Did you ever notice that fourth graders like to complain? Nine and ten year olds have major ish with life! Pollution, Smoking, Bullies, War. Even green vegetables get to these kids. So Danny Valles, a really cool teacher at New Egypt Elementary School in NJ, decided to let his fourth graders make their gripes public. He created a Graffiti Complaint Wall. Students named their complaints, then they wrote about their issues in detailed personal essays.
Two really great things happened. One, the kids had lots to say so their writing had voice and passion. Two, their teacher listened. The kids had some major groaning to do about homework. So Dannie stopped to think about the amount and type of homework he was assigning. Then he had a serious sit-down with his students. And guess what? They loved feeling heard. They felt understood. And they were able to make changes in the classroom. Isn’t that what writing is all about? Making your voice heard in the world?
(For more on Personal Essay check out my website. Click the Tools button.)
When I start a unit of study with students I immerse them in the genre. I read a piece of writing to them, then I tell them what I noticed. ”Did you see that there are paragraphs? Did you notice that the writer used some interesting punctuation? Hm…it seems like the writer is trying to express an opinion?” Then I let the kids explore, giving each one a copy of the text, looking for more features that belong to this genre.
I did this lesson yesterday in a third grade, but guess what? Some kids weren’t noticing! That’s okay. I was prepared. I knew that in this group, some kids might struggle. Maybe they hadn’t done this kind of exploration before. Or maybe they didn’t have the language to articulate their noticings. I did some of the noticing for them, ahead of time and gave them cut up sticky notes to then name the parts/features of a personal essay. Then it became a treasure hunt–they had to look for features that were already named.
This kind of activity helps build background knowledge for ELLs, helps students who are new to the work, and makes for an interesting way to read as writers. (For more information on writing personal essays check out my website. Click the ‘Tools’ button and look for Personal Essays.)