vivid description of feeling warmth on a cold cheek. Another wrote of the radiance of a snow globe, and a third portrayed dried seaweed on the beach as "pitch black as the night sky."

Widening the world

In the middle school, students focus on two types of reading: independent, or self-selected, and structured reading and discussion. Students are encouraged to read widely, not only to build skills such as comprehension, vocabulary and reading rate, but also to learn to think beyond themselves, to consider alternative viewpoints and to explore cultural richness. Teacher-student interaction can take the form of journal entries, oral book presentations or informal conversations, as well as specifically designed activities that take place in small groups or with the entire class.

At this level the curriculum fosters student ownership in the reading process. The belief is that they will read with greater enthusiasm and comprehension if they select their own reading materials as often as possible.

"It gives them places to make choices," explains Bober, "and to express what they care about if they have ownership in elements such as voice, genre and form."

The process of writing

"Writers learn from writers," Helenius-LaPorte emphasizes. This is the third principle extracted from the Columbia study and Katie Wood Ray's work. Writing is no longer regarded as a gift, but a craft, which can be learned and developed. Carlisle draws on the masters. "We use great writers like Gary Paulson, Patricia Polacco, Karen Hesse and Jane Yolen to help us teach children to become better writers."

Helenius-LaPorte is quick to point out that Carlisle teachers are still in the process of adapting the principles taken from the Columbia study. "But now they are reading like writers," she says, "and it's a very exciting time."

"Teachers in this school are enthusiastic about their own reading and writing," echoes Bober, "they are modeling [that] and it becomes contagious." Teachers keep personal journals, and when it's appropriate, they use them in class.

Writing in stages

"We design a yearlong curriculum," explains Helenius-LaPorte, "based on units of study. We teach explicitly and we slow down and teach thoroughly. Each study goes through stages and during the writing stage, each piece of writing goes through the steps of the writing process." At the middle school level the curriculum statement defines the "writing process" as having six distinct stages that could easily function as a handbook for any professional writer wanting to take an idea through to publication. Students are taught that writing takes time, in class as well as at home.

Stage one is pre-writing, which includes brainstorming, research and field trips. The next phase is planning, where the topic is selected and narrowed, and at this point materials are organized and refined. Critical decisions such as audience, voice and form are also addressed here. Next is drafting, then revising, followed by editing, which is the process of reviewing the revised draft. The final stage is publishing, defined as a presentation to the intended audience. Inclusion in a portfolio, mounting in a wall display, oral reading and submission to a teacher for evaluation are all possible forms of publication. Proofreading out loud is an important part of each stage. And teacher or peer assistance is available throughout.

In the lower grades, students are responsible for checklists that include editing and grammar lessons. Through peer conferencing young students learn how to be supportive and they learn that talking about writing is okay. Helenius-LaPorte describes the pleasure she gets when she walks around the classroom at writing time and sees "two kids editing each other's work."

The tools of grammar

A focus on passion, a writerly life and finding one's own voice, does not preclude teaching grammar. Sometimes referred to as rules and conventions, grammar and usage are woven into the writing process at each grade level. And contrary to my assumption, Carlisle students still diagram sentences — something my fifth grade class did for a full year in 1964 in front of a vast blackboard. Last month in Carlisle the sixth grade had a unit of study involving diagramming sentences. Students analyzed both their writing and published writing.

"It is taught not as an end to itself," explains Bober, "but as a tool to help
writers communicate better and have better control over their language. In most classrooms, grammar and usage are taught as a structural element of language, as one way to understand the interrelationships of words within sentences." While not every student will master syntax, the goal is to help kids see good grammar as a means of getting people to appreciate their writing.

Building a treasury

When I asked Bober how students' work is evaluated if passion is the driving force, he spun off into a brief explanation of the Latin derivations of "evaluation" versus "assessment." Then he got up, dragged a chair over to a tall cabinet and stood on the chair to pull down a large, carefully labeled box. From this box he removed an oversized, accordion-pleated folder. What looked like something that might hold financial papers, was actually one student's Writing Treasury — a collection of her exemplary writing samples. The treasury embodied the journey from kindergarten to the seventh grade.

Since 1992, every Carlisle student has developed a Writing Treasury, which is expanded on during the school year. A variety of assessment tools and practices are used and students are often involved in their own assessments. The treasury stands as a measure of continued growth and a testament to the development of a students's writer's voice. On "Move-Up Day" in June the student presents the portfolio to a new teacher.

"I can go through half a dozen treasuries in my hammock," says Bober, describing how he spends some of his summer days. " I look forward to getting to know my new students this way. It gives me a sense of where they are." He is often struck by threads of common experience. What is passionately written about in the second grade can be rewoven into a seventh grade project.

The more things change

Bober says that it is more of a challenge to teach writing now than in the past because some students — and he admits to being uncomfortable with this phrase — "don't read as much as they used to." But he also considers it more rewarding. "I enjoy how many students do read and are willing to say, 'I liked that book' and why."

Some kids claim that watching TV or a movie helps them visualize something they have read and might not otherwise have a mental picture for. Nearly 30 students in Bober's class are now reading Tolkein because of the popularity of the Lord of the Rings movie. Recently in class, a debate over the preferred order — book first, versus movie first — broke out. Voices were clear and articulate. Passions ran high.

"I just sat back and smiled," said Bober, recalling the moment. And as if on cue, he relaxed into the student desk he had been occupying, broke into a satisfied grin and crossed his arms. "We're not done learning," he adds.

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito