The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

How to Teach Writing

Last Sunday The New York Times published an article, Why Kids Can’t Write, by Dana Goldstein, about the difficulty of teaching writing at all levels and the consistent failure of conventional methods such as teaching grammar or having students do a “freewrite”. The only one that produced any success, at least for one group of students, was using a piece of professional writing as a model. By imitating its structure, language, and tone in their own writing students were able to write the college admission essays they needed.

For me that was no surprise. I knew what to do when I was in third grade and was already writing poetry using the basic elements I saw in the poems I read.  Below is a poem I wrote and submitted to my teacher when our class was studying  early American history.  (I had not yet learned how to use punctuation.)

When I think about the pilgrims

It gives me a sudden thrill

When I think about the pilgrims

How most of them fell ill

When that terrible winter came

They thanked God for freedom’s name

They were grateful for what they had

Not in Riches to be clad.

Think what you want about the quality and historic accuracy of my poem; the basics are there. And they were there again in the models I used to teach students at several different grade levels. Later,in the two schools where I was principal, my teachers also used those basics in their elementary grade classrooms.

Our teaching methods were the same: have students read a piece of professional writing, talk about how and why it works, and then use its basics: topic, structure, language, and tone, as the foundation of their own writing. For instance, third grade teachers almost always had students read “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No Good Day” by Judith Viorst. Then they asked students to write about a memorable day of their own—bad, good, or just unusual—using as many of the original’s elements as they wanted. Although some students’ pieces would be more original than others’, everyone managed to do a decent job.

Even when I taught high school English, I would have students write things that reflected the basic characteristics of  pieces of professional writing that they had studied.

Throughout my years as a teacher or a principal I found that strategy for teaching writing to be successful. Once students recognized the basic elements of a piece of writing, they were able to borrow or modify them to fit their needs and overcome their weaknesses. Although writing was not always easy, it was doable and on its way to becoming a solid skill.

Rather than explaining any more about what teachers and I did, I will end this rant by reproducing some pieces of student writing from when I was an elementary school principal.  I will also indicate the writers’ grade levels.*

Nicki       Grade 3 

A skinny young lady named Niki

When eating was terribly picky.

She’d sit down to lunch,

But seldom would munch.

Poor Niki thought all food looked icky.

The Water      Grade 5 

I don’t feel like going in right now.

Do I have to?

No, I’m not afraid to.

Do sharks swim in this Lake?

Just asking.

You said it wasn’t cold, Mom.

It’s getting deeper.

It’s up to my knees

Now it’s up to my tummy.

How far are we going?


Let’s stay a little longer. Okay, Mom?

 The Dinosaur     Grade 2

Once upon a time there was a dinosaur named Danny. He was not like most dinosaurs because he had no courage. Most dinosaurs would attack others, but Danny would run away. One day his little sister, Amy, got in trouble with a fierce dinosaur. And he saved her. After that he stood up for himself. And he felt relieved.

The Loss of a Friend.    Grade 5

My kite just dove and crashed in the treetops.

It looks like it’s broken—a goner I think.

I loved that kite; I called her Ophelia.

Her body was purple; her tail was hot pink.


I have possessed her for over a year now.

I bought her in Shopko the first day of school.

She’s flown very well, riding high when ’twas windy.

Now I cannot fly Ophelia at all.


It looks like she’s breaking away from the treetop.

She’s pulling away with a wish for the sky.

Pop! Her string broke; at last she has freedom/

Now I must whisper a dear friend goodbye.


*Since these pieces of writing appeared in yearly books that were sent home to parents, I am sure that teachers worked with students to make spelling and punctuation correct, and that students often had to revise somewhat.  But I am also certain–because I observed in classrooms when children were writing or revising–that students did the basic writing by themselves.

P.S. Teachers of writing may want to look at my book, “Teaching Writing in Mixed Language Classrooms” for more explicit examples of writing done by elementary level students–some of them non-English speakers.

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An Insider’s View

Today’s post was submitted by an experienced and gifted teacher, Don Bellairs, who sees many flaws in current school systems.  The remedies he suggests reflect his own experiences and observations.

As a teacher in some challenging programs serving gifted and special needs students in several states, I grew aware of one constant: It is far easier to succeed when your students come to you ready for what you are going to teach. Yet such “successes”  are most often attributed in the media to district “communications specialists” who make more money than master teachers.

Equal opportunities in education demand cultural change. That means clearing out the sycophants who have learned that their jobs are more secure when they schmooze with the fund raisers. Reform means circumnavigating the “unions” to recognize teachers working in obscurity, designing lesson plans that provide opportunities for all students to develop and experience success.

Real teachers create learning environments where the gifted kids value helping those who are differently-abled—instead of simply working for the opportunity to surge to the front of their classes. It is a better lesson for every one involved.

We need to find ways to populate public school classrooms with REAL teachers. We don’t need school choice–we need accountability and oversight.  We don’t need vouchers–we need transparency and meritocracy.  And REAL teachers need a supportive union. Too many of them are laboring unsupported and unprotected, victimized by a corrupt union and a complicit state gov’t.

There is a LOT of work to be done, but most of the people who must do this work are also charged with creating lesson plans for two hundred kids every day (20% of whom need specialized plans), holding students accountable for completing tasks,  ensuring that students’ conduct and language are appropriate for large public groups,  interacting with stressed-out, often untrained administrators and colleagues, and reassuring parents who are trying to raise their children in a more-and-more frightening society.

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My Views on Kindergarten Preparation and “The Hechinger Report”

When I read the article written by teacher Sonja Murray a few days ago, I couldn’t help wondering why “The Hechinger Report” (HR) thought it should be published. Ms. Murray was so far out of line with the research on young children’s capabilities, the expectations of the Common Core State standards, and the views of the well-educated teachers I know, that I wondered if the HR had some personal relationship with her. Surely, the HR with its own good reputation and broad experience had not sought her out as an expert.

After reading the article twice, along with a few others published by the HR, I felt that two things were at work in their decision to publish Murray’s opinions: the desire of the HR staff to appear open-minded and the fact that  some of them share her philosophy. It should also be noted that the HR is focusing on education in Mississippi at the present time, posting several articles that praise the state’s actions.

Even so, I find it unacceptable for a respected news medium to publish such a narrow view without making it clear that it is a single person’s opinion. the only thing the HR did to justify its action was to offer a weak defense of itself below Ms. Murray’s article: “The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, produced this story. “

As for my reasons in posting Murray’s student requirements on my blog, I found her expectations for parents and their children so unreasonable that I couldn’t ignore them.  Moreover, I believe that the situation in her school argues strongly against her recommendations.  It is a Title 1 school in southeast Mississippi where 78 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunches. When so many children entering kindergarten live in high-poverty families,  it is unreasonable to expect their parents to have the materials, time, and skills to teach their children all the things things Murray expects.

Finally, my lengthy experience as a teacher and school principal, my university degrees, and the honors I’ve received, lead me to be contemptuous of Ms. Murray’s beliefs and practices. When children came to kindergarten at our rural Oregon elementary school, many of them did not know their own last names, could not write their first names in “upper and lower case letters”, and did not understand what was proper behavior in a classroom. When it was time to line up for lunch in the school cafeteria, I had to help the teacher get children into alphabetical order and stay that way so the cafeteria manager knew who she was serving.

Fortunately, our kindergarteners ultimately learned the things they needed to succeed at school. One important change we made was to separate the kindergarten class into two groups and place each one with a first grade class for the morning time. The young children quickly, and without complaint or orders from their teacher, picked up the behavior of their older classmates and a good portion of their knowledge. Since the kindergarteners went home at noon, the two first grade classes in the afternoon were small, and their teachers were able to move students ahead rapidly in reading, writing, and math.

Although I recognize that there are many cultural differences between Oregon and Mississippi that may affect education, I still see the skills and behaviors Ms. Murray expects of very young children to be unreasonable, and the actions of the HR in promoting her ideas to be unethical.



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Readers’ Opinions on Thursday’s Post

I’m pleased to report that three readers, who are accomplished educators, have already sent me their opinions on the article, “What Should Children Know and Be Able to Do when They Enter Kindergarten?” which I wrote about on Thursday. I will post a quote from each contributor and give his name below. If you wish to read their complete responses, you can find them in the Comments section at the bottom of this page.

Gary R Hargett started his response by saying: “Ms. Murray’s advice offends me.” He then wrote about his own good experiences in learning to read, and ended by declaring the extent of his disapproval of Murray’s advice to parents: “I want to scream.”

Paul Eck wrote that Ms. Murray’s expectations for kindergarteners “sound like second semester first grade to me.” He ended by declaring that ”Pushing first grade into pre-kindergarten is malpractice in my opinion.”

Allen Koshewa replied “It would be nice if all children entered kindergarten with these skills, but they are not nearly as essential as a sense of inquiry, playing well with others, and the ability to delay gratification.” He thought it would be better for children if “Ms. Murray could instead join forces with parents throughout the school year so that they could reinforce their children’s learning at home.”

There is still time for other readers to give their opinions. Especially, I’d like to hear from anyone who agrees with Ms. Murray.  On Monday I will give my assessment of Ms. Murray’s recommendations and “The Hechinger Report”s decision to post it.

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What Should Children Know and Be Able to Do when they Enter Kindergarten?

On July 24th I read a piece in“ The Hechinger Report” contributed by a kindergarten teacher in a Mississippi public school. Her purpose in writing it was to inform local parents about what their children should know and be able to do when they entered kindergarten. Although I have never taught kindergarten, I supervised those classes in two schools when I was a principal, and formed my own opinions about what was reasonable to expect from children just beginning school. Next week I will give my opinions and describe what the kindergarten teachers I worked with did to help children who were lagging behind their expectations.

 In the meantime I would like to hear readers’ opinions. I will post their views, with or without names, as they request.

Recently “The Hechinger Report” posted an article by Sonja Murray, a kindergarten teacher who has been teaching for 21 years. In addition, she has earned National Board Certification and a master’s degree from Mississippi State University. Below, I offer key quotes from her letter to parents of children who will be entering kindergarten this year and a quote from The Hechinger Report.

Ms. Murray begins by introducing herself and her school:

I teach kindergartners at East Mississippi’s Southeast Elementary, about 40 miles from the Alabama line.

At our preK-12 Title 1 School, 78 percent of our students are on free or reduced-price lunch.

After 21 years as a kindergarten teacher, I believe the most important thing children need in order to be ready for kindergarten is for their parents or other caregivers to take the time to give their children a firm foundation of language and math skills while their children are small.

Next, she gives a brief justification for her high expectations:

Research tells us that the brain is developing quickly between birth and five years of age, making connections that will impact future learning.

Following that, she offers a list of the skills she expects from beginning kindergarteners:

In language arts, children should be able to recognize and write their names, with an uppercase letter at the beginning and the rest lowercase, and to pick their names out of a list of names.

They should be able to recognize and name at least 10 lowercase letters (which we focus on because they are harder to learn than uppercase letters). They should be able to say the color of an object when shown the eight basic colors – red, blue, yellow, green, orange, purple, black and brown.

Children should be able to speak in complete sentences. They should be able to identify when words sound the same.

Children should be able to take turns, share, listen and be able to play together at centers with other 5-year-old children and know it is OK that they do not always get their way. They should to be able to sit and listen to a story.

Essential math concepts include being able to recite numbers 1 to 30 in correct order; recognize, name and write the numerals 0 to 10; be able to say the name of the number when shown a numeral and write the number correctly (not backwards).

The children should be able to count a set of objects and tell the number of objects in the set. They should be able to correctly name and identify four basic shapes – the circle, square, triangle and rectangle.

After that list Ms. Murray  goes on to explain that she and her colleagues have created workshops for parents so they can prepare children for kindergarten. She adds information about “Family fun Nights” that involve children in a scavenger hunt and literacy questions in order to receive a prize. She further explains that the scavenger hunt and its rewards are “a fun way to get kids excited about reading and to inform parents of the many benefits of reading to and with their children every night.”

 At the end of the article Hechinger explains– to some extent—why it chose to post this article:  The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, produced this story.

I will withhold my reactions to this article and it publisher until after readers have had time to express their own.


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