Sometimes if feels a little risky to write with my students. It’s hard. And messy. And sometimes the topics are a little more personal than I would normally share with students. And there are so many other things I have to do! Take attendance, talk to the kid who was absent yesterday, check my email. Still, every time I commit myself to writing with my students, I am reminded of how vitally important the practice is.
Right now, we are finishing the year by writing mini-memoirs, based on David James Duncan’s “River Teeth” idea. The whole river teeth metaphor is something I can get into later (and thank you to La Colina Junior High teacher, Cathi Speake, for telling me about it), but essentially, students need to find the snapshot moments from their lives, the small stories that stick in their minds, for whatever reason—because the experience was funny, embarrassing, terrifying, confusing, strange, whatever. Now, about midway through the writing process, what stands out in my mind is how necessary it is for me, the teacher, to write with them, participating in every stage of the process as part of our writing community.
Step One: Pre-write
After sharing the “river teeth” concept, we created our own versions, essentially listing the “river teeth” moments from our lives. I used the document camera to draw a river and the “teeth” or memories, drawing little stick figures or objects that especially stuck out to me about each one. (Teachers: Plan out what you will say in advance: Sometimes it’s hard to think when you are standing in front of thirty-plus adolescents.) I tried to share a variety of stories, and I even took some risks because I wanted students to know it’s OK to talk about painful or sad times too.
When sharing the pre-write, it is super important to remind students to listen with pencils in hand, so that if anything I say reminds them of their lives, they can jot it down. I am explicit about this: For example, after recounting an episode of sibling rivalry, I said, “Now, who here has siblings? Do you ever get in arguments? Really? You too? Jot that down!”
I kept my anecdotes very brief. Just the snapshot, not the whole story. After about four memories, I gave students time to write and draw on their own rivers. I continued to write on mine, so they could see that the possibilities are limitless. Students who finished early added color to the drawings in order to help them visualize their ideas.
Step Two: Model Pair / Share (Pre-write)
After most students have three or four ideas, we stopped to share. By this time, I had written more ideas on my river, and I asked students to look over what I’ve written. “Which one do you want to hear more about?” I asked. Many students raised their hands, asking, “What’s the one with the Christmas tree?” “Why did you draw an Oreo?”
Next, students did the same thing with their own work. They traded rivers with elbow partners to look over each other’s work. Then, they pointed out particular events they want to hear more about. I loved walking around to hear the students informally tell their stories. They often were quite excited, smiling as they talked about a time they got in trouble when they were three or the time they fell out of a tree and had to get stitches.
Again, I explicitly remind students to listen to each other with pen or pencil in hand, so they can jot down new ideas as they listen. I even modeled this part by sitting with students as they talk. I said, “Oh—that reminds me of something that happened in my life! I’m going to write it down. Thanks for giving me the idea.” I know this seems obvious, but my seventh graders need the prompting.
Once partners have shared, I showed the whole class how I got ideas from students I was listening to: “Jacob said, _________, and it reminded me of the time when…” The idea is to model over and over how I want writers to work together and learn from each other. I’m also showing students how writers get ideas, that it’s not magic and even the teacher has to start somewhere.
Step Three: Read Professional Examples
This blog entry is about writing with students, so I will just quickly mention that we read mentor texts together. I looked for short stories—I mean very short—that sound like “river teeth” to me. Stories that aren’t about earth shattering or crazy odd-ball experiences, but memorable everyday kinds of events. Things that can happen to ordinary kids. Here are the mentor texts we are currently in the middle of reading:
- “Oranges” by Gary Soto
- “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan
- “A Rice Sandwich” by Sandra Cisneros from A House on Mango Street
- “Principles and Principals” by Daniel Handler from Guys Write for Guys Read
- “The Truth About the World” by Lloyd Alexander from Guys Write for Guys Read
Step Four: Draft Together
We do most writing in class, so I draft right along with my students. I set writing expectations first. Here’s what I said to students this time, “We are going to write for about ten minutes without stopping. If you have a question, ask me now because I am writing with you and I need to be able to think. Once I start the time, there should be no talking. It is impossible to write and talk. OK, so, any question?” And students have a lot, mostly about whether this or that idea is good enough. I remind them one more time to try to work through problems that come up. This is a draft, so they can make mistakes.
Finally, I set a timer and say, “On your marks, get set, write!” At this point, I write my draft on the document camera along with students. I only project the first part of what I write, though, because some of my more reluctant writers just stare at my writing, hypnotized, instead of writing their own.
After the first chunk of writing time, I share what I have so far and ask if anyone else wants to share. We repeat the process, writing for 5 – 10 more minutes. I share again, noting how my page is full of cross outs and other revisions. I want them to see how writing is messy and challenging for everyone.
Step Five: Model Pair Share (Writing)
I model the “pair share” process by reading my draft. Then I ask students to point out my “golden lines”—phrases, words, or sections that stand out to them. I write a happy face or star next to those parts. Some students need to be prompted to take notes as they listen to others so they can report out golden lines. The point is for the writer to feel heard and for listeners to have something positive to say.
This river teeth project has a few more steps. Students will eventually tell their stories aloud, so I model how to convert the written version into bullet points suitable for oral story telling. I also show them how to use effective speaking techniques, such as eye contact, pausing for emphasis, voice, facial expressions, etc.
I always do the task too. That is my rule. If I ask students to do something, I better be willing to do it myself. It simply uncovers what it means to be a writer and ongoing learner. Writing with students places writing squarely in a primary position in the classroom. Not only that, but I sometimes find that I love what I have written with students. I get that writerly satisfaction too.