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Written by Jon Sorokowski and Carol Hryniuk-Adamov
The Reading Council of Greater Winnipeg will host Karen Filewych for MTS PD Day, October 22, 2021. An Edmontonian, Filewych has been a classroom teacher, school leader, and consultant. Her two books, How Do I Get Them to Write? (2017) and Freewriting with Purpose (2019), are available through Pembroke Publishers.
How Do I Get Them to Write? Explore the Reading-Writing Connection Using Freewriting and Mentor Texts to Motivate and Empower Students equips teachers to implement an effective Kindergarten to Grade 6 writing program. Filewych offers new teachers a treasure trove of ideas and routines, and veteran teachers will encounter helpful tips to invigorate their instruction. Ready-to-use line masters are provided in many chapters. We agree with Filewych’s belief that students should write something every day; as she says, “teaching students the skill of writing is a gift of empowerment: words change worlds” (p. 10).
In nearly every chapter, Filewych recommends mentor texts, many written by Canadian authors. Because so many high-quality and culturally responsive texts are published each year, we recommend that educators supplement these lists with newer titles. Filewych’s active blog can help – she regularly often new books, which could be highlighted with parents in a newsletter for potential read-alouds at home.
The opening chapter, “Developing a Community of Learners,” reviews the importance of developing a learning environment that buzzes with energy, encourages risk-taking, and supports students’ development. Filewych recommends creating small writing groups of students, which allows them to support one another by providing gentle, helpful, and responsive feedback. We also believe that writing groups can elevate the quality of students’ writing. Much like how reading can be a profoundly social activity, writing can be too.
Chapter 2, “Setting Up the Year: Planning and Preparation,” offers suggestions for organization and instructional routines. New teachers will appreciate Filewych’s advice on making the teaching of writing more manageable. Filewych outlines a helpful yearly structure; students build their writing stamina during weekly activities (journal writing, reader response, and freewriting) and more extended genre units (narrative, expository, and poetry). We appreciate that she reminds teachers of the importance of writing in all subjects – not just language arts.
In Chapter 3, “Creating a Healthy Attitude Towards Assessment,” Filewych emphasizes the importance of assessment for learning. Using rubrics to communicate success criteria, conferencing with students to celebrate and strengthen their writing, and regularly engaging students in reflection and goal setting are three techniques she explores in detail. Conferencing questions and reflection prompts are included for quick reference. Assessment strategies are also weaved throughout the book.
Filewych has created genre-specific rubrics and recommends using the 6+1 Traits of Writing as a framework for discussing and evaluating writing. We think Filewych’s rubrics are excellent starting points, though we remind teachers that they will refine their rubrics as they come to know their students. We see an opportunity here to have school teams come together to review common expectations.
Chapter 4 shines the spotlight on the under-utilized form of freewriting, a routine usable in all subject areas during which the writer composes non-stop for several minutes. Filewych recommends teachers write alongside their students during the 5–7-minute freewriting block. She notes that this routine emphasizes the utility of writing and “liberates our student writers, as they begin to look forward to writing rather than dreading it” (p. 37). We agree and believe teachers need to prioritize freewriting; it builds writing stamina, helps students develop their writer’s voice, and allows for a deeper exploration of ideas and emotions. This chapter is among the book’s strongest, and we are eager to read Filewych’s expanded thoughts in her Freewriting with Purpose.
Journal writing is explored in Chapter 5. Teachers can use journal writing as a dialogic communication tool with their students. Through Filewych includes writing prompts, she notes that students become more capable of generating topics independently once they become comfortable with the process. Filewych also provides ideas for journaling in math and with pictures. We are encouraged by this emphasis on building writing into subjects other than language arts and building relationships with students.
Chapter 6, “Narrative Writing,” shows how Filewych spreads narrative writing throughout the school year. She teaches students plot patterns (such as transformation stories and quest stories), which they also learn to recognize in reading. The mini-lessons described are accessible and easy to implement. We believe these structures effectively scaffold developing writers, and we are pleased by the continued emphasis on the reading-writing connection. Again, we recommend teachers be judicious in their choice of texts and authors, so all students can see their identities affirmed in the texts they read.
In Chapter 7, “Transactional Writing,” Filewych emphasizes the importance of writing for authentic audiences seeing as transactional writing forms a significant part of life. Writing forms explored include letter writing, opinion writing, persuasive writing, expository writing, and feature articles. We recommend teachers supplement these transactional writing units with teaching about text structures (e.g., compare/contrast, cause/effect). Many students need direct instruction on reading and writing with text structures in expository text. Graphic organizers and text frames are helpful and needed scaffolds, and we would have liked to see some like in the previous chapter.
Chapter 8 explores poetry, and we appreciate Filewych’s suggestion to make poetry a playful and delightful study. She teaches her students the common poetic forms seen in elementary school (e.g., haiku, list poems, shape poems, and acrostics). We believe these structures are helpful with younger writers, though upper elementary students may crave the freedom offered by free verse. We like the idea of publishing a class poetry book and offering poems as gifts to loved ones.
In Chapter 9, “Reader Response and Author Studies,” Filewych provides writing prompts for responding to reading during and after a reading experience. The section on author studies contains a helpful list of favourite authors and many activities that work well with younger students.
In Chapter 10, “Teaching Skills,” Filewych reviews the skills involved in teaching the complex writing processes and traits. She stresses the need to engage in meaningful literacy conversations to support the development of each stage of the writing process. Filewych highlights ideas from leaders like Vicki Spandel, Regie Routman, and Ruth Culham and briefly addresses aspects of the 6+1 Writing Traits through mini-lessons. Furthermore, teachers are called upon to share what challenges them during the writing process. Filewych provides a novel description of revision as “a liberating process,” which may contrast with some writers who have felt revision debilitating and painful. She encourages teachers to model their thinking processes about revision. We are eager to hear her discuss fostering rapport and relationships for revision to become a personally “liberating process” to meet individual, young writers’ unique needs.
Teachers may want to read Chapter 11, “Emergent Writers: Kindergarten, Grade 1, and Beyond,” before other chapters, as it sets the stage for our understanding of the early development of the writing process. Filewych provides work samples to illustrate the nuances of various stages. She infuses us with hope about how teachers can inspire and foster the development of writers in early literacy and beyond.
Filewych also talks about the importance of listening and speaking. The need for dialogue and telling stories with props, puppets, and drawings needs to be valued more, especially in K-2. We believe that students are often rushed to write stories that they could have told and rehearsed more in pairs and groups before putting pen to paper. Students need the opportunity to represent ideas in ways besides writing, which supports the writing process and the composition of multimodal texts. We need conscious about emphasizing the interrelationships of the six language arts. In addition, Filewych stresses the importance of fostering vocabulary development and understanding the power of words. Having students keep a small notebook of their favourite words for themselves and others was an excellent suggestion for the classroom and children at home.
Chapter 12, “Reaching Our English Language Learners and Reluctant Writers,” sees Filewych give helpful suggestions for scaffolding and fostering equitable instruction. Her ideas about fair and equitable teaching are thought-provoking and deserve greater discussion. She provides many excellent ideas for expanding one’s teaching repertoire of vocabulary development strategies. She also shows great empathy for struggling writers. She heightens educators’ awareness of the social-emotional aspects such as fear in stages of the writing process. We note that teachers should be cautious about combining these two groups of students. These learners are very diverse, and both groups need equitable and differentiated strategies targeted to their specific learning needs. We need to learn more about being culturally responsive in reaching English Language Learners who have many rich experiences to share. How can students use more representation strategies such as drawing to tell their stories before writing?
Finally, in the last chapter, “Daring to Begin,” Filewych urges teachers to begin transforming their writing instruction right away to empower their students. The book also includes a list of further readings, including familiar names like Lucy Calkins, Ruth Culham, Adrienne Gear, and Lori Jamison Rog.
Overall, we enjoyed reading a Western Canadian educator's book on writing and found ourselves taking note of some strategies to implement right away. Jon began implementing freewriting in his Grade 8 classes, and already students' writing stamina has increased. Ultimately, Karen Filewych has written a helpful overview of effective practices for writing instruction. How Do I Get Them to Write? is a good introduction for new teachers and a useful refresher for seasoned teachers.
We are at a crossroads in writing instruction in Manitoba as we transition from the old to new English Language Arts curriculum. On MTS PD Day, October 22, 2021, Filewych will be a catalyst to remind us that we need to return to the writing process to strengthen our practices. We look forward to renewing our collective dialogue about engaging our students more meaningfully in the writing process and finding their voices as writers.
As teachers, we believe we must all continue working to strengthen writing instruction by synthesizing the best of practice and research. Improving writing will improve our reading instruction. Manitoba has benefitted from many professional learning opportunities about writing, including recent conferences with Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. The Manitoba Writing Project, thanks to Dr. Michelle Honeyford and Dr. Jennifer Watt and their writing community, continues to inspire a new generation of teacher-writers each summer. Let’s continue the school year with deeper dialogues about writing, and let’s build up the courage to write more ourselves.
Special thanks to Pembroke Publishers, who provided RCGW with a review copy of this book.
About the Authors
Jon Sorokowski teaches Grade 8 and is a graduate student in Language and Literacies at the University of Manitoba. He chairs the Reading Council of Greater Winnipeg’s public relations committee and acts as the Council’s treasurer. Carol Hryniuk-Adamov recently retired from a distinguished career as a teacher and reading clinician. She continues to devote countless hours to developing literacy in the province through her mentorship and leadership on the Reading Council of Greater Winnipeg and the Manitoba Council of Reading Clinicians.
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