I cannot remember a time that I did not like to write. Putting a pencil in my hand was giving me my turn to speak. I loved creating imagined worlds, pouring my heart out, and writing about what could have been and what might yet be. Writing expanded my horizons. I get to live more life by writing. Sometimes it baffles me when the small children in front of me have trouble finding an idea or organizing a thought. I study them intently, hoping to find a magic strategy that will get them to see themselves as people who enjoy writing. Magic does come, but not in the way I think it should or would. Magic comes by writing every day. Allowing space in your day to put the pencil to the page or the fingers to the keys. It comes from allowing yourself to tell your story to others through your hands.
It had been more than forty years since I was part of a community of writers. In college, I took part in writing groups, collectives, workshops. After college that stopped, and I wrote for myself, not sharing with anyone until I forced myself to put the piece in an envelope and send it to strangers, who would return it most often with a kind rejection. That did not feel right. I started to think of those stories and poems as rejected, not good enough and that made me avoid writing every day. But I have an intrepid heart and a yearning to be heard so I eventually picked up the pencil and started writing for myself and my invisible audience. Over the years, I have written with and for my students. I encourage them to have intrepid hearts and tell their stories. We build communities and we cultivate gardens of ideas to write about.
The simplest magic strategy is to LISTEN. When we listen to kids, whether they struggle to write or easily skip along the page, we can help them move along as writers. We can connect to them and start the conversation. Sometimes we go off topic. Okay, many times we go off topic, but that’s just the point. Our magical winding conversations always lead to wild writing that excites us and beckons us to write more.
Another simple strategy that works for me all the time is to READ. When I was a very young writer, I would read and imitate. When I was a young adult writer, I considered that way of writing to be cheating, so I stopped reading. Do you know what happened then? My words became stiff and wooden; my ideas were flat and dull. When I picked up books again, it kickstarted my imagination, and I was off and writing again.
I am so grateful to be part of a blogging community this year. As much as I love to write every week, I love to read the posts of my fellow bloggers. I have a connection to them even though we have never met. I have shared their joys and their sorrows, their book recommendations, their recipes for apple cake and jerk chicken taco, their photos of gardens and pets, and oceans and grandchildren. I am fortunate to have this treasure of ideas waiting for me each week.
Last week, Fran Haley posted a photo of her dog, Dennis, and a poem called “Little Dog Dreams.” This small piece of writing got me to thinking how I could help my 4th grade students out of their winter doldrums. They have been sitting listless behind their shields of plexiglass for weeks now, and I needed something to perk up their imaginations. Fran’s little poem was just the thing! I knew my nine and ten year old girls would fall in love with Dennis and that would spur them to write “Little Dog Dream” poems.
First, I showed them the photo of Dennis circle up in a comforter, head bowed, ears inside out, a picture of perfect sleep. Then I read Fran’s small 8-line poem. We talked about how Fran constructed her poem: two stanzas with four lines each. We talked about the rhyme scheme and noticed Fran’s word choice – vivid adjectives and strong verbs. Next, we brainstormed words that might go into a “Little Dog Dream” poem. Our list looked something like this:
Now the girls were ready to write. They quickly got out their pencils and started to compose.No one had trouble getting started. They began talking to each other – telling funny dog stories.I had forgotten to leave some time for talking and sharing, but they did so naturally, and I let it be. Soon the room was quiet and poems began to appear on their papers just like magic.
Emily and Hadley wrote acrostic poems:
Loves a belly rub
Lauren and Maddie tried their hand at rhyming:
LITTLE DOGS DREAM by Lauren Little dogs dream about an owner who cares Little dogs don’t dream about teddy bears, They are not selfish. They’re happy and proud. They are happy to be alive and they don’t ask for much Now it’s your turn. Put yourself in the dog’s shoes. You would love treats and teddy bears, but No! I bet that you would be happy with an owner Now imagine you on the streets with no owner. I bet you would not ask for much. You are happy to be alive. Now come back! Come alive! And imagine that dog life! LITTLE DOG DREAMS by Maddie Snuggled up on their own little bed Thinking about warm thoughts in their head. Running through the cold snow Sinking and getting low When they reach their owners arms Safe but alarmed When they hear a weird sound They cover it up with howling and jumping around. When they get back to their cozy home Happy thoughts are what they dream.
My dreamers, Laila and Caroline, added some imagery:
Little Dog Firefly by Laila Flying in the air, A firefly lands on my dog’s nose My dog just sits there Staring into the starry sky, Loving and kind. Little Dogs Dream by Caroline Little dogs dream of jumping Into a pool of treats, Little dogs dream of owners Petting and loving them. Little dogs dream of going outside, Chasing squirrels, hugging trees, And scaring all the birds. Little dogs dream What little dogs dream!
And always practical, Ashley, easily took on the voice of her beloved dog, Gerty.
Gerty’s Dog Dreams by Ashley Some yummy food better come soon! Otherwise I go to the bathroom on the floor! Ahhhh … YAY… I see food!!! Wait… Mom is LEAVING ME Oh no. I have to FOLLOW HER. Even though I know she hates it when I follow her. Whatever. Oh man, Cameron is taking me to her zoom call. Ahhh... why is everyone saying AWWWW? What is so cute? Wait is it me? Heh, probably I am so… cute! Is this my purpose? Haha! Yay. The next day ... Wait... what? Why is Ashley screaming my name? Let me go to… Taylor's room! Ahhh… I am trapped! Man, I should have gone to Ashley. Let me out Taylor!! Please!!!!!!! Help someone!!! Yay Dad let me go!! Wait, Taylor has me. She is taking me… AHHHH. Ok let's follow Mom again! Mom is moving the furniture again She said it’s the last time! That night, Ok let me go to Dad and make him pet me! Ok… just been 10 minutes. 20 minutes.. Dadddddd pay attention to meeeeeee, pleaseeeee!! The next day when Emily comes…. Hmmm… What should I do? I am bored of following mom.. So… Wait, Emily is here! Yay! She is wearing her black leggings now I can shed on her again!!! Mommy gets mad when I shed on her. Whatever.
And Olivia, who is a devoted cat lover, quietly flipped the theme and wrote this:
Little Kitten Dreams by Olivia Small kitten sleeping Snow covering its white pelt Dreaming about prey Catching sixteen mice Running free in the wild Freedom is so sweet Waking up at dawn Went to fulfill its wishes And fulfill its dreams
I am so grateful for Fran’s inspiration this week and ever so grateful to be able to spend my weeks writing with children. They never cease to provide me with magic and promise. Indeed, I learn from them every single day.
5 thoughts on “Write Now: Building a Community of Writers”
Your students are so lucky they have a teacher who lives and breathes writing. I was not a writer. I did not have any teacher that helped me become a writer. I was a reader, and I marveled at the way words were composed, but never once thought about doing that myself.
I love the way you studied Fran’s poem and allowed the girls to create on their own. They are writers.
I loved when you said this, “But I have an intrepid heart and a yearning to be heard so I eventually picked up the pencil and started writing for myself and my invisible audience.” I love to write also and the last rejection sent me sailing into not writing for people ever again…but how it creeps in and saw Ruth’s dream for this and for connections. Wow… such a cool thing you did with the kids after Fran’s sweet poem. Love this about you…love, love, love! I also agree that writing is imitation and we learn so much from other people who take up their pens daily! XO
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Thanks, Nanc, your words mean a lot to me. Stay warm and safe. Have you done more skiing?
These poems were so sweet! Your students definitely embraced this idea. My daughter was in a Zoom writing class this morning, and she wrote about a cat…animals just fire the imagination!
Those girls are so lucky to have you!!! Thank you for sharing their work. Makes my heart sing 🙂