Learning from Our Youngest Writers: Preservice Teachers in Primary Classes

By Mulligan, Roark; Dawson, Kay | English Education, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Learning from Our Youngest Writers: Preservice Teachers in Primary Classes


Mulligan, Roark, Dawson, Kay, English Education


In 1994, at a small public university In Virginia, we developed a methods course titled Teaching Composition in Language Arts Classes for a new MAT program.1 As described in the article "From Pedant to Pragmatist" (Mulli- gan, 1997), this seminar accommodated a broad audience, both preservice and experienced teachers who taught at all levels (preK-12). With such a mixed group, the course necessarily focused on basic theories, principles, and strategies that were applicable in various situations, but it also encour- aged teachers of writing to write (Wood & Lieberman, 2000). As the program grew, the student body changed. Now, the classes are populated by tradi- tional, college-aged students who are enrolled in a five-year program that offers a bachelor's degree, state licensure, and a master of arts in teaching. To accommodate this new population and to continue our commitment to writing as a core pedagogy, the program developed a new methods course titled simply Teaching Writing. Although this seminar continues to explore the basic theories and principles of good pedagogy and the belief that writing teachers should write, the texts and assignments have changed dramatically. Our current preservice teachers enter the methods course in the fall of their fifth (professional) year as a cohort-they know each other well, and they voice their needs well. They want practical readings, discussions, and expe- riences-they want strategies that can be applied readily and universally to their classrooms. If writing theories and principles are to be discussed, they want to know how these theories are practiced in the classroom.

In the summer of 2009, an opportunity to put pedagogical theory into classroom practice presented itself when the principal of a local elementary school approached our university, suggesting we develop a literacy lab that would allow university faculty and classroom teachers to collaborate. This would permit meaningful integration of coursework and fieldwork (Zeichner, 2010) and a stronger connection of preservice seminars and practica (Moore & Sampson, 2008). At first, we imagined preservice teachers working in upper elementary classrooms (fourth and fifth grades) as writing mentors, but these plans changed when two primary teachers (K-2), who were both nationally board certified and who employed a writing workshop methodology, suggest- ed that preservice teachers might conference with their young writers. This seemed an excellent opportunity, but we, and other colleagues, asked pointed questions: Do primary students write much? What can preservice teachers, some planning to work with older students, learn about writing from young children? Three years of experience have answered these questions-young children can write proliflcally and preservice teachers, planning to teach writing on all levels, gain unique knowledge in these primary classrooms.2

Implementing this program in our seminars was simple but required some flexibility. To avoid major curriculum changes that a mandatory practicum would necessitate, we simply gave students a choice of two as- signments, a case study based on their work as writing mentors in the local school or a research-based analysis of student writing. During the first two years of this program, 80 students, about 93 percent of those enrolled in the methods course, chose to work as mentors and to write a case study. For the university instructor, the only difficulty involved scheduling the visits so that our preservice teachers, when possible, mentored on consecutive days-this allowed them to observe assignments develop over time. Although required to serve as mentors only five times during a semester, many chose to visit additional days, and a few who wrote the research paper mentored so they could observe a writing workshop. Since the elementary school is located near the university, transportation was not a problem, and some students commuted together. Before meeting the young writers, the preservice teach- ers rehearsed conferencing strategies in our methods course, particularly ways to discuss writing in a caring and constructive manner, but also several specific strategies, such as brainstorming, underwriting, and word stretching (see Appendix A). …

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