HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED HOW CHILDREN DEVELOP THEIR VOICE? Walden School’s Partnership with Columbia University

January 31, 2013

writing workshopTo teach writing, Walden School teachers tap into children’s interest in exploring their personal experiences and expressing their perspectives. Walden’s curriculum intersects with the foundation of Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) in the understanding that writing is a life-long process during which we continually lift the level of our writing skills and outgrow ourselves as writers. Columbia University, recognized for three decades to be the premier provider of literacy professional development for schools, accomplishes this goal through research, curriculum development, and through working shoulder-to-shoulder with students, teachers, and school administrators. Every Walden teacher has received specialized training from Columbia to strengthen the skills of young, apprentice writers and prepare them for academic success.

Walden students at all grade levels explore a variety of genres, working on both narrative and expository writing. The writing program at Walden starts with the child and their story. This matches our school’s philosophy of recognizing the child as the center of gravity. To develop their stories, students learn strategies, techniques and conventions of writing. They work with an eight-step process—from generating ideas to drafting, editing and publishing—that mirrors ways professional writers work, giving students the foundation of being “real writers.” Walden’s writers matriculate with a sense of competence that bolsters academic success. “They identify themselves as writers,” says Director of Studies Terra Toscano, “so they think ‘I’m a writer. I can write about anything.’

“The great thing is that everybody has a story,” Lower Core Lead Teacher Trina Chavez tells kindergarten and first grade students circled around her for a first lesson. “But are all these stories going to be the same?” she asks. “I want to hear your story.” Starting with a mini-lesson, in which teachers and kids discuss the technique or genre of the day, Trina might hold up a picture book and ask the children to point out details in the illustrations.

In the independent writing time that follows, Trina might ask students to draw a remembered experience. As they sketch, she and Assistant Teacher Matt Little confer with the young writers individually, helping those that are ready to add letters (phonemes) or words, and eventually sentences to their papers. Lessons conclude with a share session, during which children discuss their work with peers.

The language arts curriculum at Walden School is designed to intertwine writing and reading instruction. For instance, through a detailed evaluation of mentor texts writers learn to look closely at the work of published authors and peers to learn techniques they too can try. There are fundamental traits of all good writing and students write well when they learn to use those traits.

Research has shown that the conventions of writing—grammar, spelling, vocabulary, etc.—are best taught in the context of the child’s own writing, so students learn how these conventions can help them convey their meaning. Terra says students are frequently prompted to ask themselves “What am I really trying to say?” or “What do I want my reader to understand?” “We want children to find their voice,” she says, “both on paper and their actual voice to be able to talk about things that are important to them.” This emphasis not only motivates their writing, but also nurtures their developing minds. “Often they’re working out their social issues,” Terra explains, “They’re telling stories that help them make sense of the world.”

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