Happy New Year! As any student will tell you, the new year doesn't begin January 1; it's the first day of school. Today it's heading toward another 95 degree day here in Atlanta, but it's "the new year"; the first day of school.
If you've read First Grade Stinks, which is based on my daughter's struggles to adjust to a new teacher, you might guess that "Happy New Year" is not the way we greet the first day of school at my house. My daughter is now a sophomore in high school, but the first week of school is always Mr. Toad's Wild Ride with new teachers and schedules and lockers. It's a lot to juggle.
Teachers have their own juggling act with new students of wildly varying personalities and abilities. I now realize that the perennial first day writing assignment, the dread "What I Did on My Summer Vacation," was not meant as an instrument of torture while the teacher re-arranged her seating chart.
The "five paragraphs, no erasures, spelling counts" essay was supposed to give the teacher an idea of how well we could write. For me, it was an introduction to the Wonderful World of Writers Block.
As the kids around me scribbled away about trips to the Wisconsin Dells or Riverview Amusement Park, I thumped the eraser end of my pencil on the desk. Here was my summer; checking out library books and reading them in my self-built "clubhouse" while consuming a bag of Brach's Wintergreen Mints. (They didn't melt in the heat.) The end. Every year I got a C for the brevity of my writing...and lots of erasures.
At some point, teachers stopped asking for that vacation essay, and I stopped having writer's block. I had forgotten that fear of the page, the fear of "looking stupid", until I began teaching young writer's classes. My very first student, a fifth grade boy, stalked into the room, threw himself into a chair, and with narrowed eyes, informed me that his teacher had "sentenced" him to my Saturday afternoon workshops so he would "learn" to write. When we began our opening exercise (which I no longer remember), I watched the boy bounce the eraser end of his pencil on the table. Deja vu! Thanks to this particular boy (who I later learned was mildly learning disabled, but turned out to be an articulate writer), I developed this lesson.
LESSON PLAN (appropriate for fourth through eighth grade)
Objective: To free the student from "fear of writing" and to show them that they can always find something to write about (also known as brainstorming...but don't tell them that)
Goal: Fluidity of thought in writing. Secondary goal, the concept of first and second drafts.
Lesson: Give the students a word or a phrase as a writing prompt. Do NOT use the word "summer"! Use something generic like "fall" or "school" or even "happy New Year." (I would not use the word "teacher" unless I was very, very brave!)
Instructions. Tell the students they are to write for the next ten minutes without thinking or stopping. They must keep their pencils moving. They are to write the first thing that comes in their head that relates to the prompt, and then write whatever thoughts follow. It is not important that they "stay on the subject." Spelling, punctuation, and grammar do not count. Do not write in paragraphs or even complete sentences. If nothing comes to mind, write "blank blank blank" until something does. Remind them that this is only for ten minutes, and they must keep writing.
At the end of ten minutes, they are to stop. They now must revise their work by adding punctuation, arrangement on the page, and corrected spelling. They are not to leave out anything they have written, including the blanks.
The purpose of this assignment is not to assess the student's ability to write in complete, well-punctuated sentences with perfectly spelled words. This is to show them that everyone has something to say, and that if you let yourself go, you can say it on paper. Emphasize that spelling and punctuation is something that you can correct the second time around, but not the first. (I can spend all day fiddling with the placement of a semi-colon, or I can produce ten pages of miserably spelled and punctuated prose that I can clean up in the second draft. I choose the latter!)
The student's final paper will look something like this. This is my stream-of-conscious "poem" using the prompt "fall":
Rah rah rah
I hate football
Running and running
Get that ball!
Run this way
Run that way
We score a goal.
Jump on the guy
with the ball.
Grunt grunt grunt
Clunk clunk clunk
Fans go wild
Scream and yell
Just like war
Hate like war
Hate the other team
We don't know them
but we hate them
Because they have the ball
So I'm not Emily Dickinson. That's not the point. The point is written self-expression.
You have the whole rest of the year to turn your students into Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson (kidding...a little bit).
IN MEMORIAM: Those of you who have read Jimmy's Stars know that the novel was based on stories from my mother's family, particularly those about my Uncle Jimmy. I was saddened to learn that the "real" Jimmy, my Uncle James Smith, passed away in Florida this week at the age of 84. RIP Uncle Jim. Thanks for the memories. (That's Uncle Jim in his Merchant Marine uniform picture above.)