Getting over writer's block: CEHHS students strengthen writing skills by leading elementary school clinics

January 19, 2015

Brainstorming session Brainstorming sessions were part of the process for students at Thorne Primary School as they produced their own non-fiction books. The students participated in a writing clinic led by students in UM-Dearborn's Exploring Writing with Children and Adolescents course.

Rachael Smart stared at a sheet of paper. She was having one of those moments. Writer’s block had set in—and along with it a bit of frustration. She didn’t know it at the time, but that frustration eventually would help her become a better teacher.

Smart was one of 27 University of Michigan-Dearborn students to take Exploring Writing with Children and Adolescents last fall. The course took students out of the lecture hall and into a classroom at Thorne Primary School in Dearborn Heights.

“I find that regardless of the age of the teachers, the majority of teachers feel a lack of confidence in teaching writing well,” said Danielle DeFauw, assistant professor of education. “It’s one thing to know how to write, yourself, but it’s another level of understanding to know how to manage a writing workshop and ensure individualized learning for 30 elementary students.”

The first step for DeFauw’s students, then, was to feel confident about their own writing abilities. DeFauw led them in writing exercises during the first half of the semester and required them to continue writing in their journals throughout the term.

That writer’s block Smart was experiencing? DeFauw said it’s an important part of the process, for both Smart and her students.

“I want the teacher-writers to create writing communities in which everyone experiences the messiness of writing that leads into published pieces writers can celebrate,” DeFauw said.

That was the intention during the second half of the semester—lead the Thorne students through the writing process and end up with published non-fiction books. The kids determined their writing subjects—subjects ranged to sushi to the life of a seed. They drafted outlines and rough drafts; they heard critiques and completed revisions; they even illustrated their final versions.

“Giving students the freedom to write about what interests them keeps their mind focused on what they want to do,” Smart said.

As the kids worked on their books, their parents met with DeFauw to talk about how to support their children’s reading and writing development at home. And on the final night, the students read their books to their families, and author/illustrator Matt Faulkner read from two of his books and talked about his writing process.

UM-Dearborn student Alex Brown said the support of families and community members like Faulkner were essential to the success of the program.

“It’s not like teaching happens in a vacuum in one classroom,” said Brown, who is in the process of earning his teaching certificate. “It involves the teacher, the resource teachers, the administrators, the parents, the community. We are teaching these kids together.”

Exploring Writing with Children and Adolescents was offered as an Academic Service Learning course last semester. Brown hopes to see the format stay the same moving forward, connecting students to kids and their communities.

“I think what made it so successful is we were out of the classroom; we were working with kids,” Brown said. “You learn about classroom management in your classes, but that can only take you so far. Once you are there with the students, you just jump right in, putting theory to practice.”

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