Beyond the Flashcards

Today we wrote about Godzilla. Godzilla fought King Kong at the Sears Tower and army troops had to be called in to break it up. Yesterday, it was anacondas in the jungle eating jaguars, giraffes and lions. I’m a little worried about what the principal might think of our topics if she happened to walked into our room during one of these exercises, but I’m pretty sure she’d approve of the result.

For six and a half months, my class copied paragraphs from the board every morning. Long, dry paragraphs about George Washington, Winston Churchill and other random war heroes from long before their time. This routine, as terrible as it was, was so ingrained in my kids, I quickly realized it would not be in my best interest to completely disrupt it, but we had to make changes. I told them we are going to write our own stories.

“What?” they exclaimed and looked at me like I was lost. “We don’t know how to do that,” they confessed.

“Yes we do,” I said.

The first week we wrote stories together on the board. They usually consisted of about four or five sentences and took over fifty minutes to write, but we did it. The stories were disjointed and usually contained some violence, but I felt it was important to let the kids see their ideas in writing, no matter how long it took.

This week we are writing our own stories. It is a huge stretch for all of my students. Some of them can’t write a word, but I let them dictate to me and I write it out or help them with spelling. Some of them can at least write a few sentences, which I edit with them and let them re-copy.

None of my students thought that could do it, but they have, and I have learned so much about their writing through this process. Elliott puts no spaces between his words. I don’t think he understands that words are separate entities. I wonder how words look to him. Does he even see spaces? I’m not sure. When I noticed him doing this, I started having him put a pencil in between each word, making sure he leaves that much space. It seems to have helped a little, at least when he remembers to do it. Many of the children leave out words. When re-reading their stories, they add words that aren’t there. I can see where their thoughts are, but it is clear their writing couldn’t keep up, and in many cases I don’t think they even realized the words aren’t there.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned is the lack of connection the kids have with the words they use and write. They are literally shocked to find their sight words in the stories. It’s like they had no idea the words they learned on flashcards had any real use or had anything to do with their writing or reading. I’ve been really stressing to them to incorporate the words into their stories and offer them bonus points if they do. When we write stories on the board, I select people to underline the sight words in the story. I think this is really important.

It’s not difficult to understand why these kids have never learned words they believe have no real meaning or connection to reading or writing. While writing a story about a guy falling in a river and being eaten by leopards, Anthony asked me how to spell the word was.

“You know how to spell was,” I reminded him. He looked puzzled for a moment and then almost shocked.

“Oh yeah,” he said and I saw a tiny smile grow on his face. I think that was the first time he made the connection—and realized it came from himself. It seems to me that making these connections has to be a crux of their learning. The kids need to learn these words are more than just flashcards. They are in our stories, in our speech, and hopefully in our brains.

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