Guiding a class of ten year olds to write a well constructed, logical narrative is like training beans to grow up a corn stalk. For the most part they follow the path but not always, not necessarily in ways you want, and not every last one of them. Some meander up other vertical objects, some stick out horizontally grabbing for something else, and some, well they never leave the ground.
I thought about this analogy and found it helpful as I reflected on this past week’s writing workshop. Like many fifth grade classes across the country who use Lucy Calkins, we are writing narratives. Most kids are writing about an experience they have had. Some add minor elements of fiction to spice their story up. One of my students shared this moment with her classmates, “When my mom said that a part of my story didn’t really happen and I should take it out, I told her, ‘Why not? I can write whatever I want. It’s my story after all.'” I quietly cheered this determined young writer on when she told that to the class. Another child had chosen to write about a super hero pickle. (I guess the countertop pickles we made and ate made an impression on this kid:) Yet, as I reflected, I felt disheartened. They are not making the progress I want. They aren’t making it fast enough. They are missing crucial points we go over with models and rubrics and mini lessons. Then one warm afternoon while I was cutting corn stalks from my garden I looked at all those determined and independent bean vines and realized something we all know and often lose sight of. It’s about the writers not the writing. Just like the bean vines reaching and searching to find their way, our young writers also search for their way. I realized that I was the one who lost focus and trust in the process and the fact that each child will grow as a writer in their own individual ways. It was I who wasn’t slowing down enough to notice that, enjoy that, celebrate that. Like the independent beans who go every which way, our writers sometimes go every which way searching for their way. It is in that search that they will grow as a writer. Now, I can and do step in and rewrap those bean plants and reroute my kids in an effort to show them the way. But in reality I want them to explore, to reach, to find out what works for them and what doesn’t. Why do I get nervous, critical of myself and my kids when it isn’t happening fast enough or smoothly enough? I know writing is messy, time consuming, full of unexpected twists and turns. I have to remind myself to stop long enough to notice and enjoy their search because like the beans, my kids will stretch, try new routes, reach and grow and bloom.
So here I am, stopping long enough to notice. Let me share some of the things that come to mind since I finally took that much needed deep breath and thought about what I was seeing right there in front of me…
“Mrs. Dunn, I finally have figured out the problem in my story and it does make my story better!” “Mrs. Dunn, look I fixed all the capitals and even remembered them on the proper nouns.” “Mrs. Dunn, I’m stuck. I know I need a beginning, a middle, and an end but I can’t figure what the middle part is.” Then I noticed something else. I noticed that when they were working with partners (great idea from the fabulous little book, Celebrating Writers, by Ruth Ayres) they were discussing elements of a good story. They were questioning and discussing how to better describe their character and setting. They were editing use of dialogue. They were discussing making the endings stronger and even tying it back to the beginning. So they are hearing. They are mulling. They are attempting, no matter how clunky those attempts may be, to write like writers. I’ll be honest and say I don’t see evidence for all that mulling… yet. But if I look and listen carefully and closely, it’s there in their talk. That, I realize, is the beginning of writing and the power of shifting focus from written products to writers.
May we all enjoy the power and fun that comes from slowing down to notice and note the successes and struggles of our young independent writers.