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Memory, Experience, and Imagination: Student Choice in Writer's Workshop

My last post talked about the critical but endangered practice of building in time for kids to choose the books they read. Today's piece focuses on student choice in writing; next week's will explore choice in math.

Writers in Progress

There's a metaphor in Zen Buddhism of a traveler walking in a light mist. She doesn't even realize she's getting wet, but suddenly she's soaked.

That's the kind of impact Writer's Workshop has on young writers. A child in my class will write a phenomenal piece, something he or she wasn't capable of even a few months earlier. When I look closely at the piece, I'll see several mini-lessons from the past weeks incorporated into that single story or essay.

A 3rd grader named Manuel had started the year with stories that just included a few sentences. In December, he wrote a five-page epic titled 'Carlos and Tony' about rival racecar drivers. Here's an excerpt :

Long Beach had a snack shop that was abandoned. The beach had sea turtles and crabs that were dead. The beach looked like a graveyard. The water was like blood dripping from the earth. Carlos challenged Tony to a race. The announcer said, "Everybody start your engines." The engines sounded like lions roaring. Tony whispered, "I will win this race."

Carlos crashes his car, and Tony comes to visit him as he recovers from the crash.

Tony stepped out of the car. Carlos's grandpa said, "It can't be. You were stolen. We thought you were dead." Carlos said, "Are you saying he's my brother?" Carlos and Tony pulled out a ripped photo. They put it together. The two photos matched.

Manuel's story took shape from his imagination and experiences, from his interest in racecars and the time he spent in California. But when I read his piece, I saw five separate mini-lessons we had done that year, ranging from using similes to describe a story's setting ("The beach looked like a graveyard") to using an object that's critical to a plot twist (the ripped photograph.)

My favorite definition of grit is "perseverance plus passion." When we provide students with more choice about what they write, their perseverance and passion both tend to increase.

Manuel worked for days on his story, then spent hours revising it, because he was able to choose a topic that ignited his imagination. My job was to strengthen his craft as a writer, not to tell him what to write about.


Why Writer's Workshop Works

A rule of thumb for limiting teacher talk-time: most kids will focus on a teacher talking for the number of minutes that matches the child's age. For five-year old kindergartners, the teacher has five minutes; for my 2nd graders, I have about seven. After that, the students may roll around on the rug and pass notes, or they may glaze over with a simulation of attention, but their concentration will begin to waver.

When I started teaching, I wasted part of that seven minutes telling the kids what to write about each day--the same vapid journal prompts teachers have been etching on the chalkboard for years, ranging from, "You find a wallet with $50 in it" to "What if you could have any pet in the world?"

One problem with that approach is that if we use our talk-time to tell kids what to write about, we don't leave ourselves time to teach the actual skills that will make them better writers. Once I implemented Writer's Workshop, I began to use my seven minutes to convey some aspect of grammar, mechanics, or the craft of writing--mini-lessons on irregular past-tense verbs, using sensory details to describe a story's setting, or creating features of informational text like captions, headings, and diagrams.

When kids make the decision of what to write about, they're a lot more engaged in the act of writing. My students had to incorporate each day's mini-lesson into their writing, but they could apply that lesson to any topic drawn from their interests, imagination, or experience.

Lacey, who wanted to be a vet, could do her "X-ray diagram" of puppies in a mother dog's womb, then write about dogs' life cycles. Ricardo, who was obsessed with cars and trucks, could do his diagram of the inside workings of an engine, then write about different types of monster trucks.

Soon our half-hour of writing time was virtually silent, every child's entire attention focused on the piece they had chosen to write. Their ability to work independently left me free to conference with kids one-on-one or in small groups, along with choosing some students who had skillfully integrated that day's mini-lesson to share their writing during Author's Chair.

Ralph Fletcher's Writing Workshop lays out the nuts and bolts of how to make the model work with students ranging from kindergarteners to 8th graders. His books Craft Lessons and Nonfiction Craft Lessons provide mini-lessons that are a great resource for the Common Core ratio balancing narrative and informational text.


A Gradual Magic

Teachers talk too much. Students don't talk enough, and they don't get enough opportunities to make choices about what they read, write, and create.

There's something gradual yet miraculous about watching a child like Manuel become a skilled writer. We can't take credit for our students' brilliance and imagination, any more than a gardener can claim to have invented pumpkins. But we can do plenty to nurture their abilities, and it often begins with trusting them to choose what to write.

Our job is to teach our students useful skills that make their writing more effective. Their job is to draw on their memories, experiences, and imagination, then to put something into the world that wasn't there before.

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