I have unshakable faith in children. They always show me the way. ♥

Thursday, April 10, 2008

I went to Walmart with my mother...

It really amazes me, sometimes, the way children write. Or can write, if given the chance to be inspired.

And time.

What I've noticed over my years of teaching is that First Graders are prone to writing stories like this: I went to Walmart. I got a game. I went home. The end.

With practice and support, they start adding details... not always interesting details, but details. Like: "I went to Walmart with my mom...

Six year olds tend to think in a forward linear path with lots of "ands" that start when they wake up and end when they go to bed. A day is an important, large -- but finite -- period of time, and their writing shows this.

So, for a couple of years now, I've always enjoyed Writing Workshop, but I've also felt like there was something that I wasn't quite doing to push them further, to really support them in developing more deeply as writers.

About two months ago, through a short class I took, I read a book that I just may buy 400 copies of, just to give to my closest friends: About the Authors.

One of the biggest "a-ha" moments for me in reading this book was learning the way they recommend using children's literature as "mentor texts," the way they explore, with the children, the way different writers choose to write something (looking at one page or one passage) or a style choice (using ellipses or repeating a certain phrase) or something as simple as writing LARGE words for something that is said loudly.

I thought, Of course! I do that, myself, as a writer. I notice the way other writers write and I think about that sometimes when I'm writing. Why wouldn't that be the same for children?

Often, I sit down with the basket of my students' writing folders and read what's in there: what they have in progress, what they're working on. I notice some of their mechanics, make notes about what to talk to them about, but I also just read to get an overall feel for my class as a group of writers. I do this because, no matter how much time we have for Writing Workshop, I rarely sit down with more than four students, so there is a lot of writing they do that I miss.

In the past, this process has always been good. But, again, their stories tended to follow a similar pattern to what I mentioned above, sometimes with interesting word use. Or dialogue. But not generally things that really stood out to me.

My friends, over the past several weeks, sitting down with their writing has been amazing. Yes, there is still a lot of "I went to Walmart with my mother..." but probably 40% of it isn't like that. I have been genuinely surprised and pleased by what is coming out of my students these days -- and not the same few students over and over. Every single one of them has written something recently that really captures their voice. They're writing stories about themselves, but also writing their own versions of folk tales that we've read together, writing informational books, writing something to teach someone else.

I'd like to share two small pieces with you...

This first piece was written today. It's still a work in progess. When I sat down with Ryan today, he looked pained. He said, "Ms. F, I want to write about my dream, but I don't want to think about it. It was a bad dream."

I thought for a minute and said, "Could you write that?"
"That I don't want to think about it?"
"Yeah. Do you think anyone else has ever felt that way?"
He was quiet. "Probably, yeah. I know other kids have bad dreams sometimes."
"So then, if you wrote that, a lot of readers might connect with that, they'd understand what you meant."
"Yeah." Then he said, "Do you think that would help me talk about my dream?"
I said, "Well, if you start with what you've told me, maybe see how you feel as you're writing. Sometimes once you get started you figure out what you want to say."
I touched his nose and he grinned at me.
"I'll come check on you later then, yeah?"

Okay, so this is the title and the first two pages...

[I don't want to think about my bad dream.]

[I don't want to tell you because it was scary.]

Tell me that isn't a powerful start to a piece of writing. ♥

This next piece is from Alejandro. His brain is amazing. I'm forever talking about him with other teachers and he is constantly on my mind because of the sheer depth of how he thinks about things. This boy is a freakin' philosopher. In sneakers.

So, Alejandro has regularly incorporated interesting elements into his writing. In fact, he's famous in our class for using: Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!! to describe the sound of someone yelling as they rode a roller coaster. In bold print.

This is what I found in his writing folder today (from a piece he wrote last week):

[I went to my cousin's house.]

[We ordered a pizza.]

[I said in my brain...]

[It is the best day ever.]

Seriously. What voice! And the details in his illustrations -- did you catch the "hot" word on the pizza box? And the fact that the final page is a drawing of his brain, showing what he was thinking in that little thought bubble?

The thing that was the most telling in my read-through of my students' writing today was this: they're really not amazing with punctuation yet (remembering periods instead of just using "and", etc...) but every single one of them knows how to use elllipses. Well.

First graders are amazing.

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