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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

I heard the music coming from the classroom before I opened the door -- Mozart's cello concertos. Over a year had passed since I'd finished coaching this new eighth grade English teacher in a tough school; I was driving through the neighborhood and decided to drop in and see how Ms. K was faring. What I found on this freezing January morning was something good, something working as I had resolved to find in our schools this year.

Ms. K was implementing a writing program based on a book called Rain, Steam, and Speed: Building Fluency in Adolescent Writers, by Gerald Fleming and Meredith Pike-Baky. We'd read the book together a couple years ago, but she'd been apprehensive about trying the strategies: there was so much curriculum to cover, she felt, she couldn't allocate the time to these practices.

Inside a Classroom

I was surprised that none of the students raised their heads to look at me or ask me who I was when I walked in; their hands moved furiously across rows of lined paper. Ms. K, perched on a stool and writing herself, smiled and indicated a chair in the back where I could sit.

Written on the white board was the prompt for the day:

Long Overdue Letter

You've been waiting for a long time and today's the day to write that letter. Write a letter to someone you've been meaning to write, but haven't had the chance to. To whom will you write? You decide. It might be a friend, a classmate, a relative who lives far away, someone in your own house, or someone who is no longer here. Write.

I remembered that the book offered dozens of writing prompts and also that the authors urged teachers to play instrumental music during writing time. They shared all kinds of compelling research about how it positively impacted a students' ability to write fluently.

Writing time was called to an end and papers were filed into manila folders.

"Who would like to share today?" Ms. K. asked.

One student had noticed me sitting in the back. "Who's she, Ms. K? What's she doing here?"

Ms. K explained who I was and added that my visit was a great opportunity to reflect on journal time and share their reflections with me. "But first, we always have two or three volunteers read their writing." At least half the class raised their hands.

LaKeisha read a letter she'd written to her best friend from elementary school who'd moved to Texas. Martel wrote to his grandmother who passed away last year. Javier's letter to his father, who is in prison, got many students wiping tears from their cheeks.

"Why do we do journal writing?" Ms. K asked her class. "Can we explain to Ms. Elena why we do this and how it helps us?"

Javier turned to me. "I just have so many feelings in me, this helps to get them out," he said. "I can concentrate so much better after."

A tiny girl in the front row stood to address me. "If we're going to be good writers, we have to be fluent writers. Fluency is about writing smoothly, fast, getting your ideas flowing like a river. We never have time to just write. Since we started this it's so much easier for me to write essays. I just have more words in me."

"Look," said a boy with long braids. He came over to me with two pieces of paper in his hand. "This is my writing from September when we started this stuff." Only half the page was covered in his large, sloppy scrawl. "And here's the one I wrote today," he said, handing me two pages, front and back, covered in print. He beamed.

All over the room, students rifled through their folders selecting evidence to show me. I circulated around. A remarkable one-hundred percent of students had made tremendous growth in their fluency, as evidenced by the quantity they were able to produce in 15 minutes.

"And we've heard a lot of music we never heard before," LaKeisha told me. "I never woulda heard Mozart, but now he's one of my favorite musicians." Many kids nodded in agreement.

"I get sick a lot," said Alexander, a tall, young man who commanded a lot of attention, "but never on journal days. Even if I'm sick as a dog, I get here on those days." He chuckled.

"How often do you do journals?" I asked.

Alexander answered: "Three times a week. I never miss those days. But Beethoven's my favorite. That Symphony 9 kills it!"

Around the room debate ensued -- Beethoven verses Mozart, blues harmonica against Zimbabwean marimba. Students referenced genres and musicians I'd never heard of. "It's a sneaky little side project of mine," Ms. K told me later. "I want to expose them to music they'd otherwise never hear and I love hearing music during the day. It makes us all calmer and happier."

I had so many questions for Ms. K and her students, but another 30 students were clamoring at the door, asking to come in and start journal time. Students in Ms. K's class were not only getting time to write (something that we don't see frequently in middle school) but they were loving it. They were sharing their writing. They were increasing their fluency. And they were listening to music as a regular part of their school day. I left feeling inspired and hopeful.

Comments (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Shoshana Gross's picture

First of all, this article made me guiltily remember all those days when "Journal Time" just did not materialize. Not that we did not write in the classroom - it was one of the main priorities - but there is certainly something special about the words that come from them in their journals. There is a freedom that allows their minds to soar and their ideas to flow. Thank you for reminding me about the importance of giving this time to my students.
I also enjoyed the idea of using music to enhance writing. I will admit this is a new concept for use in the classrom, but I myself often listen to classical music while writing (Beethoven and Tchaikovsky being my favorites). I find that the music both relaxes me and allows my ideas to flow with greater ease and spontaneity. This seems to be a wonderful method to try in the classroom, and I am glad it has been brought to my attention. I intend to try it as soon as possible!

Linda Wolf's picture
Linda Wolf
Director at Write2Win, a nonprofit organization

I applaud Mrs. K's decision to share all kinds of music, classical as well as music from other cultures and genres. When classmates can share the same musical experience, it adds to both their own internal sense of order and a feeling of community with each other. I hope more and more teachers will experiment with techniques like these. What a gem of a blog. Bravo!

Mary Eva's picture

In an effort to complete curriculum, writing takes a second seat unless it is focused on a specific novel etc.
I think it's great that Mrs K's students love sustained writing. Routine does help - students look forward to writing right at the start of class. I have tried to have music as background - however (hard as it is to believe) some students prefer silence.
I like the letter idea and will try it. Thanks

x suzi's picture

Getting students to write when there's no pay--er, grade--involved is a huge stumbling block.
Since we have a state writing exam, it's crucial to get kids to simply be able to write and fill the two scanty pages.
I welcome any forms, assignments, ideas to get disenfranchised, economically unpriviledged teenagers to not resist writing.

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger

Hi x suzi,
The book I referenced in this post does include suggestions for how to "grade"students on their writing - basically, if they fill half the page, they get a C, the whole age, a B, and one page front and back - an A. This does motivate some kids. Check out this book - it's really effective! (And I have no connection to the authors!)

Linda Wolf's picture
Linda Wolf
Director at Write2Win, a nonprofit organization

Hi Elena and everyone:
Have you all heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) that happens every year for the month of November? They have a great Young Writers program (free and online) that many teachers have applauded because it gives young writers a sense of community and the incentive to keep producing their writing. Here's a link to the Young Writers Program:
http://www.nanowrimo.org/eng/ywp

My best,
Linda

Barbara Pelicano Soeiro's picture
Barbara Pelicano Soeiro
1st to 6th grade teacher in Stockholm, Sweden

Hi! Inspiring article! I've also used (mostly) classical music in my classroom and we've called "quiet working music", this with my year 1s, and they responded really well to it, not just when writing but during other subjects as well. But it is great to include different sorts of music.
This book sounds great, just ordered it! But I'm hoping to be able tpo adapt it to my lower grades. Or is there a similar book, specially aimed at younger children?
Thank you!

Suzanne Jennings's picture
Suzanne Jennings
K-3 teacher from Mendocino, CA

Greetings everyone and thank you, Elena, for sharing Ms. K's inspiring teaching strategy. I often play music while my K-3 students create art, so why not when they journal write? Young children have so much to express and are often restricted by their limited abilities. Holding a pencil correctly is a challenge for some. Spelling can be a huge stumbling block for other. Just looking at a blank piece of paper is intimidating enough. How many teachers have heard their students exclaim, "But I don't know what to say!" Music has an almost magical way to soothe the senses. Through unrestricted journal writing, it seems obvious that music can transport the most inhibited writers to places deep inside themselves. When handwriting, spelling and the mechanics of writing aren't emphasized, will my young students feel less restricted to open up and attempt this most profound act of self expression? Will their ideas flow in this process of teaching the rudiments of writing fluency?
I cannot wait to put on some "quiet working music" and try out this journal writing activity with my young emerging writers!

Stephanie's picture

I really enjoyed this post. I am a reading teacher for 3rd and 4th graders and I have been looking for ways to not only improve their writing, but their enthusiasm about writing as well. I have heard of building reading fluency and have implemented strategies to enhance it. However, I am really excited to try out these writing fluency strategies in my classroom. I think my students would love it! Thank you for sharing.

La'Quisha Minor's picture

Thank you very much for this post. I use instrumental music in my classroom as my students work. It seems to give them a sense of relaxation and calmness as they complete their assignments. This post has inspired me to continue to use this technique,especially during writing time.

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