Or, The Writing Conversations Get Into Your Head
Thomas Newkirk explained that “fluent writers have moves they can make…moves that are crucial for fluency.” But what are the moves student writers can make, especially our EL learners?
When writing personal narratives or realistic fiction, fluent writers notice they can make a movie in their mind and then tell the story, getting it on paper bit by bit. It’s like a video – play. Pause. Write that bit. Play. Pause. Write that bit…
Fluent writers can almost act out a scene as they write it down. And as the scene gets on paper, the writer has conversations like, “What did my character say here?” “How did the other react?”
Fluent story writers ask themselves while they are writing, “How do I want my audience to feel here?” “What does ___ look like?”
When writing essays the writer might think, “What else can I say?” and keep writing to push more thoughts. And Lucy Calkins conversational prompts come to mind here, such as, “Another thought I have…” and “This makes me think…”
In persuasive writing the writer might think, “What would someone who disagrees with me say?” So, Newkirk says that “writing fluency is the ability to prompt myself.”
So, I’ll try one. “Where should I go next?” (I think I’ll go for a concluding summary.)
I think this is the real curriculum in demonstration and example, modeling writing and thinking aloud with a group in a lesson: the writer’s self conversation moves the story or essay along. And the more of these little bits, these conversations we’ve got going in our head, the more our thoughts can flow out onto the page.
Now that Asilomar 65 is looming on the two-week horizon, and L1, my pd partner in crime and writing buddy, and I finally carved out time to meet, I’m noticing every comment or question around me that pertains to writing and English learners. Now that our study session is populated – with real people — now we can fine tune the discussions and activities around our topic.
And yet, I cannot seem to carve out many minutes on my own to get back to that doc in Drive. I am in two days of Instructional Coaching Training and heading into a grade level meeting tomorrow to see how I can assist 4/5th and still also be an intervention teacher. And thinking of the Saturday lab model, writing workshop with live students for teachers to write and confer with…Of course Thursday night is back to school night and I don’t even have a letter yet for GATE parents — and I give up on my idea to have a letter to each first grade family whose children I am doing Leveled Literacy with.
So, Monday, my special treat for me arranged months ago, was that I spent a day in Writing 3-5 with Lucy Calkins teaching. She is so inspiring, so honest and so smart about writing instruction. I am still wanting to go back through my notes, especially with after-school writing intervention coming up. Ugh, and I lost a teacher to overwhelm on that field. In the Oakland Marriott, I sat in the front and center and took copious notes. I got some gems — and some powerful reminders to apply to the work L1 and I will be doing at Asilomar.
The title issue of goodness is not from those kids who finish and hold their work out to you asking, “Is this good?” It is from Peter Elbow’s challenge in Vernacular Eloquence (one of the denser books I have ever chewed through) in which he calls for a cultural shift from our obsession with correctness and to begin discussing what goodness looks like in writing.
Well, there’s kind of a narrative thread in here somewhere. The coaching day was built around the power of language and listening to engender trust. The writing workshop day was built around understanding the arc of units and the key things to teach for every genre.
I will carry all this, somewhat like the squirrels who are running along the fence boards carrying things for storage, until I can put it to use. Teachers coming over Sunday to pass on the baton for the next Saturday writing workshops in our series.
This is how expository it gets in my head when there’s a lot going on. And I’m needing time to digest. Our Asilomar session title pulls out a narrative thread….
Once upon a time there was a veteran teacher who always wanted to do well to get it all right. She really wanted things to work and not fail. Then, somehow, life shifted for her and she began to want to be good — even if, to hell with it, everything didn’t get done. And in spite of not ever getting things to work perfectly. So, she worked hard and remained conscientious about keeping agreements, however, what she really cared about changed.
Her heart began to care about the people around her and their issues, not the products. And she cared about contributing. Her desire to be right was overridden by an irresistible urge to share what’s good. To be good. To practice goodness.
And she lived happily ever after into the next week, when, perhaps the schedule eased up a bit. But more likely cultivating goodness to Thanksgiving.
I think I’ll just do my job and manage the work flow – more like the work tide — as best I can and stay detached because, I’ve been an interventionist a long time, and I should retire in a year or two. I get that distance and remove and then I start assessing first graders.
Today I brought J. in, unsure whether he would read with me because he was a pre-reader all through kindergarten. He was known more for his behavior demonstrations than his learning. And J. comes from a broken family. Nevertheless, we were talking as I walked him to my classroom.
As he sat down, I introduced him to the dog puppet, “Chili Dog,” who loves to listen to kids read. J. told me he had two cats, that are kittens. And two hamsters but they are dead.
I showed him the list of sight words and he picked out a few, very few he recognized. When I urged him just to try some of the others, he clued me in, “I don’t do words.”
So, I got the level A nonfiction text and introduced it. He “wrote” into the story using the pictures and I asked him to point at the words. He seemed surprised there were only three on the page.
The record went on like that a few pages, kind of rocky, but he was drawn into the park and the playing in the text. When he got to “I can jump,” he stopped after can.
“Wait a minute,” I said. Your name starts with that letter!”
“I don’t know my letter sounds,” he corrected me.
“Um, you can say your name, so you know the sound of that letter…”
He reread the line and said, “I can jump.” I clapped.
Then he read the rest of the book without hesitation. Interesting.
As we chatted while I was returning him to his classroom, I learned that J. really likes to paint. Like loves to paint. “I do, too!” I told him.
“Will there be painting in this room?” he wondered aloud.
“We’ll be drawing a lot!” I countered, and that’s a kind of writing you know. Painters need to know how to draw. Then I pointed out the print of Red, Blue and Yellow and said the picture was by a man named Kandinsky.
“Oh, I’ve heard of him,” said J. I suppressed my incredulity. I just think that, even though he’s starting at kinder level, I can teach this guy to read.
And that’s when I get hooked. It’s the kids. It’s not the program. It’s the kids.
Beware readers that the following was a response written to a piece about the importance of teaching the five paragraph essay to students. This writer could not restrain herself from writing the essay below and hopes that you take it with the amusement that overcame her in writing it.
Have you ever thought about how badly students need structure in their writing? Well, I have and I am going to tell you about it. Students need instruction on how to write an essay and you need to teach them.
First of all, students never have anything to write about because they don’t do anything and they don’t ever think anything either. So you need to tell them what to write about. For example, the students only write about non academic topics such as skateboarding and friends. There is nothing there that is interesting or of higher level thinking, so assign them the topic. Giving assignments like finding the theme or main idea, is more academic. Furthermore, assigning them that topic is really going to help them so that the next time they have to write, that teacher will have to assign them the topic too, proving that students don’t have a brain of their own. This paragraph was all about students never having anything to write about.
Next, when students write, it is all out of order. It is messy and hard to read. As you know, English teachers know all about what makes good writing so if they can’t make sense of it, it is an utter failure. For example, when I write and don’t follow the five paragraph structure, it doesn’t make any sense and no one gets my point because I didn’t put it in the first paragraph. Also, students should not be writing if they don’t know what a paragraph is. I learned about a paragraph in third grade with colors. The colors were green, yellow and pink. If you had a lot of pink, it meant that you had a lot of details. I bet there is a lot of pink in this paragraph. This paragraph was all about students not having writing in the right order.
Last of all, students need to be taught how to write an essay because there is only one way to do it. We live in a five paragraph essay world where everything we read is in five paragraphs, with a catchy introduction and thesis statement in the first paragraph. If I don’t learn how to do this, I won’t be able to apply for college and I won’t do so good. Furthermore, English Learners have to learn this kind of writing and as you know their writing is awful and really hard to read because of all the spelling mistakes. If you teach them how to organize it with this five paragraph model, it will be a little bit better. They might not be thinking of other ways to organize the writing that might be more interesting, but they shouldn’t be thinking anyway. Students need to be taught how to write a five paragraph essay to get to college.
All in all, I love the five paragraph essay, don’t you? Some of you might be thinking that there are other ways to write, but you need to remember, students can’t pick their own topics, their writing is messy and there’s only one way to write an essay. The next time you are assigned an essay, think about the five paragraph model.
And it was like a dream. It just came out of nowhere, something entirely unexpected, without warning and it felt utterly surreal. We were about 11 writers seated in lime green chairs with black wheels that would help us scoot next to a partner or scuttle across the room. We were nearly done with our open discussion of selected passages from Elbow’s Vernacular Eloquence, when our attention was brought to a section in which “flow” was brought up.
I had read this passage and hadn’t thought much of it as I had struggled to just gather some meaning from the book. Sure, my mind had tried to make sense of it, but I let it go. Now, here we were in our circle discussing this miracle. For some of us, finding yourself in “flow” was scary as it meant avoiding family and neglecting personal care and just being utterly consumed in the writing, in “flow.” For others it meant being with the writing, finding yourself in there. This is when I thought I was having an out of body experience and realizing suddenly that I was not alone.
Yes I had felt “flow.” I feel it whenever I write and yes, it happened to me when I was just toying with an idea while walking. But I never knew this also happened to others, that others experienced this. How was I supposed to know? How would I know that this was what other writers experienced? I had never thought to ask someone. How would I do that?
Me: So, I have a question for you.
Friend: Yeah? What is it?
Me: Ummm, so when you’re writing, do you… uh, do you ever get lost in your writing?
Friend: Lost? What do you mean?
Me: Yeah, like you are in there, like everything around you is forgotten about and you don’t even realize you are you and you feel like you’re with your characters or the words whisk you away…Like you are not you, but rather living in the writing.
Friend: (squinting, lips turned down, eyes looking at me oddly) hmmmm…
Me: Yeah, I don’t know what to call it, but you just get lost in your writing. And it happens even when you are just thinking or coming up with ideas. You could be walking down the street and you’re not there, but rather in the writing.
Friend: (still frowning)
Me: (feeling like an idiot) Ummm, I was just wondering, so let’s get some coffee…
But now, I know that I am not the only one. How comforting to hear that my fellow writers feel this too. That they have experienced flow and that they knew what it was like to live in the writing. It gave me chills, because now I am convinced that I am in the right place after all. That I am indeed a WRITER.
Today the pod was almost empty, with only a first grade class not out gallivanting around on field trips. And there was me, the intervention teacher alone in the pod conference room doggedly typing in titles and genres to make the guided reading library more searchable and check out easier. I stepped out to — what? Stretch? See some humans? Make up an errand that involved walking, not sitting. As I came back in the pod double doors there was a square face, a pudgy angry mask sitting atop a hand with knuckles that made it look like teeth on the mask.
Clearly not a happy camper, and a little friend of mine from intervention, until we had to get more services. I walked over, being extra quiet since the pod was.
“Are you angry?”
I saw a little nod and stooped down close. “Yes, you look pretty mad right now. And are you also hurt?” That face. That angry pain I have seen up close so many times this year. That face she wore into kindergarten two years ago…
Another nod. I stayed quiet a minute. A. didn’t volunteer anything.
“Sometimes when I get really mad, I draw. Then I can think about what to do. Remember when you drew those feelings from scary dreams? Would you like to draw what you are feeling right now?”
This time A. gave me a small vocal yes. I went off to get a blank journal. Returning, I told her she could keep it and use it anytime. And I went back to my clerical task in the windowless room.
A little while later I walked by and she had drawn herself on the cover and was then pressing hard on the pencil marking in two rectangles on a fresh page. I stopped and leaned in. “What’s this?”
“They are desks,” she said with a tone like a detective naming the crime scene.
“I see. You’ve got a good start. You are very brave to face your feelings.”
Time elapsed, although my sense of it this morning wasn’t clear because I had a writing project on my mind for an after school meeting. I was back at the end of the pod, sitting at my desk, which looks out into the open hallway. There were books piled between us, but I saw A.’s eyes and they looked like they were smiling. I walked over.
“Hey, these books blocked my view, so I wasn’t sure, but were you smiling?” She nodded and her smile was easy and big. The page contained all kinds of marks, characters, and details of the event she drew. But I guessed she didn’t want to revisit it.
“That’s so great. Now you are ready to go back to your classroom, then?”
I got my head beaten today
by the rubrics I am trying to create.
No one really knows what is going on
or that a new section called “craft”
just popped right in!
Needed 4 Motrin this morning,
caffeine overload by 1 pm,
sugar crash came following soon after.
Rubrics will be named a disaster.
Would like to call in sick
for the remainder of the week.
Waive a white flag
rather than go down with the rubric ship.
But I am not done YET!
No one can say that I haven’t tried.
Bleeding and screaming to fine tune the beast.
I will not give in!
Because I am not done YET!
Finessing and wordsmithing.
Establishes, produces, expands
all writing words to describe what
writers can do.
But I am not done YET!
Living and breathing standards,
Writing or language – which one?
Events that unfold naturally
and orient the reader,
but wait and see
Because I am not done YET!
Our thinly disguised fictional versions of ourselves have become characters on the page. I typed up the final stories my friends in the RS Fiction Factory wrote in after school intervention. And I wrote my own, after a model character the kids named.
What the Others Think
Lizzie is leaning on her desk in Room 22 looking out the window. She daydreams during reading assignments. Mrs. Hues walks by and taps her book. She gives Lizzie the look and walks on.
Lizzie is not the only kid waiting for the lunch bell. The chair is her prison. Her mind is full of sentences. “Will anyone here like me?” she wonders to herself.
Walking in the group to the cafeteria, Lizzie is paler than the other kids. Her thin black hair is pulled into a scraggly ponytail. Skinny white arms stick out of a white blouse and swing against a blue uniform jumper that’s been laundered hundreds of times.
In line with jostling kids, her worried face floats over a sturdy frame held up by strong legs. No one else wears roll down white socks with their running shoes. Some girls secretly talk about her. If they are making fun of her, Lizzie thinks she might agree with their opinion.
Lizzie sits down at the end of one long table by herself in noisy room. Kids are unpacking store bought Lunchables and eating cafeteria burritos. Lizzie opens a small paper bag. The two boys across from her stop to watch her pull out a white bread sandwich she made that morning.
“What’s that?” one boy asks. Lizzie doesn’t speak. She forces herself to take a bite of bologna.
“Hey,” says the other boy in a tie-dye spirit shirt, “It’s a sandwich! Duh!” Both boys laughed and slapped each, other teasing themselves. Lizzie shrugged. She wonders if any of them ever feel lonely.
“It’s bologna,” she says. More laughing that she doesn’t get.
Outside at recess the air is sunny and warm. The wind reminds Lizzie of home. Kansas. She heads for the basketball courts. Those two silly boys follow her, but she doesn’t care.
Without asking, Lizzie trots onto one court and intercepts a rebound off the hoop. She pivots, dribbling and goes around two players to return for a lay up. Several kids are rushing in to take the rebound and Lizzie darts into the swarm to come zigzagging out with the ball. She shoots and scores again.
She doesn’t pass or look at anyone. But those legs and speed are a surprise to the kids on the court. Lizzie has tuned out their comments, mostly in Spanish.
Lizzie exits the court on the other side running out onto the grassy field. She imagines she’s a wild horse and gallops to the farthest edge of the field, running until her lungs ache. She wheels around catching a breath, ready to cross imaginary prairies with a mustang herd when the bell makes her heart sink. “Ugh…” She becomes lonely girl again.
Turning the hallway corner to Room 22 she sees the two boys standing with a group by the door. One kid kind of waves a hand at her.
“Hey! That was good basketball,” said Abner.
“My name is Cristiano,” said the other, the one who had laughed about her sandwich. “I always bring my grandma’s quesadillas or tamales. I’ve never had a white bread sandwich. They look good.”
And because the two funny guys were talking to her, two girls named Hailey and Rocio also said “Hi,” and smiled at her.
Mrs. Hues came walking back and started shooing everyone in the classroom. “Get out your science notebooks, all of you,” she said.
Lizzie stood a moment longer looking at the little group of kids and then felt happy for the first time in a long time. “Thanks,” she nodded.
“It’s hard to be the new kid,” said Abner.
“Yeah,” said Hailey. “I remember.” Hailey rolled her eyes knowingly.
“Maybe you can teach me some Spanish?” she asked looking at the girls. Rocio smiled looking up shyly.
Lizzie felt accepted. Fourth grade was going to be okay.
Lately, it’s all revision. Every action in the workplace, every discussion…my updates on the garden or the finances. Student tests, reports. Looking again and rewriting it maybe a bit better.
This afternoon I completed the second year of support for teachers at a dual immersion K-8 school. We began with celebration: fresh strawberries, chocolate and fizzy water. The principal sent in ice cream and sundae fixings. So when the teachers arrived it seemed like a party.
Instead of going straight to celebrating the writing they brought, we celebrated the teachers’ genius. I had them remember a moment this year when their teaching was gold. A time you are really proud of…(I could see when they had a real memory in mind.) I asked them to walk across the room (with their treat) and share that moment with another teacher. Now the party talk was on. Warm and real.
Then we did a modified version from Bohner’s Gems – a round robin share in small groups selected by numbering off. Funny how hard it is for teachers to stop presenting the lessons and talk simply about how a piece of writing affects them. After that fun, we opened Units of Study and calendars and questions and got to deciding what to try next year in addition to our first attempts this year.
It was lovely and perfect for the mood to be like a party. Add to end of year pressures that planning is difficult with teachers who have been told a new curriculum is going to show up — and nobody knows for sure what it is. “Plan your writing around what students need to learn and practice,” I urged. “When the boxes show up, then you can see what you might want to match up with reading goals.”
The most interesting discussion was with the TK teacher and a kindergarten teacher, as we waded into the If..Then… first unit. We had a lively conversation and I had to make myself move to other groups.
It is all revision. Map where you’d like to take your students, but be prepared to change it when the whatever shows up. The principal told me aside, “And those don’t usually include good writing instruction…”
The strawberries were eaten. Someone put the melting ice cream away in a fridge. We said our friendly farewells. And exchanging thanks, the principal said she’d be in touch about ways to continue support. And I’m immensely relieved another extra thing is completed and done well.
So the year was a huge revision since we had the actual UOS materials. And who know what the need will be next year. One of my possible revisions is no extra things.