Saturday, July 17, 2010

writing better with Writing Buddies

Teach/Learn Blogging Carnival

What do you get when you cross four talented, enthusiastic young adults with 15 fourth and fifth graders who need practice writing and have them meet once a week for six weeks? My brand-new Writing Buddies program!

As some of you may know, I work part-time coordinating reading enrichment programs at the public library. In Reading Buddies, middle and high school volunteers are trained and then paired one-on-one with a younger child to read together and play literacy games in order to give the kids practice reading with a caring teen mentor in a fun, non-judgmental environment. They meet together once a week for two or three months, and thus a significant rapport can develop between the Little Buddies and their Big Buddies.

This summer, however, an elementary school with which we have partnered asked me to provide Big Buddies for their summer school program for first through fifth graders, and I knew that our traditional model of one Big Buddy per one Little Buddy wouldn't work--there wouldn't be enough volunteers available to assign one to each child in each grade. Plus, making a fourth or fifth grader read with a student who was only a couple of years older could feel like a punishment, like these kids were being singled out to prove that they're not very good readers.

Instead, we piloted a Writing Buddies program. Four experienced Big Buddies (aged 14 and above) worked in small groups with two classes. They met with me beforehand to plan out the lessons, and they were the ones in charge of carrying them out while I watched from the side. (This is a good exercise in not-being-a-control-freak for me!)

Here's what we did:
  • Chose a theme (outer space exploration) that would connect all the reading and writing.
  • Planned different types of writing assignments, most of which would help them practice skills they would need for writing in school.
  • Created worksheets with brainstorming activities, graphic organizers, and writing prompts.
  • Selected books to use for a short storytime at the beginning of each class to help the kids transition to our literacy class and start thinking about our theme.

The writing skills we focused (and the writing prompts we gave them) on were:

  • Description: You are an astronaut who has been traveling for years and you just landed on a brand-new planet. Describe what it looks like.
  • Procedural: Follow the directions to build a spaceship out of carrots, celery, peanut butter, and bread, and then describe in your own words what you did. (Click on the link, scroll down to The Jigaree, and select "Spaceship Snack")
  • Persuasion: Convince the inhabitants of this planet why you deserve to stay there.
  • Poetry: Exercise your creativity to write one or more of the following types of poems using the outer space theme: an acrostic poem, a shape poem, a haiku.
  • Revision: Choose one piece and edit it for inclusion in the booklet we send home on the last day. (The kids each read one of their writings aloud.)
  • Vocabulary Building: Do a Mad Lib written by the Big Buddies about traveling in outer space. (We had this one on hand for kids who finished the revision early.)

The most frustrating part was the inconsistency of the students' attendance; very few actually attended all the classes, and some joined after the first or second week, thus missing out on our attempts to set the stage for the rest. However, it worked well enough that I'm eager to start offering Writing Buddies at the library to serve the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students who are too old to be Little Buddies but too young to be Big Buddies in our reading programs.

I would love to hear about other similar programs that you might know about or learn more strategies of how to get kids to write and how to empower teen volunteers!

Email me at babybilingual (at) gmail (dot) com if you would like copies of the materials--I'm happy to share!

This post was written for inclusion in the Teach/Learn Blogging Carnival sponsored by Deb at Science@Home; the category for this month's carnival is "English." Click here to see the other authors' inspiring ideas for promoting literacy in your home or classroom!


  1. I am visiting from the teach and learn carnival. I have a two year old named Griffin, too! He goes by BigG online though.
    When I was teaching full time, I loved using mad libs as review for parts of speech for my kids.

  2. Wow! I am so impressed by the Big Buddies volunteering to get involved in this! It sounds like a set of programs, but the fact that the teenagers are volunteering to get do it is just totally amazing to me.

    Many moons ago, when I did my teaching rounds (before deciding teaching secondary school wasn't going to be for me) we were sent to a school were there was a hih rate of illiteracy. We found it very difficult to do the work required by us in these circumstances so we adapted it to suit the situation we were in, doing activities like those you have mentioned. Big fail for us back at the uni, but a big win in the classroom. The issue with the university is what put me off teaching, actually. The gap between what was wanted by "the system" and what was needed in the classroom seemed so vast that I couldn't see how I could make a difference.

  3. This sounds fantastic!

    Unfortunately I don't know too much about the older age groups.

  4. @TMTK--You have very good taste in boys' names! I have encountered very few other Griffins around here.

    My favorite Mad Libs activity is actually a book called Silly Stories, published by the same company that does Cranium board games. The kids use a white board marker to fill in words and expressions based on fun prompts, like "how I feel on the last day of school" or "the number of steps it takes to cross this room." The Little Buddies in my reading program love it!

    @amandab--It helps that one of the local high schools requires 100 hours of community service or the kids don't graduate. But there are so many volunteer opportunities out there that I am delighted that so many of them choose to read with and mentor the little kids.

    I know what you mean about that gap--we hear so many complaints here about standardized testing and how it affects the students' learning and the teachers' lesson planning.

    @Miss Carly--Thanks!

  5. It sounds like you did a wonderful job with that age group! It was a great idea to set up the groups as you did. It would have been interesting to read about some of their spaceships, etc.!

  6. Sounds like a great program. I think, sometimes it's nice to be helped by someone who's not a teacher - and someone who might remember having troubles with particular things themselves.

  7. I love these ideas. It was great to incorporate a wide range of text types into your program. My children are still little, so not at this stage yet, but I used to work with this age group as a Speech Pathologist. I think what you did sounds great. My only other idea would be to scaffold the texts at text level, paragraph level, sentence level and word level (which you may have covered with vocabulary). Great post.

  8. @Deb--I would have liked to share what they wrote, but I don't have parent permission.

    @CatWay--Yes, that's something I love about the Reading Buddies program. Often the Big Buddies can remember what they struggled with when they were learning to read, so they really can empathize with their Little Buddy.

    @Julie--Thanks for the suggestion of scaffolding. Can you give me some examples?

  9. I would love a copy of the materials! My email is I wonder if changing the medium of the way they write could help. Could you possibly set up a blog and see if that encourages them?

  10. @Planning--Would you believe that one of their teachers suggested doing a blog the next time around?! I love the idea of "Blogging Buddies," but there are a few hurdles to tackle: the school district blocks access to blogs and there are only two computers in the school library. Not insurmountable problems, but it would take lots of organizing.

  11. We've not got as far as the reading and writing stage with Rémy yet (he is only 3 afterall)... but I read him plenty of books. He actually loves books and enjoys getting them as presents. I wonder if he'll ever grow out of that? LOL

    At the moment I'm helping him to discover books by Richard Scarry... which I also read when I was small (my Mum worked in an educational book shop).

    It helps no end with his bilingualism. Amazing how many English phrases he comes out with that originate from books we have read together.

  12. My husband LOVED Richard Scarry books as a child--and always makes sure that when a friend has a baby we give them The Big Book of Words. These books are great for language learning because they present expressions and sentences in a fun context and the illustrations offer lots to talk about! Hey, have they been translated into French? I should check that out....

  13. Hi Sarah! I just wanted to say that reading your blog makes me happy. Since there aren't too many people raising their kids bilingually in my community, it's comforting to find people online to relate to. And now that I've kind of gotten whirlwinded into teaching language I relate to this post as well! I did add another entry to my blog today but I'll have to speak up another time about the volunteer preschool I'm working on.

  14. Wow--thank you, Laura. I will need to remember to come back and read your comment on those days when I wonder if blogging isn't a good use of my time.

    "Whirlwinded into teaching language"--what an intriguing phrase! I'll check back at your blog soon to learn more.

  15. Wow this is so cool, I love hearing about programs like this. Well done to you and all the kids involved!

  16. Peer mentoring is such a good teaching strategy! When I did my Masters, I looked at this as a strategy for including students with special needs into a mainstream classroom. It actually works really well!

  17. A little late in the game -- sorry -- but this is so awesome, awesome, awesome. Yay Sarah! Yay teens! Can't wait to see how this evolves.

  18. @Ella--This is actually similar to what Joel and I did as volunteers in 2007 when you were in charge! Thanks for paving the way....

  19. That was a neat li'l program you guys had. I'm glad you've revived and added to it. If I had more time and energy, I'd try to sprout up little Reading Buddies, Writing Buddies, and -- not related, but still cool -- Odyssey of the Minds ( everywhere. :)

  20. You'd be like the Johnny Appleseed of intellectual enrichment opportunities for children!

    Would you believe that, in all seriousness, a Big Buddy's mom called me earlier this summer to suggest that we offer a Math Buddies program because her son doesn't really like reading with little kids?