A parent asked me this last week. Her daughter is interested in working on her writing outside of school, and the well-meaning parent wanted to know what book she could buy so her daughter could improve her writing skills. When I didn't immediately answer (how could I?), she continued..."if kids want to work on math, they use the math textbook. What's the equivalent to the math textbook for writing?" Again, I said nothing.
First of all, while I am not a math teacher, I am certain that any math teacher worth her certificate would refute this mother's assumption. A textbook is a resource, a collection of rules and examples, but not a bounty of math enrichment. I am certain that a child who wanted to brush up on math would be more enriched by a problem-based inquiry and investigation--a roll up your sleeves and figure out how to solve the problem of how to more effectively use a limited recess space/time for 110 kindergarteners and first graders. Lots of great math opportunity there--time, measurement, division...
So what did I tell this well-intentioned mom? First I'll tell you the last thing she said before I answered her. She frowned, sensing my answer, and said, "it must be so dependent on the teacher. If there's no one book that teaches kids to write, the teachers hold so much of the responsibility."
I smiled and nodded my head. I told her she was right, there was no one book a child could use on her own to guarantee that her writing would improve, and the quality of her teacher was a major factor in how well her child would unlock the skills to good writing. What I didn't go into was the much more complicated answer. There are books that can help her child become a better writer, but they aren't textbooks or workbooks. They are beautiful books for children like E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, filled with passages such as this: "The next day was rainy and dark. Rain fell on the roof of the barn and dripped steadily from the eaves. Rain fell in the barnyard and ran in crooked courses down into the lane where thistles and pigweed grew. Rain spattered against Mrs. Zuckerman's kitchen windows and came gushing into downspouts" (25). The rhythm, the words, the message--all magical. Or she could read any of Cynthia Rylant's warm and poignant books including Long Night Moon, from which this passage comes: "In March, a sap moon rises over melting ponds, sleepy bears, small green trees. It tells a promise and a hope." Children need to hear and read these powerful examples of rich language. These and so many other mentor texts point the way for young writers.
And there is another set of books that would help our young writers flourish--the professional texts that have guided my path as a writing teacher by Ralph Fletcher, Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Penny Kittle, Donald Graves, Donald Murray, Carl Anderson, Georgia Heard, Katie Wood Ray, and so many more. Now I am reading more professional texts about digital writing, so my list of professional mentors is growing. Teachers must find ways to demystify writing while at the same time making it transformative for students. This comes from being writers ourselves, sharing wonderful texts with our students, and breaking down writing strategies into chunks of meaningful instruction. And one more essential element--students need to write about things that matter to them for audiences that matter to them.
So much for one magic bullet writing textbook.