“You have to learn the rules before you can break them.”
This is an argument I hear frequently – usually in favor of teaching the 5 paragraph essay before more authentic genres or for memorizing parts of speech before studying craft.
This year, my beat for Moving Writers reflects my role at school: intervention and coaching. I split my day between intervention at our district’s alternative high school and coaching teachers on curriculum and instruction. Because of this split role, I spend a lot of time digging into Tier 1 instruction with teachers to examine how we’re supporting and scaffolding our students. As you might imagine, I hear this argument about learning the rules before you can break them pretty frequently. It seems as though we ask our students to do an awful lot of formula work before they get to have any fun. And then we wring our hands about why the kids who seem to need to learn the rules the most don’t seem to want to.
I have a question, though: Why can’t we learn the rules through play and experimentation?
This reminds me of my 5 year old son and his LEGOs. (Stay with me, here.) You see, last Christmas, he got a couple of sets. They looked great. His aunt had picked out a set that seemed exactly like what he’d like, and the box explained that they were geared exactly toward his age range. They appeared to be exactly what he needed to get him building. But there in his closet they sat – for months. I figured he just wasn’t really a LEGO kind of kid.
And then I got a box of bricks at a garage sale: odds and ends, wheels, axles, even tiny little bushes and flowers. And do you know what? My son played for hours at a time. He built vehicles, houses, cityscapes, and animals. And after all that free building, he went back to his sets. He built a pizza truck complete with oven doors that really open. He looked at pictures of structures in a LEGO game on my phone, and he figured out how to build them on his own. As it turns out, he’s a LEGO kid after all.
The same holds true for our students – especially our students identified as being in need of intervention. We tend to think of fun options as being “extra.” We save those for honors students who can “handle” them. Then, for the students who are struggling, we drill formulas and rules and hamburger charts and wonder why they don’t seem to be interested, why they don’t engage as writers.
Instead, our Tier 1 instruction should offer invitations to play on their terms. We need to offer authentic genres, purposes, and audiences to engage them from the get-go. Let them play, make mistakes and draft thoughts in messy ways so that we can see which “rules” they really need to learn.
Last year, a new student of mine wrote a letter for his first assignment. He had incredible voice, vivid imagery, and he made a compelling argument. But the paper looked like a giant brick wall of writing. There wasn’t a paragraph to be found in the whole thing. If I’d started him off with a hamburger formula, sure, he might have started off with a stronger organization, but I’m willing to bet that his voice and imagery (you know, the stuff that makes us enjoy what we read) would have been lost.
Instead of front loading the rules, I think we should let our kids – all our kids – play with audiences and genres that interest them. Engage them through purposeful writing and mentor texts that they want to read. Start with what they can already do – even if it’s messy. Actually, especially if it’s messy. Then, coach in as they build and play with their words as bricks. Once they’re engaged with topics and audiences that they want to write about and for, they’ll be ready for it.
But what about the kits?
Kits are popular. Ask anyone who has ever walked the toy aisle. It seems you can get a LEGO kit to build just about anything from a fire truck to the Millennium Falcon. They help people build things they may not have otherwise been able to build by giving them the pieces they need and the instructions to get them there.
The same should be true for writing instruction whether it’s at an intervention level or not. In order to write effectively, students need our expertise to guide them to the pieces they need and the instruction to get them there. So how can we do that and let them play with choice?
Start with purpose first. Always. Why are they writing? Who is their audience? What do they need to say? By offering them some choice when it comes to their topic, their audience, and even their genre, we’re engaging them with possibilities just as a box of LEGO odds and ends can engage the imagination.
Use mentor texts to guide the way. Think about a LEGO kit. It’s full of pictures to guide us. Each step in the directions shows a picture of what the creation should look like. On the box itself is a photograph of the finished object. We need models to look at – both finished experts and works in progress. Can you even imagine trying to figure out how to build a LEGO vehicle if all you had was someone telling you how to do each step? You’d go crazy. You need something to show you what it should look like. In writing instruction, we use expert mentor texts and our own modeling to show students what the process and the genres look like.
Include instructions, too. There’s nothing wrong with scaffolding students’ understanding as they transfer what they analyzed in a mentor text to their own drafts with some written instruction. The difference between this LEGO approach to writing instruction and the model where kids need to learn the rules first, though, is that the instructions should come after the other essentials are in place. We can’t give them the instructions until they’ve dug into a box of bricks and decided what they want to build.
Once kids are rooted in a draft of their choice, and after they’ve examined some mentor texts, collect their thinking in a chart or an organizer or whatever works for your class. In the type of writing where we require kids to learn rules first, we may have given a checklist of things our students must do in a particular paragraph. Instead, ask a question like, “How do op-ed writers establish trust?” and collect a list of strategies that the students notice in their mentors. They probably won’t use every strategy in their own op-eds, but they’ve got some great instructions for what they can do next.
There’s no denying this process can be messy. There’s a reason parents everywhere wince at the thought of LEGO bricks strewn all over the living room floor. But there’s also a reason we keep buying the darned things. Our imaginations are engaged, and we’re supported for success.
It can be scary to introduce this kind of mess to a classroom, especially when you know that some of your kids will need more help with the instructions than other. But, if we offer them an invitation to play, with guidance and modeling from their teachers and their mentor texts, they can learn the instructions as they build. And what they can create will be boundless.
How do you engage your students? What about the students who wonder if they’re really writing kinds of kids after all? How do you invite them to play? Comment below or find me on Twitter @megankortlandt