Taking the High Road

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Something important happened in our classroom today and it didn’t happen to a student.  We were working furiously to finish our novels for National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO) as the deadline looms – Friday at midnight.  Like it is for many of us, computer access is limited at my school and we only have the laptops for two days this week.  My kids are trying very hard to make their word count goals and get their novels into the ‘Word Count Validator’ so they can ‘win’ at NANOWRIMO.  (It sounds more complicated then it really is – actually we just write like crazy for the month of November.)

So, the kids were typing away and I was inputting all their names into Student Publishing* so they can get their books eventually published.  I got up to check on their progress and noticed that one of my students had not written a word.  She is very quiet and shy so I didn’t say anything right away and went to my desk so I could keep tabs on her.  For several minutes she sat staring at the blank screen.  I bit my tongue.  More minutes passed – no typing.  Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and said, “You have to write something! Don’t you have any topics in your Writing Journal?”  She pulled her Journal out of her desk (!) and gave it a cursory glance. 

I admit it, I was a nanosecond away from losing it.  Here she was, with this wonderful opportunity to publish her very own book and she was squandering her time!  All the other kids were hard at work, what was the deal?  I knew she didn’t like writing.  She always had her head in a book (like I could complain about THAT!) and didn’t always pay attention. 

But then it occurred to me that often what seems like opposition from a student is actually fear.  Our students want to please us, they want us to like them and to show that we care.  I pulled over my stool and plopped down next to her.  I said,  “What’s going on today?  Why are you having such a hard time with this?”  She just shrugged, obviously uncomfortable but I pressed on.  “Let’s get out your Writing Territories and see if anything intrigues you, ok?”  She pulled her Journal out again and turned to her Writing Territories.  It was jampacked with story ideas.  The one that jumped out at me was ‘girl doesn’t talk – afraid’.  I pointed to it and said, “How about a children’s story about this girl?”  That got a hint of a smile and a fairly vigorous nod. 

I pulled the laptop over and typed, “Once upon a time there was a …is it a little girl or just a girl?”  She said, “a girl” so I typed that.  Then we were off…

Me:  “What was her name?”

Student:  “I want her to have the girl’s name in Lord of the Rings but I can’t remember how to spell it…”

Me: “OK – leave it blank for now and we’ll come back to it and fill it in. Where does she live – a castle, an apartment, a house?”

Student: “a treehouse in the middle of a vast forest”

Me: “Does she live alone or with other people?”

Student: “She lives alone because she has to protect everyone from the mad unicorns.”

Me: “Wow! Unicorns that are evil – I love it! Such a great twist – you think they’re going to be all rainbows and lollipops and POW!

Student: (giggle) “I know, right?  And she is the CHOSEN one to defend everyone and the really bad unicorn – the most evil – is blue!”

Me: “OK – I’m going to go look up your Lord of the Rings chicka – you keep going because I want to see what happens, ok?”

So you know what happens, she typed happily away for the rest of class. (If I find out later on this was from a video game I will be very disappointed.)  My lesson learned today:

Sometimes underneath the appearance of stubborness is a small voice pleading, ‘Help me, please…just help me.”

*http://www.studentpublishing.com/main.php – a great website that will publish one free paperback book for each of your students – including an ‘About the Author’ page at the end!

Prompts Preferred

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Today, because they made me, I gave my students their first writing prompt of the year.  Up until now we have been brainstorming, learning how real writers work, reading mentor texts, and experimenting with finding and creating beautiful language.  Today we finished reading Kate DiCamillo’s wonderful novel, The Tiger Rising, with some of the most seamless examples of figurative language I have ever seen in any book, YA or any other genre.  Most of my students loved the book and I’m encouraged by that.  They know what ‘good’ looks and sounds like, at least.

I tweaked the prompt a little by giving them a choice between 3; one about books, one about sports, and one about PE.  I have about 80% boys in my classes so I tend to lean male in my selections to draw them in as much as I can.  I only gave them 30 minutes to write because that was as much time away from real writing as I was willing to give up.  As each block finished and turned in their drafts, with the ‘Checklist for Writers’ stapled to their papers, (seriously – who puts the checklist for anything on the FRONT – they check off they have done the editing BEFORE they write the paper!) I asked the students how the experience was for them.

Here is what I was expecting:

“It was SO boring to write to a prompt.”

“I HATED writing that way – I want to write what I want!”

“Why do they make us do writing this way? It’s not right!”

Instead they told me they liked it, they preferred it, it was fun! I gave them an online survey halfway through the quarter and the results were equally baffling.  When asked if being able to choose their own books (instead of having books assigned by me) was ‘Awful’, ‘OK’, ‘Good’, or ‘Perfect’ 86.7% of my students thought it was positive.  However, when asked how they felt about being able to choose their own topics to write about, 66.6% felt positive about it.  4% thought it was ‘Awful’! 8% thought it was ‘OK’ and 22% didn’t care one way or another! (That group is the one I’m especially concerned about…) 

These are kids who have had nothing but standards based writing since they started school.  They know about 5 paragraph essays. They know about indenting paragraphs and how to use a dictionary.  But they don’t know how to write from their hearts, to move their readers, to create writing that changes lives and minds. They haven’t been moved to tears by someone’s writing, let alone their own.  They are beginning to recognize gorgeous language when they see it.  They may know it’s quality writing but they don’t yet know why.  But they are not real writers.

Real writers start and stop on different pieces, drawn to work on one while letting another simmer on a back burner for awhile.  Real writers write messy first drafts, cross whole lines or sections out, and insert new ideas in the margins.  Real writers play with words, images, and phrases until they get it just right…and then they change it again.  Real writers live with their characters in their heads, create backstories that never make it into any draft, and worry about what happened to their characters when the book or story is finished.  Real writers are constantly thinking about what to write next, how to improve what they’ve written, and how to make time to write some more. 

Real writers do not write to a prompt.  Real writers do not complete editing checklists before they begin writing a word.  Real writers do not enjoy being told the topic they must write about.  Right now my kids are settling for the easy way of writing, the way that doesn’t require much of an investment of their minds or hearts, the formula style of writing that high stakes testing requires.  What they don’t yet know is that their teacher believes they can all be real writers, every last one of them, and it’s time to get to work.