My Need for a New Writing Approach
During the 1995-1996 school year I observed that my first grade class had difficulty writing what I considered a "story" - a group of related sentences having a beginning, middle and an end. I would often get a series of unrelated sentences, yet was unsure of how to address this since I did not want to discourage the students' attempts at writing. I had felt at a loss teaching reading and writing during that year. Although, according to my school's policy, my bilingual first grade class should have had a whole language based reading series in Spanish, they only had the advantage of using books for two months out of the academic year. And now at the end of the academic year, many of my students could recognize no more than a handful of words. In writing, some were at the scribble/pictorial stage in that they imitated writing with scribbles and/or pictures; and others were at a pre-communicative stage where they would string random letters and letter-like forms together, then attempt to read it back. I was particularly concerned about writing because I knew that our school focus for the upcoming 1996-1997 academic year would be writing, as it had been the previous year.
Standardized tests such as the SAT-9 which require pupils to justify their answers in written form, have dictated a renewed focus on children's writing skills. The administration at my school planned that I should follow my students to second grade. Each student in the school would undergo a writing assessment at the beginning of the 1996-1997 year. Results from a similar assessment at the end of the year would serve as an indicator of academic growth. Not only did I realize that my effectiveness as a teacher would be measured by how well my students could read and write by the end of second grade, but I also realized how important those abilities would be to my students' academic careers and their self-esteem. With this in mind, I set about, over the summer months, to formulate an action research question. That summer I participated in an institute which exposed me to bilingual literacy and which encouraged teachers to conduct research in the classroom. I was fairly certain that my research would deal with my students' writing but so many aspects of writing ran through my head.
I mulled over several possibilities and consulted some of my texts from my language arts methods course. A highlighted section in one of my texts was helpful, "Sometimes writers will bypass their notebooks altogether. They may read a published poem, or imagine a poem, or live a poem, and then sit down with an empty page in front of them and produce a poem" (Calkins, 1994, p.43). I knew that my students, through their artwork, were imagining a poem. But could I get them to "live a poem"? Then, could I get them to write about it?
At the beginning of the 1996-1997 academic year I thought about the connection between literacy and constructivism, discussed in the second course of the institute that I had participated in.
I pulled out a text on teaching and learning, hoping to find how I would encourage my class to write about something meaningful. I kept reading that a teacher needed to facilitate "direct experiences." "A direct experience, as the name implies, involves physical activity by students. This physical involvement can be real or simulated" (Marzano, 1992, p.54). Could I facilitate direct experiences that would aid in my students' creative writing processes?
About a week later, in language arts class, I introduced a new story, El Toro Fiel (The Faithful Bull), to my students. First, we listed everything we knew about bulls and bullfighting. Then we discussed the meaning of the title and predicted what might happen in the story. After I read the story aloud, I decided on the spur of the moment to allow the students to use drama to retell the story. I had many volunteers so we retold the story three times, casting a few students at a time into the various roles. The children were extremely enthusiastic and talked about the main character, the bull, as though they understood why his character changed in the story.
I asked my students to write a retelling of the story and was intrigued by their responses. Those who were more proficient at writing, wrote about aspects from the story's beginning, middle and end. Even those who were more comfortable drawing pictures, drew a series of pictures. These pictures depicted an angry, fighting bull at the beginning, a lovestruck bull in the middle, and a bull unable to do battle in the ring at the end. I began to wonder if, just by accident, I had facilitated a direct experience through simulation?
When I met with my action research interpretive group that week, I told them about my experience with classroom drama. I explained that what intrigued me was the effect that drama might have on my students' writing. As I recounted the events of the past weeks, my colleagues agreed that it was an interesting topic.
My question evolved on that day. Although I recognized from the writing activities that drama might indeed lead to narratives consisting of a beginning, middle and end, I wanted to explore all the changes that might occur as a result of using this new activity. I suspected that some students might even begin to rely less on their artwork and more on their actual "living" of the story to support their narrative writing. For this reason the purpose of my study was to discover and document what happens when I introduce to my second grade class, drama as a pre-writing activity.
What I Have Learned About Using the Arts to Learn
There are educators who call for a movement toward putting arts at the center of the curriculum. These educators believe that the arts invite students to become active participants in their world rather than mere passive spectators. "Instead of telling them what to think, the arts engage minds of students to sort out their own reactions, and articulate them through the medium at hand" (Fowler, 1994, p.5). The arts are believed by these educators, to supply wisdom and insight rather than convey data. And this is exactly what those following a constructivist point of view advocate," ...educational environments that permit students to assume the responsibility that is rightfully and naturally theirs" (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p. 49).
Yet, while there are those who extol the virtues of using arts in education, the arts have been considered by many to be appendages of an elementary school education. And even among the arts, drama is often perceived as having the least value. Many schools offer specialty classes in art and music. In some high schools, students may even major in either of these areas. Nevertheless, drama is often missing as a specialty area in school curriculums and in teacher preparation courses. John Stewig, after five years of observing over 150 classrooms found that, "...many classroom teachers cannot find the time to give more than fleeting attention to dramatic activities or cannot convince authorities of the value of such activities" (1973, p.75). Alas, drama has become the forgotten stepchild of the educational curriculum. Yet, drama provides several advantages when used in the classroom. Verriour (1985), tells us that drama is a particularly effective tool easing the transition into academics for some primary grade schoolers.
Children go to school "...where learning is more cognitively and linguistically demanding than that experienced at home" (p. 181). Therefore, drama allows for simulating the kind of learning that children have experienced at home, the "what if" situations that youngsters and parents spontaneously create while playing make-believe.
But, even in the language arts curriculum, drama as oral communication often takes a back seat. "Textbook publishers state that oral communication should be stressed. However, an analysis of teacher guides do not support their statement. Writing and grammar are emphasized more than speaking and listening" (Tarlington, 1985, p. 199).
Stewig (1973) claims that the use of drama in the classroom provides for growth in the use of spontaneous oral composition and paralinguistic elements. He has documented positive effects in these areas since students are called upon to create dialogue, think orally on their feet, and compose as they go along. Students also showed increases in the appropriate use of pitch, stress and body language. In short, exposure to dramatic activities showed that students can become better thinkers and effective communicators. Indeed, the benefits of using drama are not limited to oral communication. There are those who have noted drama's positive effect on written communication as well. Margaret Amberg (1992) describes how she noticed dramatic play increase her students' awareness of writing. Writing tools and ideas with varied themes were integrated into a kindergarten's housekeeping corner. Each month the corner took on a different facade. In October, it was a haunted house and in December it became a bakery shop with children placing written orders. In succeeding months the corner became a hospital, a hairdresser's shop and a library. By March when a group of leprechauns made a mess of the classroom during the night, the group of five-year olds were ready for their first letter writing activity. Even after the Leprechauns wrote back that they were returning to Ireland, the students were eager to write to others such as their principal, parents and friends. By the end of the academic year, Amberg observed students writing their pretend play and pretend phone conversations.
Yet drama and how it can be used in the writing process is underrepresented in scholarly literature. Lucy Calkins, a respected authority in teaching writing to children, talks about the need to move children away from their drawings and into the use of written language to communicate their ideas. She mentions that by second grade children should not rely on using drawing as a form of pre-writing."...I'd want them to see that talking can perform the same function... in early first grade, then, the goal is to have writing catch up to drawing, by second grade the goal is often to have writing catch up to talking. The goal is fluency and voice, for the lilt of oral language to come through in a child's writing" (1994, p. 88).
When teachers ask Ms. Calkins how to facilitate this transfer, she suggests peer conferencing. Other strategies are valid as well in achieving this transfer. For example, Frank Cecala (1989) noticed something in his classroom that peaked his interest. Students reenacted, through drama, events they had read about in poetry. Afterward they were encouraged to write dialogues and monologues based on their dramatic interpretation of the poetry. However, the students, both in their interpretations and in their writings were inserting details that were not given by the author. He writes that,"...writers develop their real worlds from the fictional world in the pre-writing stage. Just as young actors become the characters and strove to attain a credible performance visually and orally, so now writers were becoming fictional characters from their reading and conveying their feelings in written form" (1989, p.67).
Moore and Caldwell too, realize the effect that drama can have on the pre-writing stage of children's writing. According to their research, " Although the importance of preparing for writing is recognized, preparation is seldom given the attention it deserves" (1993, p. 100). Further, they quote a 1981 landmark study by Applebee as finding that "evidently, many educators questioned the validity of pre-writing because the majority of students were expected to start writing within three minutes of the beginning of the lesson" (1993, p. 100).
Nevertheless, through drama, as well as art, Moore and Caldwell maintain that one offers children a rehearsal for writing that is immediate, concrete and can resemble the final product. "Hence, narrative rehearsals through drawing or drama may be regarded as first drafts, and thus may be revised and edited in these forms before the process of transcription begins" (Moore & Caldwell, 1993, p. 101). The review of the literature clearly advocates for the integration of the arts into the curriculum. Specifically, drama is portrayed as a helpful way to motivate students to write. With this in mind, I decided to focus my research on drama as a pre-writing activity.
A Journey into Writing Narratives Although I have been tracking the progress of my twenty-five second grade students (17 girls and 8 boys), for this action research paper I decided to focus on six students in my classroom. Four of the students are female and the other two are male. The students' ages range from 6 years and 10 months to 7 1/2 years of age.
Each of these students is proficient in Spanish and building proficiency in English. Two students in the class are able to read and write in both languages. However, the classroom instruction proceeds primarily in Spanish. Language arts are taught in Spanish since the majority of the students are classified as beginners in English as a Second Language. For this reason, the writing samples chosen for this paper are in Spanish.
Since I had been interested in moving my pupils toward writing narratives with a beginning, middle and end, and since the school district would be using written story retellings as an assessment, I chose to concentrate on retellings created after first reading a story then acting it out in some fashion. Following each dramatic activity the students were asked to write their retelling. In one of the instances, when the written retelling was optional, two of the selected students chose not to write a retelling. Therefore, information from that dramatic activity is not available for those students. In order to compare my students' writing before and after the introduction of drama, I decided to use one of the "getting to know you" writing activities from the first week of school as my baseline data. I chose this particular writing sample because the class had not used drama in the process, the students had been directed to "retell" an event that had occurred during their vacation, and because the data was still available. Preparation for this piece consisted of a traditional language arts activity. The students had constructed a summertime web listing everything they could think of about summer. Since I had written their responses on post-it notes, it was easy for the students to look at the responses and categorize them. Some categories were clothes, weather and vacation activities. The students selected the category of vacation activities and we constructed a new web on chart paper based on this idea. Students talked about Puerto Rico, New York and Philadelphia. They also mentioned seeing family, growing flowers, eating watermelon, fishing, swimming and going shopping for school clothes. From this second web came the inspiration for their writing. All of the students drew a picture of an event that they wanted to retell, then some chose to write about it as well. Later, all shared their work in the author's chair. Written retellings were also collected and analyzed for each of the drama activities. These samples were based on the following stories. Enrique y Pancho (Henry and Mudge), Pérez y Martina (Perez and Martina), Abuela (Grandmother) and El Mango de Rechupete (The Mouth-Watering Mango).
The data analysis was carried out using a Narrative Writing Scale (Appendix A) adapted from Moore and Caldwell (1993). This scale awards points based on the organization, style and context of each written piece as well as an overall score for the narrative. An overall score was included realizing that, at times, the product may be greater than the sum of its parts. A total of five points could be awarded in each of these four areas. I was the only rater that analyzed these narratives. Each piece of writing was analyzed for evidence of story structure (beginning, middle and end), well-constructed sentences including descriptors, well represented characters and a clear sense of story. Use of cohesive markers that would emphasize portions of a story such as "primero, entonces, despues, and al fin" (first, then, later, and finally) were of particular note.
Artwork was analyzed to see if the students were beginning to draw more than one picture in an attempt to convey a series of events in their retelling. Also, noted were students who were making a transition to using drama instead of art as the basis for the retelling and therefore, used little or no art. For this reason no points were awarded for the use and detail of artwork.
The creativity of the writing was also analyzed. I looked to see if the retelling covered major events and included details not mentioned in the original. I had some prior experience in drama and had often noted that an actor will refer to his/her character as "I". I wondered if the same might occur in children's writing, so I took note to see if the retellings were written in the third person or the first. Again, no points were assigned for these areas.
Aside from evaluating the students' written work, I used classroom observation to note any attitude shifts or changes in writing habits. I observed to see if drama might have an effect on student collaboration. I wanted to see if the drama pre-writing activity might have an effect on students who usually groaned when I mentioned writing. I also wanted to note my students' reactions to the drama activities as well as their reaction when I announced that we would be having a read-aloud. Student journals were examined at the end of the four-week period to note any changes that may have occurred in the non-directed writing topics. In addition, I was extremely interested in noting how these experiences might influence the pupils' affect toward writing. For this reason I developed a three point attitude scale - positive, negative and neutral (appendix B) - that the second graders responded to in a class activity. The six students who were targeted for the analysis were also followed-up with an interview to determine their attitudes toward writing and the use of pre-writing activities.
For the purpose of an in-depth analysis, six of my second-graders were selected as representative of my entire class (Hector, Elena, Pilar, Teresa, Jorge and Carmen). Since my class consists of (68%) females, I chose four girls to be part of the representative group (67%).A Closer Look at Narratives
Three of the six students could be described as being in an independent stage of writing in that they correctly spell high-frequency words, use a larger vocabulary, write more complex reports, and are aware of the need for editing (though they rebel against it). One of the students should be classified as being in the transitional stage of writing in that she writes longer passages, experiments with different forms of writing and is beginning to correctly spell well-known words. The fifth child is in the phonetic stage in that he uses invented spelling, spells some words correctly and writes one or more sentences.
The sixth child, Hector, is straddling the boundary line between the scribble/pictorial stage and the precommunicative stage. He still likes to draw a picture and tell about it, yet he is increasingly interested in having his ideas written down. During the time of my inquiry, he began to write letters to convey a message and would then attempt to read them back.
Hector's first piece about his vacation consisted solely of a picture and his name. Yet I remember that he sat in the author chair and "read" his story telling the class that he had gone fishing with an uncle and had caught a snake that he threw back. After we read the story, Enrique y Pancho, I introduced a class drama activity. Students took turns acting out the various roles in the story - even the dog - as I recounted the events that led Enrique's parents to buy a puppy so that their son would not be lonely. After the second reenactment, one student volunteered to act as narrator using the illustrations from the book as support.
Hector's written retelling of this story, although it earned him only a 4 on the Narrative Writing Scale, was different from his first piece. I noticed that for Enrique y Pancho, Hector drew a series of three pictures (Appendix C). The first picture showed Enrique alone with his parents, the second depicted Enrique with a puppy, and the third picture showed that the puppy had grown. He then turned the paper over, drew three similar pictures and added the words, "mama, papa, me compr" (Mom, Dad, buy me). It was not until our next story leading to drama that I saw more of a change in Hector's behavior during language arts. As a whole class activity, we had read the book Abuela twice examining the colorful illustrations and various settings. Then the students reminisced about their grandmothers and we all brainstormed about where we would go if we could fly high in the sky with our grandmother, just like the girl in the story. When the class divided into their cooperative learning groups, I noticed that Hector, usually an animated boy, was quiet and pensive. He watched as two girls improvised their flying trip with Abuela. Then he jumped up and announced that Abuela and he would be flying to Puerto Rico. I saw him happily flapping his arms as I strolled on to another group.
Later that morning was the first time I saw Hector take advantage of peer conferencing. With the help of a companion in his group, Hector was able to compose and edit his story (Appendix C):Yo estoy volando con mi abuela a Puerto Rico. (I am flying with my Grandmother to Puerto Rico.)Because of his choice to put more of his story into words, this piece earned Hector a 5 on the Narrative Writing Scale, up a point from his last two narratives.
Our next week's activity centered on the Puerto Rican folktale, Martina y Pérez. As I read aloud, many students took turns acting out the various animals who call upon the Spanish cockroach, Martina, and ask for her hand in marriage. Martina finally chooses the refined mouse named Pérez. The wedding that follows, as well as the events that lead to Perez tragic fate, were the scenes that the children wanted to reenact over and over. However, some students expressed surprise over Martina's choice of a husband.
From this surprised reaction came the idea for a learning center. After retelling the story in pairs, the students could color and assemble small finger puppets depicting several animals and insects. In paired improvisations, utilizing the puppets, the children imagined which suitor Martina would have chosen had she not chosen the mouse, Pérez. Once they were satisfied with their scene, they were to write and explain what would happen when that suitor called upon Martina and why she would choose that suitor above all others.
Hector, like the others in the class, finished all his work quickly and correctly that week so that he would have the opportunity to visit the learning center. He engaged in and claims to have enjoyed the puppetry. However, Hector was one of six boys in my class who declined to complete the written portion of the learning center activity. Each of these six boys told me that writing about getting married is "for girls." Because of this, no written data was available for analysis. Interestingly enough though, Hector told me in a follow-up interview that using puppets can be easier than acting out a story oneself. While that may be true I noted that none of the students in my class produced their highest quality work from the drama activity associated with the puppetry.
During the final week of this inquiry, we began a new story in our whole-language based reading series. This story, El Mango de Rechupete, chronicles a young African girl, Tica, who attempts to pick a mango from a tall tree. She begins to despair after a few failures until she remembers the words of her grandfather. Tica looks up into the tree and sees a monkey. Knowing that monkeys delight in imitating others, she uses her quick thinking to get the mango. I read the story aloud to the class, and it was Hector who suggested that we act it out. I could sense the reluctance of some to be cast as a monkey so I divided the class into two sections. During the first retelling, half of the class acted out Tica's role while the other half assumed the role of the monkey. Roles were reversed for the second retelling. Afterward, the students chose a partner and reenacted the story using their own dialogue and, in essence, directing one another.
When the students were satisfied with their reenactments, they sat down to write their retellings of El Mango de Rechupete. It was then that I realized how noisy my classroom had gotten. I thought back to what my classroom had been like just one month before during writing time. Images flooded into my mind, but the strongest of these memories was the absence of sound. I could remember noticing a student's sigh or the squeak of a desk being shaken by vigorous erasures. Now I wondered if anyone would believe that there was writing going on in my classroom. And yet, this is the piece that, as a whole, produced the most dramatic results in my students' writing. As for Hector, with the help of partners in his cooperative group, he was able to communicate his thoughts in written form. Although he did not start his narrative at the beginning of the story, he chose one episode and related part of it with more detail than he had used previously. Unlike his writing just three weeks before, these were two sentences that recounted an actual event. On the narrative writing scale, this piece received a score of 6. Hector's scores on the narrative writing scale had increased over the four weeks from a 4 to a 6. When I interviewed Hector I told him that I had been a bit surprised to see that on his attitude scale he had answered that he feels happy when it is time to write. In the past Hector had been vocal about his dislike for writing and would frequently groan when I would mention a writing activity. But, he told me that writing was more fun now in the second grade than it had been in the first. Although he admitted to enjoying the dramatic activities, he maintained that he preferred to draw before writing a story.
Elena too is a student who on the attitude scale claimed to feel happy with reading, writing, art and drama activities. She stated that she prefers to use drawing in pre-writing. I have observed though that she will usually add little in written form unless she is encouraged to do so.
Like Hector, Elena showed steady improvement throughout the four weeks of dramatic activities. Her retelling of an event from her vacation scored a 4.5 on the narrative writing scale. But even after our first dramatic activity, her retelling of Enrique y Pancho scored a 10.5 on the writing scale. Weeks two, three and four of the study brought her scores of 12, 12.5 and 17.5 respectively. In fact, her retelling of El Mango de Rechupete (appendix D), covered the major points of the story and was the longest narrative that she had produced in the year and a half that I have known her. I noted that in this retelling, Elena made use of the words primero, entonces and despues (first, then, and later).
There was also something else that I noticed about Elena's behavior during these weeks. Elena had always been a very private child and had rarely chosen to share her work in her cooperative group. Now, she was not only letting others read her work, she was reading it to them using inflection and expression to communicate what words in themselves can not. Here again was yet another way that dramatic activities benefit a child's oral language development. I thought back to the words I had read in an article,"...we saw improvement in listening, reading, memory, problem-solving, oral, and written communication skills. We also observed that many students gained self-confidence and social skills" (Raiser & Hinson, 1995, p.63). I was observing this happening in my classroom.
Like Elena, Pilar is a girl who usually keeps to herself. She often shields her work from others saying that she fears someone will copy from her. A well-behaved girl, Pilar is business-like in that she gets her assignment done quickly, wants to move on to the next task, and has little patience for those who require extra time to finish. She and Hector are in the same cooperative group. I think it would be fair to say that at times Pilar has felt exasperated when I would push her to produce more in her written work, yet would accept Hector's drawing and the "story" that he said was on the page. She often ignored Hector when he would ask if she could spell a word for him. But one day, when I asked Hector how he had written his words he recounted how Pilar had told him that he already knew how to write if he would only pay attention to the sounds in the words that he wanted to say. After that I would notice that Pilar would say to Hector something like, "Casa. C fuerte y el sonido de a. Entonces s y otra vez a."
Like the others in this study, Pilar's scores increased significantly. She received a 4 in the baseline vacation narrative. Yet in the following weeks her written work received scores of 14, 16.5, and 13. The piece she wrote after Abuela dramatic activities was her most detailed. It was only our second week of dramatic activities and she seemed self-conscious about the reenactment. However, she studiously watched others as they delved into their imaginary journeys. She wrote quickly and announced that she was done. Clearly she was annoyed when I read her work and told her that I would like to know more. The same thing happened again but this time I saw her return to her group and ask one of its members if it would sound good to write that she could touch a tree while flying through the air. This sort of "talk" is what Lucy Calkins (1994), in her book The Art of Teaching Writing, tells teachers that they must encourage their students to do. And in this instance, drama helped break the ice and enable Pilar to reach out to a peer.
I was not surprised when Pilar told me that she preferred drawing to drama as a pre-writing activity. However, I realized that Pilar, even if she did not know it, was beginning to think of drama as a useful strategy. During math class when we were trying to solve a fairly complicated word problem, it was Pilar that suggested that the students should just act it out the way we do with stories. Although she did not physically act out the problem in her group, she directed the activity so that the participants arrived at an understanding of it. Teresa is another seven-year old in my class. Even when I read her vacation story from the first week of school, I could tell that she tried to communicate complete ideas in her stories. This piece would have probably earned a higher score had she spent more time on the writing portion of it rather than the artwork. Yet using the narrative writing scale, it received one of the highest scores in the class, 7.5. In subsequent weeks she earned a 14, 15.5 and 14.5 for her various works.
What I found most interesting about Teresa's writing though, was what I noticed after our first week of dramatic activities. We had finished reading the book, Enrique y Pancho, and had dramatized it. Teresa had played the part of Enrique during one of the reenactments. When I read her retelling (Appendix E) I was surprised to see that she had cast herself in the story. Her retelling, written in the first person, included interesting events that had not occurred in the original story. Interestingly enough, her creativity in the Enrique y Pancho retelling worked against her in the District-wide writing assessment since strictly speaking, she did not follow directions and retell the story that she had heard. What I saw in Teresa's composition was what Cecala describes when he writes that "..writers develop their real world from the fictional world in the pre-writing stage" (1989, p. 67). In a follow-up interview, Teresa told me that she felt happiest in school when we did dramatic activities. In fact, after our class saw a theatrical production of Puss'n Boots, she told me, "Quiero ser una actriz" (I want to be an actress). She stated that she enjoys reading and writing. As for a pre-writing activity, she prefers dramatization. Additionally, she claimed that she felt sad about using drawing as a before writing activity even though she had previously spend much of her writing time on artwork.
Jorge is a young boy in my class who describes himself as very sad during story dramatizations. Although he is one of the best artists in the class, he said that he prefers to sit down and write without doing anything else first. He mentioned that he feels happy writing and told me that he writes stories at home. Jorge prefers to write at home because it is quiet and he enjoys writing most when he writes about his dogs. In addition, Jorge told me that he enjoyed writing the Abuela story because he loves his abuela. Indeed, he took the greatest care with this piece, rewriting the same words over again until he was satisfied with his handwriting.
Jorge did not participate in any of the drama activities. In fact, he seemed embarrassed to even watch them and could be observed staring at his desk instead. Jorge's baseline writing piece received a score of 4. His retellings of Enrique y Pancho and El Mango de Rechupete received 8 and 9 points respectively. Yet in his story based on Abuela, lost in his thoughts about his beloved grandmother, Jorge received his highest score, a 12. It would seem by Jorge's account, that the dramatic activities had little effect on Jorge's creative writing. However, I believe that just hearing others around him act out various scenarios helped him to envision his flight through the sky with his grandmother.
In contrast, Carmen, a tall, graceful girl told me during a follow-up interview that drama helps her write stories. Although she enjoys using drawing as a pre-writing activity, she clearly prefers dramatization and wishes that we would use it more often in class. Carmen had always enjoyed talking to others in her group during writing time, but now I observed that her "talk" had become conferencing. At the beginning of the year, Carmen might have simply announced her writing topic to members of her group, then every so often inform them of a detail in her piece. Now though, Carmen was actually asking for her peers' opinions. Then, I read that "the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner characterizes seven-and eight-year-olds by noting that now, for the first time, the child in the middle of singing or dancing will stop and anxiously ask, "Is this right?" (Calkins, 1994, p. 119). This change in Carmen's behavior made me realize that some of my student's were becoming aware of their audience. They wanted to be sure that they would get it right.
In the initial assessment, the vacation story, Carmen's work scored a 9 on the narrative writing scale. Even with our first dramatic activity for Enrique y Pancho, Carmen's writing score increased to a 12.5. Her narrative for Abuela received a 14.5, Martina y Peréz, a 12 and El Mango de Rechupete, an impressive 18. Two of Carmen's written works from this time period stand out in my mind. The first is her written retelling of Enrique y Pancho (Appendix F). Allow me to set the stage. It was very warm in our classroom that day after recess, and the students looked exhausted from the heat. After they all had a drink of water, I told them that since they had been so well-behaved that morning, I would allow them to remove their shoes for our afternoon language arts lesson - this is a reward they love. All of the children were in their stocking feet except for one completely barefoot boy who is a member of Carmen's group. After the dramatic reenactment of the story, the students sat down to write their retellings.
That evening as I read Carmen's retelling, I noticed that the first three sentences are faithful to the story. Nevertheless, what she wrote next surprised me. ...el papa esta descarso y ...the father is barefoot and Enrique no tiene sapatos and Henry doesn't have shoes puestos ni chan gletas on nor sandals puesta com pleta nente on he is completely esta descalso. barefoot
This had been Carmen's first experience with drama as a pre-writing activity so she may have been unaware of what was expected of her. Nevertheless, here again was an example of a student inserting details that are not in the original. Carmen also demonstrated how it is possible for one to weave together the events of the fictitious story with the reality that they live out as they reenact what they have heard. Unfortunately, this insertion cost Carmen points on the district-wide assessment since she did not remain faithful to the events of the story throughout her retelling.
The second narrative that impressed me with Carmen was her retelling of El Mango de Rechupete (appendix F). In it Carmen, like some others in the class, made use of the words "al principio, entonces, despues and al final" (at first, then, later, finally). But, it is what Carmen left out that interested me. For this retelling, Carmen chose not to use pictures before writing despite the fact that the paper she was using had lines for writing on the bottom half only. I believe that the drama activity allowed Carmen to make the transition from drawing first into writing. Carmen made a small step toward creating an autonomous text. Carmen was not the only student in the class who skipped the artwork. Two other students began their work on the bottom half of the page. In this representative group, I chose to include three of my "best writers." I did this because I was most interested in observing if drama would allow these students to rely less on their drawings than they previously had. However, I believe that the observations I compiled from them are representative of the results from the entire class.
As a whole class, I observed that the amount of writing increased after the introduction of dramatic activities. Even those who still count on the drawings to support their work produced drawings with more details and began to draw more than one picture from different parts of the story.
On the whole, I believe that writing has become more enjoyable for my students. I did not hear the same amount of protests about our writing activities as I had beforehand. The three point attitude scale, which was administered during the fourth week of this inquiry, revealed that three-fifths of the class feels happy when it is time to write. Slightly less than one-fifth feels indifferent while the remainder of the students reported feeling sad. I found it interesting that 19 out of 25 students feel happy when engaging in dramatic activities while only 12 students claimed to feel happy when retelling a story with the use of pictures. Despite this, 14 students prefer drawing as a pre-writing activity to the 7 who prefer drama. It was interesting to note that for directed journal entries, most students attempted to write actual words and ideas. However, if the children were allowed to choose their own topic, the majority of the class simply drew a picture. In some instances the same picture appeared for several days worth of journal entries. In follow-up interviews, when asked if there was a story that went with the drawings, most students responded, "no."
Learnings from My Inquiry
I have been pleased with the results of using drama in class. I believe that these activities had a positive effect not only on my students, but on me as a teacher. I no longer feel quite as frustrated about my students' writing. And I am more aware of the idea that I need not always "teach" writing. By allowing my students to reenact stories, improvise alternate endings and dramatize dialogue and actions, I am facilitating direct experiences. I perceive that I am doing less teaching and my students are doing more learning.
Moore and Caldwell say that, "according to Vygotsky (1962), the origins of children's writing development lie in the relatively concrete symbol systems of play and drawing" (1993, p.100). Research supports the idea that people have their own learning style. Drama allows for the visual, auditory and kinesthetic learner to take from the experience what he/she may. Drama functions as a communication system that permits students to observe, interpret and consider possibilities in a concrete fashion. Through my inquiry I realized that what is learned through the drama can be transferred into written communication as well. I plan to continue using dramatic pre-writing activities in my classroom. As a result of this inquiry I am sure that I will analyze my students' writing development and consider which activities have the greatest effect upon their writing. As my students grow more comfortable with the varied uses of drama, I will monitor their affect toward writing and toward the drama itself. And I hope to find other effective ways to use this strategy in the classroom. We made a start at this when we acted out a solution to a math problem, and now we have begun to role play conflict resolution techniques.
But, I do not want these benefits to stop at my classroom door. I would like to share my ideas about dramatic activities with other teachers then learn how they in turn have used drama with their students. Tarlington writes that...there is a growing awareness that writing done as part of drama is often superior to other classroom writing. It is purposeful, clear, and motivated. Drama acts as a powerful pre-writing activity, providing a meaningful context in which writing can take place" (1985, p. 199).
I hope that that awareness grows among fellow educators. Rather than definitively answering any questions, this action research study has raised more questions than I originally had. I question how I can integrate dramatic activities in all areas of the curriculum. And I wonder if there is a correlation between certain types of dramatic activities (improvisation, puppetry, reenactments), and increased productivity in specific written genres (poetry, retellings, descriptive passages, etc.). Also, how do I help the student for whom dramatic activities seems to serve no purpose? Since I intend to continue using dramatic activities throughout the year, I am hopeful that perhaps I will be a bit closer to some answers. I realize that I, too, am constructing my knowledge regarding effective classroom practices. Like any learner, I am bound to have more questions.
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