Saturday, November 13th, 2004
© Melissa Forney
Teaching kids to write should be a satisfying collaboration, not capital punishment. Self-expression should be a joy, not a chore. Writing needs to permeate every avenue of learning and unlock the interests, curiosity, and learning styles of each child. However, writing should be designed with individual differences in mind. We must consider the fact that children come to us with a variety of abilities, limitations, interests, backgrounds, learning styles, and attention spans.
When it comes to writing, there is no such thing as, “One size fits all.” Everyone loves choice. Teachers, kids, big folks, little folks. Choice is good. The writing menu concept is based on the premise that when it comes to writing topics, genres, and projects, choice and variety are not only good, but vital keys to a child’s education.
Teaching writing and encouraging kids to write every single day both help to produce excellent writers. Sounds good in theory, doesn’t it? Putting it into practice is a different story. The meltdown usually occurs somewhere between the beginning of the writing workshop and the Betty Ford Center. You might need a little restructuring that will simplify your life and liberate your students.
Traditionally, teachers have given the same writing assignment to an entire class. For instance, all children write reports on specific states. All children write a book report on a famous inventor. All children give speeches on the importance of democracy. Children are often given the same length of time to write and finish projects, regardless of their limitations or abilities. When it is time to present their projects, the class (and the poor teacher!) has to sit through the monotonous litany of 30 reports or speeches, with little or no variety in the format.
Think about how you work on projects at home. Some of us are morning people, others aren’t human until afternoon. Some days you can hardly face a single chore and other days you surprise yourself by cleaning that dreaded closet and the garage. Some people like long, intricate projects; others like the satisfaction of completing something in a single day. Why should it be any different for children?
The writing menu is exactly what the name suggests: a menu of writing topics, genres, and projects kids may choose from. The beauty is that menus provide a variety of choices that stem from and enhance topics you are currently teaching.
In a nutshell, the writing menu works like this. With each new unit of study, you provide a companion writing menu with a variety of choices of writing topics, prompts, and projects. Some are as simple as listing or labeling, others are complex and multi-layered, and still others involve such aspects as song-writing, making up a new game, or artwork. During the writing workshop, students choose projects that appeal to them based on genre, length of time needed to complete, and personal interest.
The menus can be made ahead of time when you plan your units and can be put on computer disks so they can be used year after year. Teams or multi-age teachers might share menus. Each writing menu will be used for several weeks or the duration of the units you are studying. The option of points can be added for incentive. Points, if used, can be assigned to each project according to its difficulty.
During the daily writing workshop, students will write on projects selected from their menus. Once the writing menu has been activated, the idea is for kids to make wise, but independent, choices. This takes some training, but the results are well worth the effort. Kids may work on one or two lengthy projects, a variety of shorter assignments, or a combination of both.
If they so choose, kids may work on writing and revision, illustrations, costumes, props, or additional projects at home. This doubles or triples time spent on writing and its enhancements.
The teacher’s role is to facilitate, motivate, give personal help, troubleshoot, and encourage students to be productive and on task. The teacher also teaches individual writing skills or guided, layered revision at the beginning of each writing workshop. The writing menu workshop works best if the teacher is readily available as a manager and adviser.
At the end of the unit, teachers and students will together assess content, creativity, the skills and goals that have been accomplished, and a variety of other factors. Children will have the opportunity to present one or more of their writing projects to the class.
The writing menu creates enthusiasm through choice and variety. Every child learns and brings knowledge back to the class, but it is presented in songs, posters, shadowboxes, lists, reports, interviews, and other formats. Since the projects are written during several weeks, kids have some leeway in completion times, writing at home, and choosing projects that appeal to them.
Tips for Planning Writing Menus
- Plan menus to go with units, themes, topics of study.
- Consult grade-appropriate writing target skills.
- Target skills you’ve taught and modeled often.
- Take into consideration each child’s interests.
- Take into consideration each child’s abilities.
- Tap into multi-cultural and ethnic knowledge.
- Generate projects that highlight a variety of skill levels.
- Generate projects that require a variety of times to complete.
- Utilize multiple genres and formats.
- Create some projects that require drawing and artistic expression.
- Create some projects that highlight music, singing, acting or speech.
- Encourage high order, subjective, creative responses.
- Provide art supplies for children to use at home to enhance writing.
- Familiarize your students with the point value system.
- Encourage kids to teach new facts and knowledge to the class.