Opening the Door to a World of Possibilities
By Tony Stead
It is 3 p.m. and I am picking up my son, Fraser, from school. This is a rare occurrence for me. Normally I am away; my job as a consultant takes me to schools in parts of the United States I never knew existed. Waiting for Fraser, I am ready to ask him the usual question, "So what did you do at school today?" and expect the usual reply, "Nothing," even though I know his day has been packed full of exciting adventures that I will eventually hear about later that evening. Today, however, is different. Before I even have the opportunity to greet him, Fraser runs up to me with an enthusiasm akin to a child's first visit to Disneyland. "Papa," he shouts, "We're doing nonfiction writing, and I'm doing dogs, and Sharon lets me. I have to go and get some books and find out about them. I love dogs. Can you believe it? Dogs. My favorite!"
This kind of excitement over nonfiction research and writing around a topic of high interest I have seen many times before, with children in my own classroom. Fraser's teacher, Sharon Taberski, like many other teachers, has opened up a whole new world of possibilities in the writing classroom. The children's excitement is infectious and stays with them long after a unit is completed. Fraser's friend, Alexander, who was also fortunate enough to have had Sharon as his teacher the year before, still talks about his nonfiction report on cats and continues to compose nonfiction pieces at home. What is so refreshing is that these boys are in grades one and two. We are talking about young children who have already discovered the magic of nonfiction writing. Moreover, enthusiasm for nonfiction writing is not limited to boys (a common myth among many educators). In my many years of working with young children, I have found that girls become equally engaged in nonfiction writing when the subject matter is of interest to them personally. I believe that too often when we explore nonfiction writing in the early years, it usually focuses on topics such as frogs, spiders, bugs, and other creepy-crawlys that do little to turn girls on to nonfiction writing.
Tapping into the enthusiasm that writing nonfiction inspires in both girls and boys is something that I believe we educators do not do enough, especially in the early years of schooling. I am reminded of an observation made by Donald Graves back in 1994. He wrote, "Unfortunately, little nonfiction, beyond personal narrative, is practiced in classrooms. Children are content to tell their own stories, but the notion that someone can write about an idea and thereby affect the lives and thinking of others is rarely discussed" (1994, p. 306).
Like Graves, I believe many teachers even today have not opened their doors to the possibilities beyond narrative when it comes to their writing programs. I know that for many years in my own classroom, my writing program revolved around the world of narrative and, in particular, fantasy. I would give my students many demonstrations of how to make their writing better. These demonstrations usually consisted of showing them how to plan, compose, edit, and proofread their writing, as well as how to publish their work and how to improve their spelling and grammar.
My students were engaged in their daily writing rituals and produced some wonderful pieces. They loved writing each day and were eager to publish their pieces so they could get their hands on all the wonderful markers and glitter that were strictly reserved for publishing. They became masters in the art of process and at times didn't even appear to need me to assist them with their pieces. I had taught them well how to get help from my daily demonstrations, from charts in the classroom, or by conferring with a peer. They eagerly shared their pieces with each other and their parents and looked forward to writer's workshop each day. Many even chose to write during free activity time, something unheard of in my beginning years of teaching.
However, something was missing. There was too little variety in what my students chose to write about. Typically, my kindergartners would write, "I love my mom" every day or would tell what had happened at home last night—"I played with my toys." "I went to a party." The entries by my first- and second-graders varied little from those of the kindergartners. They usually concerned home or school experiences. Although it was only natural that the children's voices be governed by what was happening to them in their day-to-day lives, I knew that nonfiction should have been a key element of their writing experience, and sadly it was not. What I needed to do as their teacher was tap my students' experiences and create new ones so that they could discover different purposes and formats for writing.
I began by reading nonfiction material to my children as part of my daily read-aloud and shared reading routines. One book I read was Chickens by Diane Snowball. Before reading the book, I asked the children to look at the cover and make predictions about the book's content. They thought that the little chicken on the right was going to run away from home and all his friends were talking about how to stop him from doing so. It quickly became evident to me from such comments that they expected this book to be a story. After all, what I usually read to them was fiction.
I opened the cover and read them the first page: "This is a rooster." Then I asked them if they thought their prediction about the book's content was correct. "Yes," they answered in unison. "That's the father chicken," remarked Carlo, "and he is the one who told the baby chicken off and that's why the baby chicken is running away." I accepted this and moved on to the next page: "This is a hen." "That's the mother chicken and she told the baby chicken off, too, because he wouldn't eat his dinner!" exclaimed Renee. It was obvious from these comments that my children were going to hang on to their prediction about a runaway chicken for as long as they could. However, the next page—"Roosters and hens mate to have chickens"—threw all their predictions to the wind (and me with it as well: I had a lot of careful explaining to do regarding that page, but that's another story).
After the reading, we talked about how this text was a different kind of book because it told us true things about chickens. We discussed how authors write these types of books to tell people facts about certain animals. I also alerted them to the labels in the book, and we discussed the way writers of nonfiction often use tags to assist their readers. One week later, one of my second-grade students, Laura, proudly produced a story she had been working on. Laura was an avid writer. We were only four months into the school year and she had already produced five stories, all of which revolved around her being a princess and her many adventures. I don't know how many times she'd been rescued by a prince in her many stories. I really thought this could be the next Danielle Steele or Barbara Cartland sitting in front of me. But Laura's new piece was different. I was both surprised and delighted when I read it. This piece was nonfiction and, like Diane Snowball's book, it centered around the topic of chickens.
Laura had discovered a new purpose for writing: to report facts about animals. She used some of the traditional ways authors relay their information, including diagrams, labels, and arrows to describe the cycle of the chickens losing and growing new feathers. Laura was very excited about her latest piece of writing and informed me that she wanted to write more—on all the other animals she had information about.
I realized then that for too long I had kept my students in a world of personal narrative and fantasy by providing demonstrations of these writing forms almost exclusively. When I looked through my classroom library I found that 90 percent of the books were fiction stories. My read-alouds and shared readings were limited to the world of make-believe or personal narrative. No wonder my children wrote the same things every day and had become masters of these few forms. While I still believed that fiction and personal narrative were important, I realized they were only part of the bigger picture.
* * *
Some time ago, I recorded all the types of reading, writing, listening, and speaking my son Fraser was engaged in over the course of one Saturday. I wanted to see just how important it was for him to engage in language forms apart from narrative and fiction. Almost 90 percent of his world was nonfiction—from trying to figure out how to win the game on his Game Boy to instructing me on which clothes he needed to wear and why it was so important for him to wear his Pokémon sweater even though the temperature had just hit 90 degrees. His questions were constant: How? When? Where? And of course the one that haunts us all as teachers and parents—Why? Why? Why? It became evident to me that this little boy, like millions of other children, wanted to know how this big, wide, wonderful world works and what he could get out of it. He was also eager to teach me what he had already learned and was adamant that the rules for a particular game were as he told me, not as I tried to instruct him, because he had played this once before and what would I know about it anyway, even if I did have the rules in hand. He certainly had the oral language to explain, instruct, and persuade; what he needed was the ability to translate this knowledge into written form.
When I think about my years as a teacher, although fairy tales and fantasy always engaged my students, it was when rain or snow was pelting down on the classroom windowpanes or a bug happened to walk across one of the children's tables that excitement and engagement were at their peak. I think of Sylvia Ashton Warner's timeless classic Teacher and Albert Cullum's The Geranium on the Window Sill Just Died, but Teacher You Went Right On. These books remind us to seize the moment and harness children's natural curiosity about themselves and their world to classroom instruction. What we need to do as teachers is tap this excitement, seize upon it, and help children discover that when they write they can do far more than simply record what they did last night. They can write for the purpose of instruction in the form of rules of a game to let novices such as myself learn how to play. They can write for the purpose of scientific explanation, to let readers know why it snows, or simply to describe chickens and dogs, or in Dorothy's words from the Wizard of Oz, "lions and tigers and bears."
What we as teachers must do is help children discover what the types of nonfiction writing look like and the structures and features that competent writers use when writing for specific purposes. Children write personal narratives and stories, not because this is the limit of their experiences, but because they don't know how to write outside of these forms. Their writing demonstrations, expectations, and engagements are limited by us, their teachers.
Children need to be introduced to the different purposes of writing. They need to know how to plan, compose, revise, and publish text types apart from narrative. We teachers are not unlike our students when it comes to an overemphasis on narrative. We, like they, feel comfortable with the structure and associated language forms of story. Our own limited knowledge of different writing genres and how they work has made us poor models and guides for our children. We need to do more of what Sharon Taberski has done for Fraser and the other children in his class: open the door to a wide world of possibilities.
Tony Stead is the senior national literacy consultant for Mondo Publishing and the facilitator for Boston Public Schools' Balanced Early Literacy Project. This excerpt is reprinted from Is That a Fact? Teaching Nonfiction Writing K–3, with permission of Stenhouse Publishers. Visit the publisher at (800) 988-9812 or online at www.stenhouse.com to learn about Stead's new book, Reality Checks: Teaching Reading Comprehension with Nonfiction K–5, scheduled for release in November 2005.
Cullum, A. (1971). The Geranium on the Window Sill Just Died, but Teacher You Went Right On. London: Harlin Quist.
Graves, D. (1994). A Fresh Look at Writing. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.
Snowball, D. (1995). Chickens. New York: Mondo Publishing.
Warner, Sylvia Ashton. (1963). Teacher. New York: Simon and Schuster.