When Children Become Authors

By Rita Tenorio

The Room 4 Publishing Record for 1986-1987 is full of intriguing titles such as My Book is Love, So What?, You Little Noodle, and I Hate to Dust. It lists books about riddles and toys and television shows. These are not just newsprint booklets, but rather, real books with hard covers, notes about the authors, and library pockets with check-out cards. These titles are among the 250 books published by Mary Seider and her first grade students at Lowell School here in Milwaukee. Seider credits Donald Graves and his research on children’s writing in helping her begin..the process. In his book with Virginia Stuart Write From the Start he states, “Most adults think children can’t write until they can read. But children can learn to. write the same way they learn to talk, by going through a series of ever­ improving approximations of what adults do. When children write first, reading comes more easily.” Writing became the core of the reading program in Room 4, and every student was successful at writing, editing and publishing their own stories.

Mary Seider received a grant for the ’86- 87 school ye.ar through the Teacher Awards Program sponsored by the Greater Milwaukee Committee. She felt that “writing was neglected in the elementary school. In the primary grades, writing has often meant little more than handwriting. The grade one English textbook used in my classroom ignores all but the mechanics of writing.” Seider saw that children want to write and they are very able to if only we as teachers allow them to. “I noticed that they were writing even without  me, writing little notes to me and to their friends. They were teaching me about what they could do. I was personally dissatisfied teaching from the basal and using the endless worksheets with my first graders. I love reading so much and I felt that I wasn’t communicating this as fully as I wanted to.”

So Seider changed her methods and writing became a vital part of every day’s schedule. She said, “It.was very simple at the start. It was nothing more than handing out blank sheets of paper telling them that they could write about whatever they knew or cared about.” For the first five to eight weeks of school the children wrote for ten minutes each day. Their weekly writing booklets were kept on a ring to be shared with parents and to help them to see the progress that they would make over the year. Seider feels that while the teacher should be there to encourage and guide the students, she must let the children be in charge of their own writing. They decide what to write and are encouraged to sound out words and use “invented spelling” in their rough drafts.

It was during this time that the students were also reading “tons of ABC books’ published by many authors. This helped them to get the concept of a whole book and reinforced the skills related to beginning sounds. Each student prepared a rough draft of their own alphabet book. Through individual conferences, and mini-lessons on grammar and phonics, Seider helped them correct spelling and prepare to publish their first “real book.” With each final version having original illustrations, a hard cover bound in wallpaper and a library pocket (for friends to sign when they’d read it), the first-graders were on their way to a prolific year of publishing.

Placing Skill Development in Context Reading, Writing and Mini-Conferences

Seider is quick to say that this approach is much more than just a writing program. It is a holistic, eclectic approach to language arts instruction which uses exercises in phonics, grammar, spelling and handwriting as a means to an end. A student will learn skills and apply them in a meaningful context, not in isolation. Students need  to be exposed to quality literature daily. She said, “Children would imitate the writing style of the authors we read. The stories we read together had an effect on the themes and style of their writing.”

As the year progressed the writing time expanded to 20 minutes every day. Children worked individually, in pairs or groups as long as what they talked about pertained to their writing. “There was lots of cooperative learning taking place,” said Seider. Children learned to work independently and use each other as resources while the teacher used the writing time to conference individually. She stated, “My classroom became so productive. There were so many things going on. It was revealing to know that their skills could be applied. For instance, as we conferenced, I would read what they wrote in their rough draft. I’d keep reading without stopping because there wasn’t a period. I’d say, ‘Does that sound right? What’s missing here?’ and they’d say, ‘I want you to stop there,’ so, I’d tell them, ‘Well then we use a period so your reader knows when to stop.’ They’d learn things because they were going to use them. Skills and writing techniques were taught in a developmental framework as they became ready to learn them. I looked for those teachable moments with each child to help them expand their knowledge. Many of them went way beyond the expectations for a first grader, and all of them benefited in ways that would never have been part of the basal program.”

Each student had their own writing folder in which all the rough drafts were kept. Not every rough draft evolved to a published story, but many times stories would be put away to be taken out at a later date and developed further. Seider kept an editing checklist in each child’s writing folder. It was here that she recorded the skills that the children had mastered and kept information that would help her to evaluate each child’s progress. “During a conference time I might notice that a child was using capital letters correctly at the beginning of a sentence,” she said.” This skill would then be added to the checklist in the writing form and from then on become part of the editing process for him. The child will use that checklist each time to edit a rough draft before publishing.”

The students delighted in their work and exhibited great pride in the things they accomplished. Each day’s schedule included a IS-minute sharing time for the children to read their drafts to each other and receive applause, questions, and comments. Even the “reluctant readers” that are a part of every first grade classroom wanted to sit in the “Author’s Chair.” It was during this time that the students helped each other to improve on their stories and received the positive feedback from their peers limit motivated them to do more.

Success Stories

Seider spoke about some particular suc­cesses. “One of my students transferred into Lowell half-way through the year. He’d been in four other schools that year, had poor attendance and disrupted the class of­ ten. He did not feel very capable and the first day told me ‘I can’t write.’ Two weeks later, he published his first book, Herbert. He was a student that I feel was truly transformed through the process of writing, in ways that cannot be measured by a worksheet or an ‘end-of-book’ test. He gained self-esteem and his attendance and attitude did change.”

Parents too were excited by the activity in Room 4. Seider said, “The children would report that their mom or dad had taken their book to work to· show their friends. What parent would have done that with a workbook page or a worksheet? The parents were very proud of what the kids were doing.”

The Lowell School first graders took their work into the community with book displays at the Tippecanoe Library and Chuck E. Cheese’s Restaurant Class field trips to view the collections were very special occasions.

Expecting the Best and Letting It Happen

Seider has high expectations for her students and a strong belief that all of her students can write. The process was so enlightening to me,” she said… I got to know those kids so personally because they wrote about things that they cared about. I knew about their families and I knew about their trips and I knew about their dreams. My whole attitude changed from being a teacher

who liked to have control over every aspect of the classroom to one who gave them control of their learning. It was hard letting  them just ‘go at it.’ I knew that learning was taking place, but I was not always ‘in charge’ of that learning.” 

According to Seider, the initiative and self-reliance developed through writing carried over into the other aspects of the curriculum. Children learned that reading embraced a whole spectrum of activities and not just the basal. Each child found success at his/her own level, and while there were still children who were “below level” in the eyes of the school system, in their own minds, they were authors. Reading and writing were fun and the students experienced the joy and excitement of reading on a daily basis.

Among the books in the class publishing record, along with those about animals and seasons, there are several called I Love Mrs. Seider. This special teacher speaks strongly about the need for programs that nurture children to believe in themselves. Both she and the Lowell students have gained lifetime benefits. “The process took some self­ educating, and a lot of hard work, but it was worth it,” said Mary Seider. “Any teacher who really believes that children can write could accomplish the same things in his or her classroom. It was a very rewarding year and I know that I could never again teach reading without writing.