Magic on the Page Big round, brown eyes Are looking up at me; They are brimmed with tears. “I don’t know what to write,” The little girl before me whispers. I pause and breathe, Calm everything inside me Until my breath and hers are one. “Well, you are supposed to tell about a memory.” There is a vigorous shaking Of her dark curls from side to side, “No. I can’t remember anything.” “A birthday? A holiday?” I offer in hopeful expectation. “No. Nothing. I started but I can’t,” She says, pushing her paper towards me. Let’s think,” I say slowly, patiently. “How about something you love? What do you love?” I ask. Her smooth young forehead furrows, “UNICORNS,” she exclaims. There is now a twinkle in her wet eyes. “Unicorns. Most certainly,” I say. Soon she is sitting among the others, Busily scrawling words upon her page: Sky… rainbows… fly… fairies…soar… sparkle… The magic has begun.
Usually, I write the narrative and then add a poem when constructing my latest blog posts. This time, I started with the poem because it came to me all at once after working with a group of 2nd grade writers. The assignment was part of our fall writing assessments to create an on-demand narrative piece from a prompt. The prompt was to write about a favorite memory from 1st grade. We had talked and brainstormed about favorite 1st grade memories, and then they began to create writing web plan. Everyone was primed and ready to write. The classroom was a quiet buzz of pencils on paper. I navigated between desks that were set six feet apart. I monitored from a safe distance. I started to write my own piece to show students they were not alone in working through the writing process.
A few minutes passed when Avani got up and walked over to me with her plan in hand, her eyes brimming with tears. My mind started to move into action what were all the strategies I knew about how to deal with reluctant writers? What do you do when someone gets stuck in her writing? How do you help her keep her pencil moving? How do you grow confidence, support without taking over? All these thoughts raced in my mind. All the while, I looked in those big round brown eyes. I knew the first think I must do was to stay calm and build trust.
In the past, the students would turn and talk and tell their stories to their writing partners before they started to write. This time, I conducted the lesson as a whole class with only a couple of students sharing because COVID restrictions made partner sharing very difficult, if not impossible. Students partners would have been shouting their stories six feet apart. So we made accommodations and moved forward. Everyone seemed to have an idea of what to do and was busily creating a web of ideas, and then one go stuck. She had her plan filled out but started writing about something else.
She saw the plan and the story as two different things. I had never had a student do that. Usually, they have trouble thinking of a topic or sequencing a story or adding details to make the moment come alive. This writer thought the plan and the story were two different entities. When I suggested a place in her web where she could start her story, she said that the web idea was not the story she wanted to tell. So I asked her to tell me the story she had in her mind. She said she wasn’t sure but the story in the plan was not the story, and she started to cry. The story plan was about Halloween. So I asked Avani if she wanted to continue to write about Halloween. She was silent. When I asked her again, she looked at me fiercely and said that she was thinking. I gave her a little time but she began to fiddle with the eraser on her pencil, and I was afraid I was going to lose her.
“Avani, if you didn’t write about Halloween, what would you write about? What do you love?” I asked her.
Her eyes lit up, “Unicorns,” she said brightly.
Then write about unicorns,” I said.
She looked at me questioningly, “I can change my plan?” she asked
“Yes, of course, if it isn’t working, change it.”
“But then I have to write another plan now?” she asked.
“Oh!” I began to understand. Avani took time to write a plan. The plan didn’t work out and now she had to start at square one again. Her stamina was waning.
I knew that trust and flexibility were key. I told Avani to go back to her seat and just start writing her unicorn story. Away she went, wiping her eyes. Soon the purple and pink unicorns were flying across the page. Magic had been restored.
When I teach writing, I have an arsenal of teaching strategies and moves I use depending on the situation. This arsenal includes the ideas and books of some of America’s best writing teachers. I stand on the shoulders of these giants so that my students, with pencil in hand, can reach for the stars or the flying unicorns, whatever the case may be!
Great Books about Teaching Writing:
- A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences by Carl Anderson
- Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices by Ralph Fletcher
- Children Want to Write by Donald Graves
- Craft Lessons by Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi
- Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz
- Enticing Hard-to Reach Writers by Ruth Ayres
- Every Child Can Write by Melanie Meehan
- How’s it Going? By Carol Anderson
- The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins
- The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from American’s Greatest Writing Teacher edited by Thomas Newkirk and Lisa C. Miller
- The Responsive Writing Teacher by Melanie Meehan
And some picture books about writing:
- Also an Octopus by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
- A Moment in Time by Jennifer Butenas
- Any Questions by Marie-Louise Gay
- A Squiggly Story by Andrew Larsen
- Author: A True Story by Helen Lester
- Idea Jar by Adam Lehrhaupt
- Little Red Writing by Joan Holub
- Ralph Tells a Story by Abby Hanlon
- Rocket Writes a Story by Tad Hills
- Rollercoaster by Marla Frazee
- Scribble and Author by Miri Leshem-Pelly
- The Best Story by Eileen Spinelli