Every day we begin writing with a mini-lesson. Mini-lessons are very short and are not necessarily meant to be applied that day by the students. For some, it is a first introduction to a concept which they will begin to recognize in their reading. For others, it serves to refine their understanding so they can explore using the skill in their writing. When people ask me how multi-age classrooms work, I often site lessons like these in which each child is using the information shared in different ways and with different levels of sophistication.
Recently, we've been exploring the idea of "show don't tell" in our writing. Making inferences is a key skill for fourth and fifth grade readers. They are learning to connect the dots that an author leaves in the text. An author may not say that a character is old but she may say that a character's eyes crinkled when she laughed and that her hand trembled a bit as she reached out. Initially, students are nervous about making inferences, afraid that if the author doesn't say something explicitly, it may not be true, even if all the clues are there. By teaching children about using inference in their writing, they are more able to apply the skill as readers.
After our lesson about inferences, we learned how to add detail through adverbs - literally, words that add more information to verbs. We created a long list of ways one could walk- slowly, quickly, friskily, stealthily -- and tried each one out (a big hit for this group of actors.)
Today, we used strong verbs to create a more detailed picture for our reader. We listed over 30 words that one could substitute for "said" - hollered, whispered, shrieked, hinted, shrugged. We had a great discussion about how some of these words, like "shrugged," have a primary meaning that doesn't involve speech but how we can use them in dialogue to convey a lot of information. Graphic novels have been very popular in the classroom, especially in the past week, and we also explored the limitation of the form when it comes to this kind of detail. After all, there are not too many variations on a speech bubble -- and yet, there are almost countless ways to say something. Finally, during our read aloud, we counted the number of times the author used a word other than "said" during dialogue.
When children are learning to decode words, they often gain the skills they need by writing - sounding out words and trying to capture them on paper in letters. As children become more sophisticated readers and writers, the interweaving continues. Students learn about new tools, experiment with them, recognize them in what they are reading and then extend their ability to use the tools.
One last note - the writing circle topics that the students are choosing are incredibly fun. I have been so amused by them that I've decided to join a group each rotation just so I get to write about "tissues" or "bacon" or "paradise." It would be a great home writing activity to ask your child what his or her topic is (we get new ones every Monday and Wednesday) and try your hand at writing a short piece on that topic. Your child need not write with you (although he or she certainly could) -- the idea is that your child sees you experimenting and having fun as a writer. Let me know if you give it a try.