Open Connections

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Creating New Opportunities to Develop Writing as a Part of Natural Learning

Moving into the Group Tutorial I programs, youth continue to develop their various skills around written communication. In recent years, writing has primarily centered around letters of appreciation to fellow program mates after each Mini Peer Facilitation1 and Word Presents2 at the end of the year. During Staff Development last August, OC Facilitators participated in a workshop led by Open Connections alumna and former OC Facilitator Andrea Fetterman, who tutors young people in Language Arts. Andrea’s workshop on facilitating writing with youth was just the impetus the Group Tutorial I Facilitators needed to weave more purposeful, frequent writing activities, large and small, into Group Tutorial I days.


One idea we gleaned from the Staff Development workshop was the idea of facilitating writing single sentences. Rather than requiring the young people to churn out thoughtful and well constructed three- to six-sentence letters of appreciation to each of their peers right from the beginning, the Facilitators have warmed them up by working on bytes of writing. One time, the Tuesday group collaborated on jazzing up a boring sentence with modifiers (adjectives and adverbs). They have also done several Mad Libs in small groups and talked about the main parts of speech: noun, adjective, verb and adverb.


Most of our activities involve a sequence of steps to support the end writing process. Youth in the Tuesday program created pet rocks with paint, glitter, beads and other materials. This hands-on stage of the project created Clientship3 for the young people regarding the activity. The next step was writing stories about the pets, and the last step was reading the stories aloud to the group. In this way, the youth were provided opportunities to develop skills in multiple intelligences: 3-dimensional art, writing, and reading aloud.


On Thursdays youth use writing in their own notebooks to encourage the free flow of ideas. The notebooks are used to get thoughts and reflections down on paper quickly. Youth are encouraged to write naturally, i.e,. it is fine to use phonetic/intuitive/inventive spelling. Valuable ideas that are percolating can be lost with interruptions for spelling and grammar. We have used the notebooks to record memories of field trips, to describe possible attributes of objects inside Mystery Boxes, to record the Farsi names of activities in a scavenger hunt, to record details in a slideshow of Iran, and to sketch.


This year Thursday Group Tutorial I paired up with Group Tutorial IV for an archaeological dig in the old trash midden (dump) up in the OC woods. Upon returning to our program space, youth jotted down words and phrases recording their experiences. They listed the date, the activity, the name of their partner, tools they used, a list of objects found, the level of difficulty digging, and descriptive notes about the woods. We then read our notes aloud.


At other times, we engage in writing that requires much closer editing of spelling and sentence structure. After our field trip to an archaeological privy dig in Philadelphia, youth composed thank you notes to our host. We started by using our notebooks to create a rough draft, jotting notes to remind us of the field trip experience. Next youth wrote their letters, which flowed more smoothly because they could consult their notes for ideas of what to say.


A yearly activity in Tuesday Group Tutorial I takes place at the beginning of the year when youth each compose a letter to their future selves, imagining what their life might be like in the future. These letters fall into the free flow of ideas type of writing, not hampered by concern about spelling. At the end of the year, they revisit their letters. The Tuesday group has also done some writing with an emphasis on correct spelling and sentence structure. When one of their Facilitators, Megan, was out sick, everyone wrote get well cards to her. In this situation, as in the case of the Thursday group’s letters to Michael Frechette, someone else would be receiving and reading the letters, thus offering a purposeful opportunity to focus on spelling and sentence structure.


Thursday Group Tutorial I youth are not only diving more deeply into reading and writing their native language— English—they have also been exposed to another language and alphabet. In conjunction with their exploration of Middle Eastern cultures, we are reading a book about an Iranian girl in 1942 Tehran. Interspersed throughout the book are many Farsi (Persian) words. We had a wonderful visit from an OC teen, Emily, who told us about her study of Farsi and the Arabic alphabet. We enjoyed the challenge of writing our names in the language of Farsi and with the Arabic alphabet. We also enjoyed looking through books that were printed “backwards” and saying everyday expressions in Farsi!


A writing project that grew out of the big dig in the OC midden was a Thursday youth-created newsletter about the digging process and the big “mystery object” that was extracted from the ground. As young people took turns digging and pulling the mystery object, others drew sketches, interviewed the diggers and took notes on the activity. So high was the excitement at the removal of the heavy object that the idea of a newsletter was born. Youth wrote up a story and then worked together adding, correcting, donating sketches and completing the newsletter.


Another writing element that has been added to Group Tutorial I this year has been a new element of the Mini Peer Facilitations. Youth who are in their second year of Tutorial, and others who would like to do so, will compose a three-paragraph paper to accompany their presentation. This piece of writing will round out the verbal and visual components of presenting Mini Peer Facilitations. Additionally, youth will be practiced in writing as they move on to Group Tutorial II.


As you can see, we have incorporated many opportunities for valuable writing practice this fall on both days. We look forward to many more opportunities being interspersed throughout the rest of the year. As families wonder how to facilitate writing with their youth at home, think about adopting possible ideas from these examples. I strongly encourage families to explore different, creative ways to incorporate writing in both casual and formal projects. The common thread with all of our writing activities is that there is a true purpose behind each writing endeavor (as opposed to “busy work”). It has been our experience that youth, even those who tend to resist writing, are significantly more inclined (and engaged!) when they can easily identify the true purpose of the activity at hand. Happy writing!