Affirming the Student Author and Artist(Writing in Color, 2012)Affirming the Author/ Effective Teacher Response/ Taped Response/ Examples of Actual Teacher Response to Student Writing/ Parent Response / A Cautionary Tale/ Famous To Themselves/ Voices of Fame/ Writing and Reading for Ourselves
Affirming the Author
When teachers read my students picture books, they sometimes exclaim: These were written
and illustrated by fifth graders? Few readers would respond with equal surprise if reading these
same students unrevised and unedited daily journal entries. Whats the difference between the
daily writing that students do for practice and the project writing that they do over a long period
of time and for a specific audience?
Lucy Calkins explains that knowing that their work will be published energizes students. My
students begin writing picture books and autobiographies because I require it of them, but
somewhere along the way they end up writing these books because they have stories inside that
they want to share. They no longer write for me; they write for themselves and for their bigger
audiences. But I am still their first reader, and the pleasure I find in every step of the process that
we take together makes a difference.
Margaret Atwood, in Negotiating with the Dead (NY: Random House, 2002), wrote about her
Brownie Troop Leader, a woman who loved her early writing. Girls earned badges in Atwoods
Brownie troop by making little books sewn together with the wool usually used for darning
socks, and Atwood shared her stories with her mentor through this book project. When Atwoods
troop leader was over ninety years old, her niece read the novel, Cats Eye. She recognized her
aunt in Atwoods story and brought Atwood and Brown Owl together for tea fifty years after
Atwood had first earned those Girl Scout badges. Three days before her death, Brown Owl
retrieved the little hand-sewn books from a box of memories and returned them to Margaret
A close friend of mine, Mary Jacobson, had a similar experience. In her early married years,
Mary taught sixth grade in Northern California before beginning her own family and moving
with them to Norway and then back to this country to pursue several careers. Her childrens
adolescence ended before Tamora Pierces books were published, but Mary is an avid reader
herself who continues to do volunteer work with children. She found herself reading a newspaper
review of Pierces books one day and wondering aloud, since Pierces name is distinctive, if this
could possibly be the same Tamora Pierce shed once taught and loved in her sixth grade class
many years earlier.
Marys daughter, Karin Brouillard (now South African Bureau Chief for the Washington Post),
was visiting that day. She responded to her mothers offhand musings by immediately checking
out Pierce on her computer. Mary kept on reading her newspaper while Karin typed away at her
computer. Suddenly, Marys reading was interrupted by her daughters happy shout of
recognition shed found her mothers name mentioned by Tamora Pierce at www.tamora-
The next year, as I was still scribbling my own stories, my English teacher (bless you, Mrs. Jacobson!) introduced me to the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R.Tolkien. I got hooked on fantasy and then on science fiction and both made their way into my stories. I tried to write the kind of thing I was reading, with one difference: the books I loved were missing teenaged girl warriors. I couldnt understand this lapse of attention on the part of the writers I loved, so until I could talk them into correcting this small problem, I wrote about those girls, the fearless, bold, athletic creatures that I was not, but wanted so badly to be.
After reading more about Tamora Pierce online, Mary picked up several of Pierces books at the
local bookstore to read for herself. She found among them a book Pierce had dedicated to: To
Mary Jacobson, my Former Teacher that is now one of her proudest possessions. Of course,
Mary sent off a letter of response to Tamora immediately.
Parker Palmer writes in Courage to Teach that great teaching happens only in relationship, when
the minds of a great teacher and a great student meet. Young writers hope that this will happen
for them and recognize it when it does; they hunger for purposeful coaching and a relationship
with a teacher that will endure. When I googled Tamora Pierce myself in order to write about
her connection to my friend, Mary, I found 111,000 hits to explore. Her books have been
translated for young readers into: German, Danish, Swedish, Hungarian, and Japanese. I
particularly loved the words of a young fan on Pierces website who wrote of her gratitude to
Mary for introducing Pierce to The Lord of the Rings and for inspiring Pierce to write. Pierce and
her fans have turned my friend into a teaching legend!
Since we are our young writers first readers, we are called upon to respond not only to the
structure of their sentences but also to the contents of their minds and hearts. Mary paid attention
to both when teaching Tamora.
Effective Teacher Response
My students learn to respond to one another in personal but nonjudgmental ways, to quote back
exact phrases, lines, and even full sentences that sparkle, and to ask questions of other young
writers that will help them to clarify their own thinking. Both students and teachers, when
responding to student writing, try to stay in the role of reader.
Respecting the autonomy of a writer while simply engaging him in a conversation about his
writing isnt easy, however. Preservice teachers responding to only one young writer at a time as
an exercise find this tough to do well. As classroom teachers we must often write back to thirty
writers in a single afternoon, a far more difficult task.
Some teachers dont like anything you write. If you dont write exactly the words they want, they say its bad writing. Some teachers think everything you do is perfect and dont give you any suggestions on how to be a better writer. My teacher gives you ideas on how to improve what youve written. Now I am not afraid to put my ideas down on paper and have others read my work. Sander Gusinow, Grade 5
The vast majority of the hours I have to respond to student writing I devote to work-in-progress.
I want to give students like Sander ideas on how to improve, so I spend most of the time
available to me talking about such ideas with my students. However, I know that students also
expect something substantial from me in the way of response at the end of each of the bookend
projects, and I try not to disappoint them.
I use stationary (with envelopes) whose petite size dictates that I write only short letters when I
respond to the published picture books. I write these letters while I am reading the finished
books, quoting favorite passages back to the writers as I encounter them. When responding to
autobiographies, I dont use stationary but write on specific pages in the Critical Acclaim section
of their books set aside just for that purpose.
Letters in response to picture books take me about ten or fifteen minutes a book to write.
Sometimes I find myself so excited about the growth of a book from its earliest draft that I
reread a story and linger over it, but I try not to do this. I am already familiar with the picture
books by the time that they are published; my response writes itself. Its the illustrations that I am
least familiar with when I first hold the books in my hands since students tend to do at least a
third of their artwork after completing their stories. For the autobiography, I also write and
evaluate while I read but, since these books are longer, it takes more time to write a final
The rubrics I use for grading change each time I teach the writing of picture books. I mark what
my state assesses each year such as: ideas and content, sentence structure, organization, voice,
conventions, and presentation, and I assign a numerical value to each. I also mark categories my
students and I have agreed upon together to consider such as: growth from early to finished draft,
attention to spelling and punctuation in final draft writing, cooperative work in writing groups,
deadlines met on time or not, evidence of research, focus on specific audiences, and effort
expended on book design and illustration. Students evaluate their own process and product
formally before I do so.
To discourage competition, I hand out grading envelopes to students at the end of the day on a
Friday. I ask students to share the contents of their letters only with parents, not with one another.
Accountability, as far as the writing of picture books and autobiographies in concerned, is about
producing students who will continue to love to read and will continue to choose to write. Its not
about any letter, number, or percentage grade. Alfie Kohn wisely advises us to grade infrequently
and only at the end of big projects rather than during the learning itself.
I responded to fifth grade writers two or three times a year by audiotape. Id read through a draft