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Rain, Steam, and Speed: Building Fluency in Adolescent Writers


reviewed by Diane L. Olson - 2005

coverTitle: Rain, Steam, and Speed: Building Fluency in Adolescent Writers
Author(s): Gerald J. Fleming and Meredith Pike-Baky
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787974560, Pages: 219, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com


In the thirty-one years I have taught English language arts to adolescents (twenty-eight at junior high level), journals have always been a major writing tool in the development of fluency. This book adds a stunning new element to the normal “write on anything you want” direction my students (and those of many other teachers) are used to. Rain, Steam, and Speed is a triple-whammy manual on journaling for the teacher of young adolescent writers. Author-teachers Gerald Fleming and Meredith Pike-Baky have a unique idea here, and we weary veterans who are a bit skeptical of journals’ usefulness will find this a refreshing idea- sparker. Fleming’s description of the program intrigues me: “a system of accountability that directs improvement and simplifies evaluation” (p. 12).


The book’s title is not attractive initially. Its three words are based on a mid-nineteenth-century English painting by J. M. W. Turner depicting a steam locomotive moving through rain, with people boating on one side and other people plowing a field on the other (p. 11). This image, mingling with that of student journals, grabbed me.


In a nutshell, this extremely readable softcover book offers a new approach to journaling. The program has students writing in journals during class twice a week for twenty minutes with music as a background. Simple sounding, yes, but Rain, Steam, and Speed covers the gamut of problems and concerns throughout the process. Eventually the teacher reads and grades each journal primarily based on writing quantity. Voila! Fluency and improved writing quality will result.


The authors link each of the forces in the title—rain, steam, speed—with a specific component of the technique for guiding student journaling that they are advocating in the book.


The Rain


What it is: “Rain,” in Fleming’s program, as developed in his classroom, is “establishing the climate and includes an essential music strand that enables deep focus and steady writing” (p. xiii).


Why it is important: In “Fluency” (chapter 2), Pike- Baky ( Fleming’s colleague who recognized the importance of his program and intersperses the book with substantive rationale for its use) first describes traditional journaling, with techniques designed to “strengthen student-teacher connections, provide an outlet for topics not assigned or formally graded in class, and give the teacher some background . . . information about students’ lives outside school” (p. 13). The description Pike-Baky provides is quite familiar, I think. She next defines fluency in reading, writing, listening, and speaking (p. 14), concluding that fluency “is the facility with which one uses language.”


Pike-Baky suggests that, unless changes occur in English language arts classrooms, students will have minimal confidence in their own literacy, an inability to write effectively, and a dislike of writing as well (p. 15). She encourages English language learners to develop “a personal voice, a sense of audience, and the confidence to explore identity” (p. 16).


The music component of the technique diverts students “toward new direction and license in writing” (p. 51). Fleming declares that “great music springs us loose from the constraints of our lives . . . takes us along with it, great train on its frontierward tracks, as listeners and as writers . . . plays not only with our emotions . . . but also, simultaneously, with our intellect” (p. 51). Surprisingly, a wider range and intensity of music was found to increase writing amounts and vividness, he discovered through extensive experimentation with his own students. According to Fleming, the music component carries a bonus: Music played at the right volume can be a class disciplinarian (p. 53)! Is it worth it to students to make the effort to speak to someone when the volume of music being played is uncomfortably loud and writing is supposed to be happening anyway? Fleming thinks not.


A discography (Appendix A) gives a list of music Fleming has used successfully as background for in- class journaling, grouped in three categories: classical, jazz and other American music, and world music. Much of the music listed he has used, and the rest he is familiar with, suggesting to his readers to do their own experimentation. (I also have my own ideas, but he has sparked them well.) Only instrumental music is allowed as an accompaniment for journaling, because words, according to Fleming, would distract students with their meanings, and the goal is to have them glean meanings from their own words.


How to administer it: Fleming clearly explains the program chronologically. A bulleted list of all the materials needed starts teachers out, and none of them are so expensive or obscure that teachers will have great difficulty obtaining them (pp. 26–27).


Fleming presents his ideas in the first person and quotes his own spiel to the students verbatim (in italics); these keep the message true as to what teachers are to do and say and leave students with few questions about the task they are expected to complete. Sidebars anticipated my questions: Which two days a week should the students write (p. 32)? He leaves that largely to the reader to determine the best for individual classes; my students will respond best on Mondays and Fridays, their minds full of the past and the future. Which color of ink is preferred (p. 42)? (He recommends blue or black, for old eyes, and I agree.) The music, its purpose, prompts—all are explained.


My major concern with implementing Fleming’s approach: What if I forget some major detail he includes? (Hmm . . . perhaps a handout [before I speak, or during, or after?] may keep us all on track.) Despite my never-ending quest for spontaneity in my classroom interactions, I dare not sacrifice essential components of Fleming’s program.


The Steam


What it is: “Steam,” in the authors’ program, is prompts or student-selected topics: not one-liners, but multifaceted topics that students are interested in, not ones they “should be” (p. 60). These are crafted using an actual template, extending an idea from a statement to multiple questions and giving students something to grab onto and hold as they attack the topic presented. Fleming’s technique permits them to use and reuse prompts’ vocabulary and phrasing to respond in their own ways. Fleming later shows the template and demonstrates how students may create their own prompts (p. 92).


Why it is important: Fleming must have had enough of journal entries such as, “I woke up at 7, had breakfast, came to school, went home at 3, and went to bed at 9.” Putting the prompts on the board in longhand, which he suggests doing, shows teacher effort in wanting to get students to write and offers a springboard for more complex ideas, providing questions upon which to base real answers (i.e., sentences). A variety of topics are suggested—death, joy, love, parents, peers, anger, etc.—respecting student minds and emotions. Example prompts given in the book are serious, lighthearted, funny, and in- between to curb monotony and add interest (pp. 60–62).


How to administer it: Fleming covers the entire board with the whole prompt in his own handwriting. Amazed students will, he asserts, at least give some attention to a prompt written in such a way before going on to their own topic (which is allowed in the program). I plan to use the 150 unique ones provided; they are tailored for the adolescent (reluctant) writer (pp. 123–180).


The Speed


What it is: “Speed,” in these authors’ program, is the “momentum built by the structured routine for writing that students follow twice a week” (p. 11).


Why it is important: Speed includes the writing practice itself. Fleming offers a helpful chapter, covering motivation, feedback from teacher and peers, the teacher’s role during writing, volunteer readers of journals, and listening and responding at journal reading times (pp. 77–88). He attacks problems such as classroom disturbances and writer’s block (pp. 89–95).


The section on assessment, response, and grading is awesome even for novices. Fleming positively presents summative grading (which still allows for subjectivity, admittedly), suggesting ways to branch into other disciplines and modify the program for class size, handwriting differences, and the like. He gives a purposeful taxonomy of comments for entries (p. 199) and five student samples, with the writers’ personal opinions on the process (pp. 201–213). I found myself wanting more to pinpoint glitches in the system.


How to administer it: Speed is generated through steam which students will like: the music (even show tunes, but oh well), the focus on specific relevant topics, and regularity of the activity. At first some students (or at least, some of my students) will probably not appreciate the teacher’s reading every word written (as Fleming recommends the teacher do), for they may be (as mine are) accustomed to much journal privacy. Plus, I myself will need to stock up on caffeinated beverages come time to read the fruits of students’ labors. I went this route years ago of reading everything my students wrote in their journals and am ready to give it another try, thanks to the optimistic authors.


Fleming and Pike-Baky could change my journaling time and student fluency for the better. Thus, I’m hopping on this journal train with them for an exciting ride.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 7, 2005, p. 1457-1460
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11790, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 7:31:30 PM

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About the Author
  • Diane Olson
    Wayne Community Schools
    E-mail Author
    DIANE OLSON is a full-time junior high English and leadership teacher at Wayne Community Schools, Corydon, Iowa. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (2000) as well as an adjunct instructor for Morningside University, Sioux City, and Southern Prairie Area Education Agency, Ottumwa. She is also a contributor to Iowa Language News newsletter and is currently working on a Western novel titled "The Outrageous Saga of Sweet Maddie Sweet."
 
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