Every Tuesday morning, I start my day in writing workshop with 1st graders. This week, they have been composing narratives about fall. Almost everyone is on their final drafts. Almost everyone, but M., who hasn’t even yet begun. These are the kind of writers I have the privilege to support. I love this challenge. I love to figure what these small writers need and build a road map with them to set them off on their long writing journey.
The best way to illustrate my conference time with this young writer is to write down our conversation. As the conference begins, I think of all the experts who helped me become a writing teacher: Calkins, Graves, Murray, Fletcher, Andersen. Their advice whirls around my head. I take a deep breath, relax, and remember most of all to be present to this little writer in front of me.
Me: So M., do you know what you want to write about?
M. : Yes! PUMPKINS!
Me: Fabulous! Have you made a plan?
M.: (shaking her head) What’s that?
Me: You know. A web – those sheet with the circle in the center and the lines.
M.: Like a spider.
Me: Yes – spider paper.
M.: No. I don’t know how to.
Me: Here, I’ll show you. Let’s make a simple plan – beginning, middle, end.
M. sits down with me at the table in the back of her classroom. I turn over her story template and list on the back – B – M – E.
Me: What happens in the beginning?
M.: I am at the pumpkin patch and I find a GIANT pumpkin.
I write her words down. She watches me intently. I go slowly modeling how to think and write and sound words out.
Me: So, then what happens next?
M.: The pumpkin is too BIG. It’s too heavy. I can’t pick it up! It is ENORMOUS! (M. holds her arms out in front of her making a large circle).
Me: You can’t pick it up? What do you do next?
M.: I look around and I find a smaller pumpkin. I pick that one up and bring it home to make pumpkin pie.
Me: Fantastic! Now, tell me your story again out loud.
M. tells me her pumpkin story from beginning to end. She is giggling and dancing with excitement. She is ready to write. I turn over the planning paper and M. picks up her pencil to begin. This is where the heavy lifting begins.
M.: “One day I went to the pumpkin patch. “ How do you spell pumpkin?
Me: Let’s stretch it out.
M. writes “pumpkin.” Then asks how to spell “patch.”
Me: Let’s stretch it out.
M. write out “patch.” She continues with her story – writing, pausing, stretching the words she’s unsure of, and happy in the process. At times, she starts telling me other stories as she writes, and I have to redirect her. Six sentences are hard work for this writer, but she perseveres joyfully. All of a sudden, M. stops and turns her smiling face to me six inches from my nose.
M.: You are fun! I need to have a playdate with you!
Me: (laughing) M. keep writing.
M.: I love you! You are my favorite teacher! You are the best! (She says with wild exuberance thrusting her hands toward my face and sticking one finger up my nose).
I lurch backwards and laugh. This is why I teach. Children have such heart and spirit. They are fearless to show how they feel. This moment in time will sustain me all week. I am grateful to M.
M.: How do you spell pumpkin?
Me: Well M., you have written it four times already in your story. Let’s look back and see how it’s spelled.
M.: Okay! (she says cheerfully).
M. continues and is finally finished. She is so excited that she’s made a story. She gleefully reads it aloud to me. I clap and cheer on this young author. What have M. and I learned this morning in writers workshop? I think M. learned: it’s good to have a plan; a story has a beginning, middle, and end; you can stretch out words to help you spell; and it’s fun to share your stories with a friend. What I learned and was reminded to do was to trust the young writer, slow down, listen, support, repeat, repeat, repeat, and be joyful in the process.
Books from Writing Experts
- …And with a Light Touch: Learning About Reading, Writing, and Teaching with First Graders by Carol Avery and Donald Graves
- Assessing Writers by Carl Anderson
- A Writer Teaches Writing by Donald M. Murray
- How’s it Going?: A Practical Guide for Conferring with Student Writers by Carl Anderson
- Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing by Ralph Fletcher
- Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins
- The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins
- Writing: Teachers and Children at Work by Donald Graves
- What a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher
- Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide by Ralph Fletcher