When I was a student back in the last century, there were three things you could count on happening the first day of school; somebody would throw up, the PA system issued a stream of incomprehensible directives ("First lunch students will eat during second lunch..."). While my teacher figured out the intricacies of her Delaney Book seating chart, there would be our first assignment on the chalkboard, right under "Hello, my name is Mrs. (Fill in the Blank). 99 per cent of the time it was "What I Did on My Summer Vacation." Sometimes this was followed by the threat "Spelling and punctuation count. Must be at least 250 words."
This assignment was so predictable that after second grade, I started wrting the essay in advance, so I could read a library book instead. The kids who went to the Wisconsin Dells or some place truly exotic like Disneyland had no problem. Kids who stayed home and spent the summer running through the lawn sprinkler or worse, in summer school, (the equivalent of a stint in Sing Sing) stared at their three ring binders, and sweated bullets. Five minutes into the school year, and the threat of next year's summer school was already nipping at their heels.
Somewhere between my school days and my daughter's, the "What I Did..." essay had gone the way of the dodo bird. Instead, every morning, she was expected to write in a "journal" for five to ten minutes, using a writing prompt on the white board. I am not a fan of writing prompts. It's hard to come up with a hundred and eighty or so age-appropriate writing prompts, year after year. The kids knew that what they wrote didn't matter, just that they wrote something. Their grade came from the teaching flipping through the journals looking for blank pages or suspiciously short essays.
Whoever came up with the journal idea had good intentions. Being able to write English fluently is always a handy skill. Unfortunately, journals turn an awful lot of kids off. I wouldn't be a writer today if I had been expected to write on a narrowly defined topic, first thing in the morning. Every morning. By middle school, these journals were used in every class (except P.E.). Six or seven prompts a day would give me brain freeze.
OK teachers, I am going to give you a writer's workout that will cause you to roll your eyes, gnash your teeth, and call me nasty names (hopefully, not in front of your class.) And yes, it will take more time (in the beginning). Ready? Let's rev up that creative part of the brain that has probably lain dormant all summer.
(This is adapted from Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide by Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi.)
Equipment needed: Teacher: A timer, a small legal pad, and writing instrument. Students; the same,minus the timer.
Plan plenty of time for this exercise; the more students you have, the more time you'll need. Don't plan on multitasking. Your students will need your full attention.
First, share a couple of your own (short) ancedotes. This serves several purposes. One, students seem more open to learning if they know a little something about you. Something interesting to them. For instance, second graders are probably not going to care that you like gardening, have two grandchildren and your cat got stuck in a tree last week.
They may be interested that your grandmother helped you plant your first vegetable garden (and you hated picking worms off the tomatoes). Or that one of your grandchildren plays hockey and the other wants to be a beekeeper. As for the cat in the tree (and this is from personal experience), you can't coax them down with their favorite food (they can't smell from that far away), and that a hook-and-ladder truck is useless if the tree is in a fenced yard.
Now, tell the students to write something "they know a lot about." The only restrictions are they can't use the topics you just used; and it can't be a synopsis of a book, TV show or movie. This is not a made up story; this is a story about something that happened to you, or something you know a lot about.
Partner each student and give them each a minute to tell the other what they are going to write about.
(I love my old-fashioned egg timer...you can't argue with a loud "ping"!) Announce that you will have
a "writer's conference" with each of them, preferably in a comfortable, private environment, like a "reader's corner." You will need your timer (keep it short. You'll need the extra time for those suffering from Brain Freeze.)Those who seem to be on the right track should be given a quick thumbs up and sent on their way.
If this is new territory for you, you might want to have a cheat sheet of potential topics. Teachers get Brain Freeze, too! Now on to those stuck in Popsicle mode.
The conversation might go something like this. Student reluctantly shows you blank or nearly blank paper. You: Courtney, it looks like you're having a little trouble thinking of something to write about. Let's think together (I have a personal dislike of the term "brainstorm")
Here are some topics you might have on your cheat sheet.
Who is your favorite relative? Why?
Have you ever had to move? How did that feel? Did you have to leave a best friend? How did that feel?
Do you play a sport? Do you like it? Or do you play because all your other friends play? Who is your favorite team or player? Why?
If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be? Why?
If you could meet any person in the world (living or dead) who would it be? Why? What would you ask them? What you want to share with them?
Do you (play an instrument, chess, computer games, go to dance class or gymnastics) You need to be specific, because I have discovered that a lot of kids do not know the meaning of "hobby" or "pastime".
Asking "what do you do for fun?" may result in some-stories-that-should-not-be-shared!
Are you the oldest, youngest, middle, or only child in your family? What's good about that? What's not so good about that?
Do you have a pet? If you could have one, what would you pick and why?
Do you collect stuff? How did you decide on this item to collect?
(These are just examples. I would prepare as many as there are students. You can never have too many back up questions.)
Hopefully, the student will respond to at least one or more of your suggestions. When they do, write the cue word ("soccer", "Lady Gaga", "Madagascar") on your small legal pad. Hopefully, your little Popsicle has shown interest in at least three topics. When you get to three or four, give them your small sheet and send the student back to consider their choices. (Small legal notepads are less intimidating than the full-sized ones.
Points to emphasize: no one has to "share" if they don't want to (once things get rolling, usually everybody wants to share). Don't worry about spelling and punctuation. That's what revision is for
(and that's another topic.)
Not only does this exercise take away the pressure of committing words to paper (graphophobia--I looked it up) but you and your students will know a little more about each other than they did an hour ago.
By the way, it costs way more than you want to know to retrieve a cat from a thirty foot pine tree.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman