Time to Focus: Week 2 through 4, Fourth Grade Writing

A Handcrafted Education:

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         The next three weeks Sean worked on narrowing the focus of his writing. I like to call writing with a narrow focus “tight writing”. This skill is particularly important in non-fiction writing. Writing that is too loose plagues even experienced adult writers 😉 Sometimes when I am having trouble with a chapter I have to vomit everything I know about the topic onto the page. It is as if I cannot focus down without getting it all out. Even when it is clear and cohesive though, it doesn’t make for good writing. There is too much information. It is the same problem kids have, except without my skill with the delete button. (I have many, many times erased pages worth of writing.) Kids come to understand that it is good and important to acquire large amounts of knowledge. It makes complete sense that they want to demonstrate how much knowledge they have acquired when they write. The only problem with that is it makes it hard to write a focused piece, and most writing is best when it is focused.

In case you are beginning to wonder, there wasn’t much writing being done this first month. I think it is a better approach to take some of the important writing strategies and focus on them separately. It emphasizes the importance of thinking about the strategies when writing and helps minimize distractions away from learning about these strategies. In addition, Sean worked on writing strong sentences. I didn’t call them topic sentences at the time, but that’s what they would have been in a larger piece of writing.

There were a couple of times during the month when I wasn’t sure about this approach where we looked at letters, and then discussed words, and then discussed how you take those words to build one strong sentence. It didn’t feel like there was enough writing going on, and it felt like I was dumbing down the class. That didn’t turn out to be the case, but I thought I should tell you in case you’re reading this and thinking that this approach is more appropriate for let’s say a second grader. The irony of me putting together this series is that Sean and I are going to spend the last part of this year, 2015, revisiting what we did in fourth grade writing. It is going to be more advanced, and more on his level, but after reading my last blog piece, Sean thought it would be fun to go back and re-look at this.

Month 1: Week 2: The forest and the tree

Day 1: Keeping in line with the artistic approach to language arts, the week started with me asking Sean to draw or paint a forest. I gave him no more information than that. I gave him an hour or so to do it. I painted along with him. In fact this month, I did the same exercises I was asking him to do. I did that so I could think through the process I was using and discuss the process with him. I also did it in case the lesson wasn’t hitting the mark I hoped it would when I thought it up. That way if I needed to explain it more or differently as he went along I would know right away to do that. After he painted the forest I asked him to write 1 strong sentence describing the forest, with 3 facts in it. As I said, we worked on this together with both of us creating our own sentence.

Day 2: We drew or painted one of the trees in the forest. Then I asked him to write 1 strong sentence describing the tree with 3 facts in it. It was easier to draw 1 tree versus a forest, and much easier to come up with a strong sentence describing the tree. That was the point of the exercise. I wasn’t sure if he would understand that from this. If he didn’t, I was planning on drawing a leaf the next day.

Day 3: We lived in a remote area, so we had to do this online. Otherwise we would have gone to a museum. We looked at a series of artwork. We discussed the techniques used by visual artists to bring focus to specific points on their canvases.  Sean wrote a topic sentence that went similar to, “Artists focus attention by” (and then he listed 3 strategies he observed).

Day 4: We went to the library and looked online to study how diaspora in history have affected families. Sean got into it and spent several hours studying this. I asked him to write one strong sentence with three pieces of information in it about the effects of diaspora on families. He couldn’t. He had too many things running through his mind to narrow it down, so the two of us wrote a sentence together. We spent a lot of time discussing what to include and what to leave out. Then we finished the week by watching Fiddler on the Roof. (Were you wondering why I chose diaspora?) I love musicals. That one has been one of my favorites since I was a little girl and saw it on Broadway. In case you aren’t familiar with Fiddler on the Roof, one of the central events in the play is a pogrom, and I treated the pogrom as a mini-diaspora. After that we both wrote a strong sentence with no problem about the effects of diaspora on families. We discussed how much easier it was to understand and communicate something when you focused and limited the amount of information. We also discussed the choice the playwright made when taking serious subjects such as diaspora, anti-Semitism, and depriving people of their liberty and property and making a musical instead of a drama. When teaching writing I think it is important to take a step back from time to time and discuss the decision the author made for the type of writing used to portray their message. We spent a lot of time reading Shel Silverstein during fourth grade as well. He often takes serious subjects to write about in his poetry.

Month 1: Week 3

Now that I had made my point about the importance of narrowing your focus when you write, it was time to help Sean learn strategies for how to do that. The strategy we worked on this week was narrowing the focus of writing with descriptive language.

Day 1: I used trains from the Thomas the Tank Engine set we still had lying around. You could use My Little Ponies or all sorts of things, but your child needs to know a lot about what you chose. You need three things that are the same (i.e. ponies or trains), with each having a different appearance. Sean and I each wrote yet another sentence, this time about the trains (but not a train) in the Thomas the Tank series. Then I put the 3 trains on the table and we discussed visual differences between them. I wrote the descriptive differences down for Sean on the white board and left them there. We discussed how differences in color and shape made one train appear happy and another grumpy. We discussed how word choices in a story determine the personality you think a character has. Next we read a story in the Thomas series discussing what noticed. Then we watched a cartoon with Thomas. In addition to appearance we discussed how speed and movement was depicted differently to create mood and indicate a specific focus for a character. I explained to him how much thought goes into these types of descriptive choices when designing products such as toys.

Day 2: I told Sean that we were going to pretend that we had both been hired to design a new train for the Thomas the Tank Engine series. We were given complete artistic control about the mood and personality of the train. Each of us needed to write down three characteristics describing the mood and personality of the train we were going to design. We did not share the descriptions with each other. These were just simple notes; no sentences needed, and the spelling did not need to be perfect. We each needed to create with clay the prototype for the train as we had described it on our paper. The reason for having him make it with clay was that I wanted to give Sean the opportunity to use a different artistic medium, one that required more tactile manipulation. We discussed that we made one general structure for the train and then we began adding details to make it specific. As we were working we talked about how much more interesting the train we were creating became as we added more specific information to it, i.e. doing little things to it to help create the mood or personality we wanted to convey. Next we shared our representations with each other. Based on the prototype we each wrote one strong sentence telling three things that we guessed about the mood and personality of our character. Then we shared what our original intent was for the mood and personality for our train.

Neither of us got it exactly correct for what the other was trying to represent. We discussed how there is interpretation both with words and other forms of art. Then we discussed ways that we could revise our trains to make it more specific so that the artist’s vision for what the train would look like would be more specific and therefore easier for others to figure out.

Day 3: I started by looking up the word dragon in the dictionary. We discussed, yet again, how this sort of bland definition was boring. It’s boring to read, and it’s boring to write. I turned to one of my favorite authors when it comes to tight descriptive writing, someone who is never boring to read, J. K. Rowling. I used her descriptions of the four dragons from the first challenge of the Tri-Wizards Tournament from the book Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, pp 325 with the word Dragons through the next 2 pages, pp 326 and 327, of the hardcover book. We discussed how tight, well-described passages are much more interesting. We also discussed that dictionaries should have the more generalized albeit less-interesting description in them 😉

Then we each wrote a descriptive paragraph of a dragon we each invented. The paragraph was a rough draft. We discussed word choices for making our writing tight, and descriptions specific.

Day 4: We edited our paragraphs so that the topic sentences were strong, and the writing was tight. We did not edit our writing for other errors, and I made sure to keep my writing at a similar level to Sean’s. It wasn’t hard because we brainstormed together, and I asked Sean for his advice a couple of times. I also asked him for help on specific word choices, such as, “Do you think it sounds scarier if I say the teeth were “like sharp needles that could pierce armor” or “pointed and dripping green blood”?”

In case you are wondering we were using Sequential Spelling for spelling, and using the occasional grammar worksheet to keep those lessons learned. We used Word Roots for vocabulary.

Month 1: Week 4

We spent this week using facts to focus writing. We also looked at how much easier it is to write about a topic the more specific the topic is. Over the four days of writing we used the table below. (I did use my book, RSO Chemistry 1 for this for Sean, but you could use something else. For myself, I substituted the words 1. vehicle, 2. car, 3. Ford, and 4. Mustang because I know very little about cars.) We both started each day writing the sentence on the left without reading anything. Then we read a passage and wrote a sentence using specific facts from the passage.

Day 1: The topic was chemistry.

Day 2: The topic was matter.

Day 3: The topic was atoms.

Day 4: The topic was hydrogen atom.

Write a sentence about chemistry Now read the assigned passage and use facts you learned to write a sentence about chemistry
Write a sentence about matter Now read the assigned passage and use facts you learned to write a sentence about matter
Write a sentence about atoms Now read the assigned passage and use facts you learned to write a sentence about atoms
Write a sentence about hydrogen atom Now read the assigned passage and use facts you learned to write a sentence about hydrogen atom

The posts in this series are from my notes when I thought all this up 5 1/2 years ago.