The Write Way
Page 3 of 5

For several weeks, fifth-grade teacher Sue Ann Martin has been writing an "Edge of Your Seat" story along with her 22 pupils at Broken Ground School in Concord, N.H. Martin, a marathon runner, is writing about a day when she ran alone in the dark and began hearing noises behind her. She reads her story aloud while the children listen, riveted. She also reads three different possible endings, and explains the elements of mystery and surprise, reflective and circular endings. The children head back to their seats to write at least two different endings for their stories.

While they work, Martin circulates to review and comment. Her feedback is positive; she turns shortcomings into opportunities. "Each of these lines is so important, you could expand them into a paragraph," she tells one boy. She draws out a reluctant writer with questions: "What were you feeling when it was over? Relieved? Happy? Tell the reader how you felt inside." One pupil asks another how to write a circular ending. "The end of the story is similar to the beginning, so if you wrote an action lead, then the ending has to have action in it, too," he explains.

As writing time comes to a close, Martin asks who would like to share their favorite ending. Hands shoot up around the room. The endings are full of the "honest detail" and "internal and external tension" they've been practicing. "The coast was clear, but I was biting the sleeve of my sweatshirt," reads one boy.

Martin makes it a practice to do whatever writing assignment she's asking her pupils to do. She has been strongly influenced by Graves' teachings, and she says as a result she has raised her expectations. "I really push them to find the heartbeat of their story and to think deeply about their writing. I tell them, 'This is what authors do, and what we expect you to do.'"

These methods of writing instruction also work well with older students, says Linda Rief '66, '83G, an eighth-grade teacher at Oyster River Middle School in Durham. "The principles of time, choice and response that came from Don Graves have grounded everything I do," says Rief, who was mentored by Graves while working on her master of arts in teaching degree. "Kids of all ages need good role models and constant feedback on their writing," she says.

She applies these principles to the middle school curriculum. "I ask my students to write in certain genres, but they have a lot of choices within the genres," she says. Students who felt strongly about the U.S. presidential election wrote letters to the editor for class and then sent them to local newspapers. "They want to write for real audiences about issues they really care about," Rief says.

Teachers who write with their students are the exception rather than the rule, and Rief thinks she knows why. "Teachers want to be in control. As Don says, when you put your writing out there, it's like standing naked in front of 25 kids," she says. "Writing is very personal. By writing themselves, teachers show they really value the process and know how hard it is."

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