Friday, March 27, 2009

Cutting the Fat

For many young writers, revision is the most dreaded step of the writing process. Over the course of the last few days, I have been exploring revision with some fourth and fifth grade students. We have been investigating how decisions about what to take out can have as much of an impact on improving writing as adding details or descriptive language.

One of the pieces we tackled read, “We were getting ready for school when we heard the bus squeaking down the street.” Squeaking is one of those words we teachers love. Isn’t it wonderfully descriptive?

Not according to my fifth graders.

As I circulated the room, checking to see which words were getting the ax, I noticed nearly all of them saw this word as “fat” destined for the chopping block. I didn’t get it. “What was wrong with the word squeaking?” I asked. I wanted them to justify their decision.

It was simple in their eyes. Buses do not “squeak” as they are going down the street. They “squeak” when they stop. When a bus moves, it is more like a “rumble.” The word “squeaking” was not right. This writer needed a more precise word.

Now I saw their point. I marveled at the shortsightedness of my own thinking. I couldn’t believe how a strong action verb lured me in to make me believe the writing was solid.

As I sit here typing this, I find myself wondering if the problem is not in teaching revision inasmuch as it is in the WAY we teach kids to revise. The extent of much of the teaching about how to improve a piece of writing never gets past “add detail and description.” By starting with “what should we take out?”, my students began asking questions like: Does it make sense? How does it sound? Is this detail important? Is this confusing? Does this tell instead of show? Is this specific enough?

When they asked these questions, they had no trouble going back to their piece with fresh eyes. Their pencil points were sharp, ready to eliminate the fat. The impact on their writing was immediate and profound.

Never again will you hear me say, “add description, add detail.” The better question seems to be “What can you take out?”

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Activating the Love Sac

Are you wondering what this is going to be about? That’s what good titles do.

Last night I had one of those cherished heart-to-heart conversations with my eight year old son. He was asking me how people fall in love. An honest question followed up by an innocent theory: “Mom, do people have a love sac in their bodies that gets turned on when they’re grown up?”

So you see, he wasn’t asking me about the love you feel for your parents or your brother or your grandma. This was about LOVE—the grown-up version.

Thinking back on this conversation, I find myself smiling. This is one of those “kids say the darndest things” stories I will share with my friends and family (unbeknownst to him to spare him any embarrassment). It’s a sweet story, one worth telling.

Imagine now that I called this story “The Love Talk” or “Talking about Love.” Would you be as interested in reading my story? I polled the students I was working with today about which story they’d be most interested in reading. It was unanimous. Everybody wanted to read “Activating the Love Sac.”

Teaching kids about writing titles has been relegated to “afterthought” status in my instructional repertoire. I am wondering today how that happened because ultimately, a title is our first encounter with a piece of writing. First impressions are lasting impressions and if we want readers to look further, we have to entice them. From now on, I am upping the ante on teaching titles. I want my writing students’ voices to be heard.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Don’t Sour the Grapes

Yesterday, I worked with a fifth grade class on stretching their thinking about a topic. I had them reread a recent notebook entry and underline a line of their writing that spoke to them. They then rewrote this line on the top of a new page and used it to prompt their thinking and writing for the day. As far as lessons go, it was a good one. The children were inspired. They took their writing in new directions.

After the lesson, I proceeded with my conferences. Most went smoothly. I encountered the typical set of writing issues: “I don’t know what to write about.” “ I’m done.” And then:“I don’t know what else to say.”

“ I don’t know what else to say.” This particular conference posed a particular challenge for me. The young girl I was working with shared her original entry about a stranger on New Year’s Eve. The line she had lifted inspired a new entry about her family tradition of watching the ball drop and eating twelve grapes and making wishes for each month of the newyear. Her problem now was knowing what she would write next. This is where my own struggle began. I wanted to say, “That thing about the grapes is so interesting to me. I’d love to know what you wished for.” But I couldn’t. The teach the writer, not the writing mantra echoed in my mind. I needed to help her know how to solve this very common writing dilemma: What DO writers do when they don’t know what else to write?

So instead, I said, “Well, when I write and face this problem, I reread what I have written to help me rethink my idea. You might even try lifting another line from this entry and see what happens.”

After that, I walked away. When I checked back in with her, she told me she decided to write about grapes. When I looked at what she had done, I saw that she had launched a whole new entry about her brother’s allergy. She took her writing in a direction only she could have imagined for herself.

I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome of this conference and realized as I left this young writer to her work how important it is to resist our impulse to help too much. Each time I sit down to confer, I make a subconscious decision—will I enable or will I empower? When it comes to efficiency, it is always easier to enable. However, if it is effectiveness I seek, empowerment is the only way to go.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Slow Down and Let Him Put on His Shoes

When my now six year old son was three and four, he had a fierce independence streak. He wanted to brush his teeth, get dressed, and put on his coat and shoes all by himself. When this started, we celebrated. We’d say, “Look at what a big boy you are!”

As time went on, I found myself cheering his accomplishments less and less. I was in a rush. I had places to be, things to do. Instead of encouraging my son to do things for himself, I insisted on doing them for him. I usurped the responsibility of putting on his shoes, zipping up his coat. Why? It was quicker. Shamefully, it was more convenient for me.

Now I have a six year old son who, when it is time to go to the bus stop or leave the house, refuses to put his shoes and coat on by himself. Where once he was so willing and eager to do it on his own, I created a monster who depends on me to do it for him.

When I think about the mistakes I have made with my son, my thoughts turn to writing workshop. Teachers contend with students who refuse to write on a daily basis. In our rush to confer and meet the needs of 20-25 children, we do the equivalent of “put the shoes” on these writers. Because we are in a hurry and we have places to be and things to do, we tell them what they need to do as writers. We list ideas for them to choose from as we tap our foot and hurry them to get started. Each time we rush a child, we need to remember that while it may not be convenient at this moment, the time we invest in helping children understand the writing process saves us a lot of time in the future. Ultimately, we want these writers to know what to do when we’re not there and if we teach them to rely on us to do their thinking for them, really, what have we taught them? Learning and thinking takes time. Sometimes, we can’t rush it.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Supermarket Stories

The other day, I was in the supermarket. It was a Sunday, the day before a predicted snowstorm. The lines at the checkout were long so I grabbed a magazine to pass the time. I became so absorbed in what I was reading, it was my turn before I knew it. As I moved to the conveyer belt to unload my overflowing cart, I glanced behind me. There was a much older gentleman with five or six items in his wagon. With all I had, this man would easily be waiting an extra ten to fifteen minutes for me to finish so I offered to let him go ahead of me. His response surprised me. His eyes welled with tears as he graciously accepted. He went about his business and as he was leaving, he turned to me and said, “Thank you so much. I’ll be sure to pass it on.” Now it was my turn to well with tears. This simple, sincere gesture had assumed some greater meaning. I was moved that he was moved. It felt good to have made a difference in somebody’s day.

The reluctant writer is the nemesis of every writing teacher. We have all had the conference where a child insists that they have absolutely nothing of value to write about. The only things they ever do is go to school, go home, watch tv, and play video games. According to them, their lives are boring; therefore, they have nothing to write about.

In talking with students like this, I have come to realize that they think they have to live fantastic lives in order to be a writer. Part of being a writing teacher is helping them realize that fantastic is a state of mind. They need to come to understand that they don’t have to have taken a fancy vacation or experienced something extraordinary in order to have a story to tell. Great ideas are lurking everywhere. Even in the supermarket.