National Writing Project

Book Review: How Writers Grow: A Guide for Middle School Teachers

By: Lynn Jacobs
Date: April 5, 2010

Summary: Lynn Jacobs, a teacher-consultant with the Northern California Writing Project, finds innovative ideas in How Writers Grow that will help new or veteran teachers develop the writer within every child.


In her book How Writers Grow: A Guide for Middle School Teachers, Cynthia Carbone Ward has put together a handbook of innovative ideas for teaching young writers. It is not a textbook or a recipe book, but a collection of ideas for developing the writers latent in all children.

Ward, a teacher-consultant with the South Coast Writing Project (CA), focuses on "the quick hands-on quintessence" of teaching writing and packs this small book with ideas for leading students to the crafting of interesting and creative classroom writing. It will be extremely useful to any teacher looking to incorporate some innovation and new ideas into the teaching of writing.

One of Ward's guiding principles is that "learning to write requires that we first splash around in the medium and overcome our fears. It requires practice and positive reinforcement rather than the intimidation of constant criticism."

To serve that end, in "Finding a Way In: How to Get Started" she discusses five fundamentals that are required for the creation of a writer: the first days of the school year, the practice of journal writing, wordplay, using one's senses, and generally being a writer. She shares examples of excellent student writing and concludes the chapter with a conversation on the importance of a respectful classroom climate.

Although some might see the playful exploration she proposes as being at odds with state teaching standards, she says that the standards are "makeshift attempts to quantify the sublime, well-intentioned targets, but not your true purpose...If you do not alienate them now, you have greatly increased your students' potential to achieve the tasks in those state issued inventories."

Exploring Genres

Ward addresses the requirements of the test while also focusing on her goal of helping students "to discover a sense of the medium of words in all their dimension and possibility."

For example, in "The Light in the Language: Looking into Poetry," she begins with a list of poems and then offers some exciting ideas for pulling students into the world of poetry. Student work is again included, along with "An Assortment of Illuminating Activities." These include poems about emotions, list poems, friendship oaths, and odes to ordinary things, to name a few.

In each chapter, Ward addresses different genres of writing. In "Making Words Work: Writing for Results" she discusses the genres of writing most often included in standardized test prep by providing a thorough treatment of writing and revising persuasive essays. This is followed by a unit on technical writing.

The ideas in this section, originally designed for a high school classroom, are interesting and have the potential for bringing out competent technical writing.

Chapter four, "Book-Based Journeys: Writing About Literature," offers a long list of books for middle school students along with many project ideas for writing about them. Most of the activities presented in this chapter could be adapted to the shorter texts that many schools have begun using in the interest of achievement on the annual standardized tests.

Learning to write requires that we first splash around in the medium and overcome our fears.

The fifth chapter, "Bringing Writing to Life: Wisdom and Discovery Through Memoir" includes an inspiring section on an oral history project the author did with her students. She also includes ideas and activities for "epiphany" essays, in which the writer arrives at an important insight through having written reflectively about something that happened in his or her life. The chapter includes several good examples of students' epiphany essays, which illustrate the value of teaching such a genre.

In the final chapter, "Coming Full Circle: Assessment and Sharing," Ward discusses ways of assessing writing. She provides "Six Basic Principles" for a constructive approach to assessment that leads to growth and not simply a grade. At the end of the chapter she includes a sample rubric, which readers may want to use as a basis for creating others.

I found this an interesting and thoughtfully written book. It is not a textbook or a recipe book, but a collection of ideas for developing the writer latent in all children.

Ward recommends that teachers strive to find the proper balance in the classroom and not let standardized tests guide instruction too much. "Sometimes you have to tune out the noise and focus on what matters, even if the noise sounds authoritative; that takes a little courage, but good teachers have courage to spare."

All in all I recommend the book for any teacher of young adolescents who is looking for fresh ways of including writing in the everyday classroom routine.

About the Author Lynn Jacobs taught English language development at the high school level for fifteen years before becoming coordinator of program development at Marysville Joint Unified School District in Marysville, CA. She is ELL coordinator for the Northern California Writing Project and is a member of the English Language Learner Leadership Team of the National Writing Project.

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