Sometimes, judging a book by its cover latches doors airtight; whereas, opening them can exceed expectation. In the book A Door Opens: Writing in Fifth Grade (1993), the author, Jack Wilde, places the hands of the reader on the doorknob, ready to turn and indulge in what awaits across the threshold. What will you find? A slant, some may consider primitive, on structuring units of study in Writer’s Workshop that can unlock portals that may otherwise remain hidden.
What Is It About?
Wilde tames the abstractness enveloped in planning and teaching writing. Generally, professional texts about writing instruction create a sense that a classroom’s time during Writer’s Workshop is a time for writers to run free, yet Wilde created boundaries, refining a teacher’s thoughts that run a muck with wondering how to efficiently mark the territory their young writers must travel.
My fanaticism for writers is lined along bookshelves, and I discover myself rattling off their stats like a sports junkie: books authored, quotes, or overall craftsmanship. One of my favorite authors is Donald Murray (1924-2006), the architect for what is known as Writer’s Workshop. Over his years, Murray bred a number of writers who received the skills he offered and, in an orderly fashion, returned to their own author’s chairs; Wilde is yet another one of Murray’s prodigies. It’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks, and Wilde grabbed ownership of a writing world he once viewed as savage:
My approach and thinking about writing began to change in the summer of 1979 when I participated in the Bay Area Writing Program in Exeter, New Hampshire. It took an act of naïve hubris for me to apply. I still had not written outside of school, nor had I read a single article or book on the teaching of writing. (p. 7)
Wilde also confessed,
I attempted my first poem as an adult with nine years of teaching experience. (p. 37)
Typically, teachers are handed curriculum and expected to jump on board. If writing were as simple as following a herd, everyone would be able to track themselves out any clouded struggles while working through the writing process. Wilde argued,
In the classroom we should foster invention, not simply mimicry; invention for its own sake, but to create a richer context for the sharing of information and ideas. (p. 94)
In order to prevent a pack of scavengers from scouring the classroom during Writer’s Workshop, the best manner to create a tight knit writing community with a sense of purpose is to speak with authority and firsthand knowledge, which means a teacher must practice what they preach.
Grazing on Wilde’s Savannah of Beliefs
When discussing teaching and common practices in Writer’s Workshop, Wilde regurgitated information repeatedly scribed since Donald Murray established the writing process in his manifesto: Teach Writing as a Process Not a Product (1972):
Teaching is not a glove that one slips on to perform in the style of another. (p. 10)
We must give students time to plan, explore, fail, re-see, distance themselves from the work, and revise. I accept having fewer finished products so that each one can reflect the student’s commitment and concerted effort. The results bear out the importance of time. Given the opportunity, students will find effective ways to present their research. (p. 86)
In retrospect, why didn’t I know that when I first gave the assignment? I think because teaching in many ways is like writing: it is a process of discovery. We can’t know beforehand exactly where we are going, only the general direction we want to travel. (p. 70)
Collecting Wilde’s perspective on instruction and the writing process affords the reader a chance to welcome his sophistication when it comes to any suggestions that may venture out of the norm of Writer’s Workshop.
Point of View
Not allowing his writers to graze aimlessly, Wilde maps a direction to help organize and plan the immensity of writing in a variety of genres: narrative, informational, or persuasive, even interweaving genres in some cases.
Wilde set the crosshairs of focus on what should be examined and explored while writing narratives using bullet points:
The stories require three elements in addition to plausibility in order to work. The reader must know:
· The character’s personality at the outset.
· The event or events that alter the charter’s personality.
· The character’s changed personality. (p. 23)
These items don’t merely act as a warning shot for writers; they posses laser point accuracy, and Wilde scoped more detailed specifics for teachers to incorporate, either in whole class, small group, or conferring,
· Do I get a clear picture of what this character is like?
· Does my sense of the character match the author’s intention?
· Do the actions of the characters fit their personalities?
· How does the character change?
· Are the events in the story sufficient to cause the change? (p. 24)
When Wilde described the process he institutes when introducing a unit of persuasive writing as restricted, I almost shot at an orange vest that rustled some bushes, losing concentration of the task at hand. He described his parameters,
I have restricted the persuasive writing topic to writing about school or school related issues (i.e., buses, extra curricular activities, the length of the school day, etc.) (p. 54)
By fifth grade, students have considerable experience with the inner workings of their school day, positioning themselves in an actionable stance, either for or against. Wilde stated the importance of students to pick a side yet know its opposition,
These two features [pro vs. con] have become the focus of our prewriting work. The students first brainstorm arguments for their position. Then they explore arguments against with responses. In both cases they brainstorm alone and then try to extend their list by meeting with a self-selected partner. (p. 55)
By placing some restrictions on students’ topic choice, the pedagogy would mirror the herding of tranquil sheep, instead of feral cats. In his informational unit of study, Wilde corralled his students’ choice by selecting an animal for research. In this instance of topic manipulation, the population of words and internalization of differing genres exponentially grew. Wilde, again, shared the numerous forms of writing that centered this animalistic topic,
From the specific reading I’ve done in class of both professional and student examples, and the students own general reading experience, we develop a list of approaches to the writing, which usually includes the following:
· Diary, kept by the animal or researcher.
· Letter, usually written between animals.
· Story, told by the animal or a human.
· Who am I?
· “Choose your own adventure” story.
· Poem. (p. 74-75)
Even with all these alleged mandates on a Writer’s Workshop, Wilde roared,
Every year I think I have seen all available genres. Lulled by a sense of complacency I’m always awakened by some student asking if he or she can use a genre that hasn’t even occurred to me-not combining two discussed genres, but going in an entirely new direction. (p. 87)
A Door Opens: Writing in Fifth Grade reminded me of a safari adventure: There were so many terrific things to observe, but I was safely seated in the comfort of a well-sheltered vehicle. Reading Wilde’s book took me to a place I had never been before, exploring constraints to Writer’s Workshop and meshing genres, but I always knew existed; writing is formed out of inventiveness. For being such a terrific guide on my journey, I’d reward his efforts in A Door Opens: Writing in Fifth Grade with five out of five stars.
I may have been a little behind the times in choosing to sit down with this book, as it was published in 1993, but my present tense will offer greater gifts to my current and future student writers after breaking its spine. Wilde’s approach to opening up the enclosure teachers find themselves circling was actually rather civilized. After finishing the 121 pages, I was compelled to license myself to restrictions similar to those of Wilde. Though Wilde’s book attempted to focus on engineering strong writing, his definition of teaching in the introduction extends beyond Writer’s Workshop, and I couldn’t agree more:
Teaching, I believe, is an art. Like all artists, teachers go through various stages, each a combination of personal history, reflected experiences, and a deliberate intention (however ill-informed) to create. In any artistic endeavor there must be a number of false starts, missed opportunities, outright mistakes, inspiration from unsuspected sources, and generally muddling that only becomes clear in retrospect. (p. xii)