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Educators Gather to Discuss Teaching Techniques at 56th Saturday Reunion

Authors, researchers and teachers came together to learn about and discuss methods for teaching reading and writing at the 56th Saturday Reunion of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in early April.

Authors, researchers and teachers came together to learn about and discuss methods for teaching reading and writing at the 56th Saturday Reunion of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in early April.

Children's book author and National Public Radio correspondent Carmen Agra Deedy delivered one of the keynote addresses to open the conference. In her remarks she explained how oral storytelling can persuade young students to write.

"The oral tradition is a good place for children who struggle with reading and writing to begin," Deedy said. "They can get excited about telling a story without having to deal with syntax, spelling or punctuation. Then they are often willing to do the hard work of writing."

Deedy illustrated the power of the oral tradition by relating several stories from her life growing up as Cuban immigrant in Decatur, Georgia.

One of the stories she related was of her father's first day working at Johnson Steel in Atlanta. Deedy's father was getting to know the plant and his responsibilities and doing well considering his limited command of English. But the biggest challenge of the day arose when he had to go to the bathroom.

Restrooms at the factory were segregated at that time. So several employees took an interest in seeing which bathroom the Latino man would choose. He paused, looking at the bathroom door labeled for whites and then at the door labeled for blacks. He looked at the men gathered watching, then turned his back to the crowd, went outside and urinated in the woods.

Katie Wood Ray, an assistant professor of language arts education at Western Carolina University and author of several books on writing instruction, taught a workshop on using literature to teach writing, one of nearly 100 sessions offered at the conference.

"If you know one well written text, you have enough material to teach for a year," she told the audience. "To ever really be a good teacher of writing you must know it well. It's depth, not breadth that matters."

After learning a text thoroughly, teachers should then ask themselves, "What do I know about writing because I know this text by heart?"

Text can teach genre (is it poetry or prose?), language choices (why has the author chosen to use these words?), how words sound together and the structure (the way parts of the text work together, how it begins and ends).

"Know some text, somewhere, well enough that it has a chance to impact your teaching," Ray said. "This will make teaching writing more complicated, but more rewarding."

Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Professor of Education at TC, and a renowned author of several books on teaching, held a workshop on ideas for teaching reading in the upper grades.

Calkins said teachers should use six ongoing structures-practices that remain constant throughout the year-while the subject or content changes. These ongoing structures include:
1. A read aloud book for a half-hour every day. ("It is absolutely vital").
2. A reading workshop.
3. Independent reading. (Teachers should guide the student's choices).
4. Partner reading.
5. Sharing sessions.
6. Word study.

She then outlined how the structures would be used during a typical school year.

At the beginning of the year, Calkins believes it is important for children to read a lot of books in order to build stamina.

"It's interesting that when people list reading skills, they never list stamina, but it is very important," she said. "Children should be reading a book every two or three days," Calkins added, "I don't think they can hold a story alive in their minds for a month."

By October teachers should focus on helping children think about their reading, making notes and compiling information as they read for a literary essay.

Later in the fall students should begin reading projects, a two to three week study of a specific subject that interests them. The project can be a skill the teacher feels the student needs to improve, for example, becoming a smoother reader.

December is a time for teachers and students to hold themselves accountable. Do the students understand the major themes in the books they read? Do they understand pivotal points in the plot?

Book clubs should form in the spring. The clubs allow students interested in similar books to read and discuss together the books they choose.

Pam Allyn, a member of the Reading and Writing Project's staff, directed a session titled, "Teaching the Elusive but Essential Qualities of Good Writing: How to Name a Cat." Allyn began her presentation by explaining that her family recently faced the difficult and important job of naming the newest member of the family, their cat. The poet W. H. Auden once said the ultimate test of a poet is the proper naming of a cat, noted Allyn.

"The ability to write well is the ability to name experiences," Allyn explained. She gave an example that is often seen in classes where students are asked to describe what they did during the summer break. Many students will describe a trip they took by saying, "It was the best trip." That statement "lands with a thud" and does not work because the "voice is not distinctive."

Allyn believes children now are more often being taught in a way that helps their voice emerge earlier. Teachers can ensure that that happens by "marinating kids in words," and also learning to be quiet and listen. "Teachers sometimes are too eager to help, too quickly," she added.

To explain this, Allyn described an experience she witnessed in a classroom. A girl in the class chose to write a book about flowers. The teacher was so eager to help the student she asked her almost immediately, "What colors of flowers do you like?" In asking that single question she was naming the experience for the child. Later, the girl asserted herself and said that she didn't want to write about colors, but would rather write about what it takes to make a flower grow, describing her plan of writing about a bucket, the sun, water and so forth.

To avoid intruding on the writer's voice, Allyn recommended that teachers ask the right questions that lead the students to content rather than naming it for them.

Allyn listed several elements that make writing particularly interesting. These include: tension, surprise, rhythm, silence, liveliness and energy.

One question still remained at the end of the session, how did the Allyn family name their cat? After watching the young, female feline fly off a piece of furniture and into the air, her daughter suggested the perfect name-Amelia Earhart.

Published Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2001