Teaching Writing from the Inside Out
After working on his dissertation, Dr. Ryan Colwell, assistant professor and director of Childhood Education in the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions (GSEAP), found that teachers use children’s books to teach writing in two ways: To provide examples of author's techniques, and to engage students in inquiry. But Dr. Colwell’s yearlong fieldwork didn’t just amount to two observations; these observations instead formed the foundation of his teaching for students taking Extending Literacy in the Elementary School at Fairfield.
Dr. Colwell realized the untapped opportunity for teachers to use their own writing as a model to teach their students, and in the same vein, use their students’ writing as teaching tools. From there, Dr. Colwell adopted the idea that in order to teach young students how to write, teachers must have the capacity to do so themselves.
“The idea is to teach writing from the inside out. If young students see that their teachers can write a book, they can look to them as a model of authorship,” explained Dr. Colwell. “And not only is it important that students look to their teachers as models in their writing, it is just as important that teachers recognize their students as sources of inspiration.”
To put this idea into practice, Dr. Colwell created a pilot program in which he challenged his students to step up to the page — that is, to create their own children’s book. After being presented with a blank "bare book,” he asked his students to live the lives of writers with the students they taught as part of their fieldwork, and write their own fictional story, poetry or collection of short anecdotes, complete with illustrations.
Dr. Colwell explained that this approach to teaching writing combats the more “one-size-fits-all” pre-packaged writing programs that are often adopted by public school districts across the state. “These programs basically provide scripts. They tell teachers what to say,” he explained. Instead of these scripted methods, Dr. Colwell argues that most students just need to see professional authors, their teachers and their peers as mentors to begin to grow as writers. “We need to give teachers and students time to talk as writers and readers, and talk about their challenges and successes in writing.”
To wrap up the semester, Colwell’s class shared their own work in small groups by reading excerpts from their stories and talking about how they used their own writing process and products as teaching tools in their elementary classrooms. Last year, students’ books ranged from poetry collections, to a photo biography of one student’s family, to even fictional stories that riff on old tales, like one student’s efforts to retell the story of Snow White from Grumpy’s perspective.
Similarly, stories spanned many different themes and structures this semester. One such story, “Messy Max,” by GSEAP student Paul Jarasek '18, tells the tale of a kid who absolutely refuses to take a shower. “I realized that it’s surprisingly difficult to write a children's book,” explained Paul. “I went through at least half a dozen ideas before I settled on an idea I liked. When you are teaching, it’s easy to get frustrated by students who struggle with their writing, but when you take the stance of an author, you can sympathize with that struggle and create lessons better suited to meet childrens’ needs.”
Dr. Colwell hopes his instructional triad of professional authors, teachers and students as models of writing can evolve into a published, collaborative process in the future, and supplement or replace standardized teaching methods currently in place.