National Writing Project


By: Terie Cota
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 11, No. 1
Date: 2006

Summary: Fifth grade teacher Terie Cota describes a writing lesson she spontaneously created on a rainy day, which engaged her students' creativity and led to an experience of success for one struggling student in particular.


During the summer institute, writing is a daily experience, and, of course, the hope and expectation of summer institute leaders is that writing habits developed at the institute won't screech to a halt at the end of five weeks. This piece was developed when a group of teacher-consultants hung around a day longer after their writing project site's winter renewal event and 25th anniversary celebration because they had the writing itch.

The week's rain had dampened my mood and energized my fifth grade students. I had been rendered soggily weary of inside time, while they were becoming increasingly frenetic and unpredictable, like the rain on the skylight above us.

But if truth be known, it wasn't the rain in particular that had brought about my dreary state of mind; rather it was the incessant pull of each new daily requirement to walk lockstep with my colleagues in pursuit of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP to the initiated). And at what cost?

Were my fifth-graders becoming better thinkers, better writers, better people, because of having successfully completed page 119 of their practice books on sentence combining? Did being able to identify the linking verb in the sentence on page 120 help them to use such a verb any more effectively? I close the damned practice book with a definitive slam. "Guess what? We're going to write," I say. "About the rain," I impulsively add.

Enrique is the one who told me in the first week of school, ‘I'm just not that good at school stuff, Mrs. Cota.’

Whether they are looking forward to the writing or are merely relieved to put away the cheerless practice book, I don't know, but they willingly and enthusiastically turn their attention to the overhead projector as we, in a whole group, brainstorm interesting "show, not tell" words about the rain. Proudly, they share aloud such treasures as "trickle" and "pitter-patter" and "gush" and "flood." Imperceptibly the mood has begun to change. An aura of anticipation is almost palpable as they begin to jot down ideas for the descriptive paragraph I tell them we will each be working on.

I watch them begin their work. Some, like Joseph, begin confidently, handwriting as fluid and sharp as their ideas will undoubtedly be. Others, like Enrique, frown and squirm as they labor to put the first word to the page.

I stop to watch Enrique further. A mischievous, kind-hearted boy with laughing eyes and a sweet spirit, he is in the intermediate stages of his English language acquisition; a low "3" in the parlance of English language development (ELD). His parents speak Spanish, and he once told me that neither had finished grade school before coming to the states. Enrique is the one who told me in the first week of school, "I'm just not that good at school stuff, Mrs. Cota." I walk around the room, in between jotting down my own rain description, and glance over his shoulder. Large, awkward print begins its ungainly sprawl on an already smudged and crinkled paper. Brows knitting, tongue peeking from his serious mouth, he works earnestly, and I wonder if he would describe such effort as any kind of positive experience. Smiling inwardly, I ruefully note that Enrique and I are not all that dissimilar—sometimes my own writing travails seem to be just as artificial and laborious.

The classroom seems quietly industrious; writers focused on this task of communicating, crafting, painting with their words. I watch for signs of readiness to share. Joseph, of course, finishes with a flourish, a smile, and a satisfied sigh. He sits back, contentedly looking at his page, ready to share with a partner or with the class, knowing that the response from his audience will undoubtedly be admiring and positive, as it usually is. Others rustle their pages, or bend their heads to one final literary effort.

Reminding the students of what respectful listening looks and sounds like, and making suggestions for how helpful and positive feedback can sound, I direct them to take turns reading their drafts to their partners. Enrique's neighbor isn't here today, and I bring my writing to his desk and sit next to him. "Let's be partners today," I suggest. His natural friendliness battles his academic wariness and he accepts this idea with an uncertain smile.

"You go first," I say encouragingly.

He sits up, takes a breath, and, to my surprise, begins to sing the first line of his writing with a singsong, definitely audible tune. "Drip, drop, drip drop, we're waiting for the rain to stop . . ." he sings to me. I am delighted at his earnest voice that—quite literally—has made a song of our weather. I smile as he continues to read a more traditional description of yesterday's walk home through puddles, which includes his being "cold like the freezer of the ice cream truck" (of whose ubiquitous presence in our school neighborhood he is undoubtedly reminded daily).

"You must read this to the whole class, Enrique. It's lovely," I say. "How smart of you to think of singing your opening line!" His face signals both relief and happiness as I share my genuine enjoyment of his creative and brave beginning.

In turn, he waits expectantly for me to share my own writing. I proceed, and after I read, he shakes his head with an admiring smile. "That was all so cool, Mrs. Cota. I liked the part best about the `watery finger tracing your backbone.'" We smile at one another, then, two successful writers sharing a creative moment. It occurs to me that my pleasure at his genuine response to my writing felt just as true and wonderful as such a comment would feel from one of my writing project colleagues. A writer is a writer is a writer.

Later, as a whole class, we share some of our work. As predicted, Joseph willingly shares a paragraph about riding his bike through the rain, closing with a description of a tongue scalded by hot cocoa. The class enjoys and celebrates his—and others'—work. I wonder if Enrique, when faced with those 32 expectant faces, will consent to share his own piece. At my quiet urging, he slowly stands, clears his voice, and begins to sing, "Drip, drop, drip drop, we're waiting for the rain to stop . . ." When he finishes, his classmates clamor to tell him what they love about his paragraph. I watch him, standing with a bemused smile, slightly flushed, and I know that page 121 in the practice book would never have given rise to such a moment in his day, or in mine.

About the Author Terie Cota is a teacher-consultant with the South Coast Writing Project in California.

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