Sunday, 23 September 2012

Running Through Patterns

A few years back, I picked up long distance running.  Maybe it was the milestone birthday I hit, or the inspiration my friend gave me after surviving a terrible accident, or the self-inflating tire that mysteriously appeared around my belly.  Whatever the case, I hit the pavement like never before.

At first, I thought, no problem.  I'll lace up my shoes and run for hours.   How hard can it be?  It wasn't long until I limped home realizing I was in way over my head.  I knew nothing about pacing myself, keeping hydrated, or wearing the right equipment, and I had to if I wanted to keep my body going.

So I did what people do when they learn new things.  I consulted the experts. One of the books I read was the Non-Runner's Marathon Trainer.  In it, the authors organized their ideas into 17 chapters, each one covering one week of the training schedule.  What I couldn't believe as I literally worked through the book was how spot on they were.  It was as if they were right there running every step of the way alongside me.  They knew exactly what I was struggling with both physically and emotionally, and they provided tips to overcome my obstacles.  They even encouraged me to adopt other habits related to eating and stretching that would enhance my running life.  And it worked.

What I didn't realize then is that experts see things in patterns.  They know their subject so well, they can predict the pleasures and pitfalls that aspiring amateurs in their field will experience as they grow in competence.  For running, there were patterns in building endurance, maintaining energy levels, and keeping fit that I knew nothing about.  Thank goodness they shared them with me, and thank goodness I listened.

Well, it's the same with writing, and this weekend I spent some time working with Carl Anderson, an expert on writing and conferring, at a conference at UWC.  

Like the authors in the running book, Anderson sees patterns in writing or developmentally typical things writers do as they try to get better.  He laid out a number of them, and he encouraged us to focus our teaching points based on the patterns we see.
Carl Anderson

According to Anderson, patterns emerge in the three broad domains of what we want our writers to know and do.  We want them to...
  • initiate writing.
  • write well.
  • develop a process for writing that works.

Within the "write well" domain, Anderson notes five areas that make for good writing (which can easily be linked to the Six Traits framework):
  • Meaning
  • Structure
  • Details
  • Voice
  • Conventions

To understand what he's saying, let's look at an example.  For meaning, you might have a student who includes every detail they can about a story even those that don't really matter.  As a result, the reader is wondering what the piece is all about.  The meaning is just unclear.  Anderson calls this an "all about" pattern, named after those "All About" books in the younger grades.  To address this pattern in a teaching point, we might ask that student, "So what's important?" and then teach that writers delete parts that aren't connected and expand parts that are.  Many of us do this in our "heart" or "the seed vs. the watermelon" mini-lesson.  (For more examples of other patterns and related teaching points, click here.)  

Noticing this as a pattern though is significant because Anderson says that patterns transcend genres.  In other words, that "all about" pattern can show up in non-narrative writing as well.  Think of the student who has to include every single detail he researched on a given topic in his piece of writing.  

Since patterns transcend genres, so too can the feedback I give my students.  I had always thought that my feedback for narrative writing (i.e., use purposeful dialogue) wouldn't transfer to non-narrative writing.  After all, how often do writers use dialogue in this genre?  The thing is using dialogue is a technique for adding detail.  So the student who doesn't have a range of detail techniques in his repertoire for narrative writing may struggle with the same thing in his non-narrative writing.  In that way, I am beginning to think in patterns for my writers and address them across the genres and throughout the year more effectively.  

In many ways, I'm still that runner learning new ideas and techniques. This time though it's in the classroom.  With Anderson's patterns in hand, I feel as though I know what to look for and teach into it more precisely.  Will I get it right right away?  To be honest, I'm not counting on it.  I'll struggle a bit as I raise the level of my teaching and try it out.  I certainly struggled on those longer runs at first.  When my students learn a new writing technique, they don't use it with finesse on their first go.  One thing's for sure though, I can I make my way through my conferences with a greater understanding of what writing is and how I can move my students forward as writers.  And while I know I've still got miles to go in this race, I feel as though my students and I will make it in better shape as a result.

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