Recently I was doing some storytelling in my grand nephew’s third grade class. Prior to arriving, the teacher emailed me and said, “The timing is perfect for storytelling. We are working in writing on telling a good story.” I wondered if my storytelling would really connect with her writing lessons. But the more I thought about it, the more I could see the relationships the teacher would be able to draw from my telling of tales to the students’ writing.
I knew that the story “Tinderbox” had some great descriptions, for example, the dogs that sat on top of the treasure chests – “one with eyes as big as saucers, another with eyes as big as dinner plates, and a third with eyes as big as cartwheels.” A good storytelling has plenty of descriptive passages because there is no book with pictures to show the kids. The kids create the pictures in their minds as the words flow from the teller.
I also knew I would slow down the moment in “Tailypo” when the creature finally arrives in the old man’s bedroom – “He had the kind of feeling…you know the kind of feeling you get when something’s in the room with you…. then he heard some banging around the pots and pans…then he heard some scratching at the foot of his bed (pause). He stretched his neck and saw two pointed furry ears. (pause) Then he stretched his neck a bit more and saw two big fiery eyes staring up at him…” The more connections I saw between a good storytelling and the ideas for mini-lessons in writers’ workshop, the more I missed talking about writing to teachers. Since both my first book (One Child at a Time) and my second (with Katie Keier) deal with working with struggling readers, that’s usually the topic of my workshops when I am invited to school districts. But there was a time I talked to teachers a lot about all aspects of writing workshops, and I was seriously missing that! Lo, time to write a blog!
Although I never authored a book on writing, I learned plenty from the masters. In my early days of teaching, I read everything possible by Lucy Calkins, Donald Graves, Shelley Harwayne, Georgia Heard, Ralph Fletcher, Carl Anderson, and Barry Lane. As new authors appeared on the scene (Katie Wood Ray, Jeff Anderson, Aimee Buckner, Kate Messner, Matt Glover, and many more) I read them too. After reading, I would try out lessons in classrooms; I would model lessons for teachers; I would confer with students about their pieces. My goal (in professional development workshops) was to share with teachers the essentials of writing workshop (time, choice, response, structure, and community) as well as lesson ideas they could take back to their classrooms.
Two favorite lessons that teachers commented on were those I learned from Barry Lane’s After the End – “explode a moment” and “shrink a century.” So simple, yet such powerful revision tools. “Exploding a moment” meant teaching kids how to find a significant moment in their story and slow it down. Lane says, “the writer takes a sentence or two, and explodes it, scattering details all over the page.” When working with a student, Lane asked the child to “make the moment as long as he could, because the more he could describe that moment, the more the reader would become him and feel the impact of the story.” I remember having Lane’s words echo in my head as I worked with Ahmed, a fifth grader. Ahmed had asthma and was telling a story about an attack he had while playing with friends in his basement and couldn’t find his inhaler. He found the significant moment (when he rushed upstairs to his mom to find his extra inhaler) and he was able to slow that moment down so that his readers could feel his panic as his lungs tightened up and the pain in his chest throbbed.
“Shrinking a century” is the opposite type of tool. It involves getting rid of extra, useless dialogue or overly drawn-out descriptions that add nothing to the story. If you need to move a story along in time, sometimes you need to take some of that boring part and shrink it down to a sentence or two. While working in the same 5th grade, the teacher and I were able to find several examples from our read aloud books of lines that exhibited this idea for our mini-lessons. After a few anchor lessons, the students were able to find places in their writing pieces (and, believe me, there were plenty.) Many young writers often just fill space with boring dialogue like:
I met Mandy while walking to the bus stop.
“Hi, Mandy,” I said.
“Hi, how are you? Did you do all your homework?” she asked
“Yes,” I said. “But the math was hard. Was the math hard for you?”
“Yup,” Mandy told me, “but my dad helped a little.”
Blah, blah, blah. Most of this had nothing to do with the main point of her story. We were able to teach the students how to create a “shrunk-down sentence” instead.
Though I absolutely still love supporting teachers with working with reading, I have to admit that just writing this blog brought back many memories of other discussions with colleagues about the teaching of writing in elementary classrooms (and my literacy geek friends – you know who you are!) If you are a fairly new teacher, I know you are reading some of the latest on the teaching of writing, but don’t hesitate to go back to some of those early books (they are probably gaining dust in your school’s professional library.) Just thinking about some of those books gives me goosebumps because I remember how inspired I felt. I felt inspired to help students write about a topic of their own choosing AND about something that really mattered to them.
The Art of Teaching Writing, Lucy Calkins
Living Between the Lines, Calkins with Shelley Harwayne
Lasting Impressions, by Shelley Harwayne
For the Good of the Earth and Sun and The Revision Toolbox, G. Heard
What a Writer Needs, Ralph Fletcher
In the Company of Children, J. Hindley
What You Know by Heart, Katie Wood Ray