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April 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 7

Jump-Starting Stalled Writers with Storytelling

When 6th graders began writing stories for senior citizen partners, their motivation and writing skill rose.

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All teachers know the frustration of discovering in September that many of their students lack skills they should have mastered in previous grades—and unfortunately, this is often the case with writing skills. Older students may even have an entrenched idea that they're unable to write well and may show no stamina for the challenge of a substantial writing assignment. You might say such students lack resilience in learning to write.
This was certainly true of our 6th graders at Mount Elden Middle School the year we cotaught in Sandie's science and English classes. Mount Elden's student population is 31 percent American Indian, 30 percent Latino, and 36 percent white.
To build students' writing resilience, we embarked on the stories project. This long-term service project paired each 6th grader with a resident from a local senior living community with whom that student exchanged stories, letters, and two visits during the school year. The project was designed not only to foster enduring literacy skills and motivation to write, but also to strengthen students' ability to rise to challenges they face in the classroom—and to increase their sense of being part of a – community.
When planning for resilience in learning, it's vital to consider how students view themselves as learners and problem solvers. Teachers should help students develop a strong sense of self-efficacy—a person's belief in his or her ability to cope with stressful or challenging tasks. This was a tall order for us: Surveys administered at the beginning of the year revealed that many students possessed low self-efficacy in several academic areas, including writing. They believed they were not good writers and said writing was difficult for them.
Consequently, it was no surprise when after giving our first writing assignment of the year, a traditional what-I-did-during-summer-break project, we saw a handful of students struggling mightily, scowls on their faces. Mario, an English language learner with learning and emotional disabilities, wanted us to believe he had nothing relevant to say. He wouldn't write a single word until we pulled him into an adjoining room, where he dictated a few very simple sentences. Jonathan, a great talker, experienced physical discomfort as he tried to come up with ideas and write a story. He eventually produced one fourth of a page, which had little meaningful content.
When we analyzed the rest of the students' finished writing pieces, our facial expressions mirrored the grimaces we'd witnessed on Mario and Jonathan's faces. Many of these adolescents hadn't mastered basic writing mechanics and lacked the ability to adequately develop or organize their ideas.

Seeing Writing with New Eyes

We reasoned that our students' writing problems had probably developed over time, and they had internalized a frustration with writing. We needed to change their personal paradigms about the writing process. Strugglers like Mario saw writing as an obligation; we needed to help them find it worthwhile and rewarding. By connecting writing to something meaningful—and enjoyable—in students' lives, we hoped to instill enthusiasm for this activity.
Stories, an enjoyable part of many childhood experiences, seemed a natural way to accomplish this task. Data support the use of stories to increase academic engagement. We believed that if students were composing personal stories for the purpose of developing a relationship with someone new and interesting in their community, they would be motivated to develop better written communication skills. To that end, we worked with The Peaks Senior Living Community to randomly pair each student with a senior citizen who was willing to exchange letters, stories, and visits.
We hoped for a measurable increase in student motivation, a known contributor to both self-efficacy and academic success. And we hoped that this increased motivation would lead to resilience in learning as students began to identify their strengths and feel a sense of purpose.

Discovering Their Stories

Although our overarching goal was to increase our students' writing abilities, we initially chose to discuss the elements of stories more informally to familiarize students with story structure. We brought a professional storyteller into the students' social studies class to talk to them about telling personal stories. This was followed by science lessons in which we told, and students read, narratives about well-known scientific discoveries.
Students began to recognize the components of a well-developed story. We then guided students to discover their own stories by asking them to tell about a time when they felt like they had accomplished a goal or were at their best.
Many students were reluctant to speak. Taryn summed up what many kids seemed to feel: "It's hard to think of a time when I was at my best because I haven't really thought about it much." Another student, Lydia, said that she didn't feel she had stories to tell. Whether students failed to recognize their stories simply because they're rarely asked to tell about their lives or because they didn't feel their experiences were worth describing was not clear. However, this discovery reinforced our perception that many students had low self-efficacy. They were unable to recognize their strengths and accomplishments.
So we switched focus. For several class periods, we helped students identify and talk about a time they dealt with one of the difficult issues 6th graders face. They identified stress—something we often overlook when considering 12-year-olds—as an overwhelming factor in their lives. Homework, bullies, problems with friends or families, and where to sit in the lunchroom are all real stressors with which most of these adolescents identified. Kids of this age often wrestle with feelings of inferiority and isolation. Hearing about how their peers faced similar struggles, and having their exposed feelings validated, seemed to help some students feel more comfortable participating in class and sharing stories.

Launching Relationships Through Letters

We wanted students to begin building a relationship with their senior partners, but students clearly weren't yet ready to write their personal stories for these elders to read. So students began by writing letters introducing themselves.
A handful of students were able to express themselves fluently with little effort, but for the majority, letter writing proved difficult. Although students were definitely motivated to write letters, the content of their first attempts made it clear that many of them wrestled with finding appropriate topics for an introductory note. They provided only vague personal details like "I have a dog" or "My favorite food is tamales." Even getting students to divulge these few facts was difficult.
Many students resorted to lists of questions that made little sense in the context of the project. Despite the fact that we'd discussed issues elderly people face—such as loneliness or medical problems—several students asked questions that would be more appropriate for a same-aged peer, such as, "What do your parents do for work?" or "What did you do during your summer break?" In addition, using standard letter format was a struggle, as was the use of complete sentences and appropriate punctuation. Students sent their letters to the senior community, shortcomings and all, and eagerly awaited responses.
When students received the first letter back from their senior partners, the classroom was pin-drop silent. These 6th graders pored over every typed or handwritten word. Although each student was intrinsically motivated to read his or her letter, the process had its challenges. With shifts toward technology-based communication, people now place less emphasis on mastering cursive writing, and many students experienced difficulty reading the old-fashioned cursive of their senior's letter.
To foster self-efficacy, we allowed students to struggle with finding a solution, and they demonstrated great resilience. They located a cursive alphabet chart in their language arts textbook and used it to decipher the cryptic text. It was one of those rare classroom moments in which there was 100 percent student engagement: Even students with learning and behavioral challenges worked to make sense of their letters and then read them over and over again. The kids could barely contain their excitement about sharing their letters with – classmates.
Sammie, for instance, was floored to read about her senior Ima's experiences during World War II as a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. When Sammie shared this with the class, debate emerged about whether women had served in the military during this time. To clear up this confusion, Sammie went directly to the classroom computer and researched women in the air force, then initiated a short discussion based on her findings.

Sharing Face to Face

Excitement ran high the morning of our first visit to the senior living community. Many students were eager to meet their partners but uneasy about meeting someone new. However, as we discussed the fact that nervousness about new situations is a normal feeling—and shared personal examples of times when we didn't allow anxiety or fear to hold us back—students relaxed. Thinking students might have difficulty knowing what to say to their partners, we brought along several of our class's iPod Touch devices, with the intent of allowing students to teach the seniors about these tools for communication; we even added apps that might interest the seniors, such as Bingo.
Despite students' initial trepidation, the visit went off without a hitch. Few students even used the iPods during lulls in the conversation. They were chatting with their seniors right away as we circulated around the room serving cookies.
Responses to this visit were varied, but positive. Many students commented that they enjoyed hearing the stories the seniors told them. Marcel said that hearing a story "is different than just reading a story. I'll never forget Judith's story about her father who pretended he wasn't Jewish so he wouldn't get killed during the time of Hitler."
Janis was paired with Marge and Haloke, two Navajo women, because she could communicate in Diné, the Navajos' language. Janis heard many stories of what life on the Navajo reservation—where Janis herself lived—was like nearly a century ago: hauling water for miles every day, living without electricity in a hogan, relying on horses for transportation.
During this visit, students realized that their role in this project was important. More than one mentioned that they felt their visit helped to alleviate the seniors' loneliness.
The next letter each student wrote to his or her senior after this visit included a story of a time that kid achieved a goal and felt proud. We gave quite a bit of guidance for this story writing, helping each student brainstorm details to describe the event, sequence the details as sentences on an organizer, compose a draft, and revise it alone or with a partner.

Internalizing High Standards

The most important academic outcome of the stories project has been students' increased motivation to express themselves through writing. This shift started when students knew their partners would be reading their words. These 12-year-olds began to strive to perform their best; they wanted to tell a tale that would be interesting to read and they wanted their writing to be polished. And when students understood the purpose of their writing, they became more personally invested in it. As Janica noted, "When writing to Flo, I got to ask questions I was interested in. But when we are [writing] in class, we have to write about what you learned instead of asking questions that you're interested in." Students even reflected on their self-efficacy as authors. Erin said, "I think I write better because it's a letter going to someone."
This higher motivation was evident in subsequent writing assignments. We noticed a pronounced change in student work habits relating to writing: instead of rushing to finish assignments, most students put forth increased effort to compose with engaging details and use correct mechanics. Student writing became more descriptive and compelling to read. Even when not addressing their senior friends, they had internalized the importance of writing well—and they produced better work.
One writer described how he "felt like a pro athlete" as he snowboarded down a black diamond run. A girl wrote that her "heart was pounding like a bass drum" as the ball was hit toward her during a softball game and "felt [her] stomach lurch" as she moved in for the catch.
Struggling writer Jonathan not only increased the amount of writing he was able to produce, but also captured his ideas about a hockey tournament in some detail. Mario still needed assistance in getting his ideas written down, but now he had no shortage of ideas to express. Mario shared that he was at his best—and felt valued and needed—when he spent time with his grandfather and preschool-age brother.
The stories project gave our students a yearlong opportunity to learn about their community, their content standards, and themselves through stories. We hoped students would develop and practice written communication skills in alignment with the rigor of the Common Core standards. As this project ended, it was too early to determine its overall effect on student achievement as measured by high-stakes tests. But we know that by the end of the school year, their self-confidence and motivation were up, and they were writing higher-quality stories.
We hope our students will continue writing to their senior partners even though they are no longer our students. We also hope that they finished 6th grade with a sense of self-efficacy and resilience about tackling rigorous writing projects—one that will follow them into the next grade.
End Notes

1 Hadzigeorgiou, Y., Klassen, S., & Klassen, C. F. (2012). Encouraging a "romantic understanding" of science: The effect of the Nikola tesla story. Science and Education, 21(8), 1111–1138.

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