Chapter 1: Discovering, Questioning, Talking and Imagining: Writing NonFiction
Before I started my current position as a reading intervention teacher, I was a literacy coach for several years. I worked with K-2 teachers at two different buildings. While most of these teachers would have described themselves as readers and could name books that had recently read, none of them would have said that they were comfortable with teaching writing, and they disagreed strenuously about how writing should be taught. And it wasn’t surprising that they had very little interest in doing any writing themselves. Part of my identity as a coach was being passionate about all aspects of literacy. I certainly had the reading part covered, but I felt that I was just beginning to put myself forward as “one who writes”. I had done lots of collecting of bits of writing that I admired. I had lots of disorganized fragments of my own impressions, memories, and reflections that I had written. But now that I had the responsibility of being a literacy leader in my school, I decided that I had to take the lead in not only how we talked about the teaching of writing, but how to act like a person who writes. I felt that the most effective way of being teachers of writing was to practice being writers ourselves. This belief in the importance of teachers being writers as well as readers was a constant thread that appeared throughout my professional reading over the years. To work effectively with young writers you had to live the experience of feeling what it was like to choose a topic that you cared about, to think about organization, audience, voice. How could I help my colleagues become writers with their students?
I thought back to my own experience with my writer’s notebook. My wife gave my first one to me. It had been given to her when she was younger. She had packed it away but had never used it. Now it was mine. The sturdy covers enclosed thick creamy blank pages. I immediately liked that the pages were unlined. This offered a real invitation to wander around the page, to include simple sketches or doodlings, alongside the texts I was placing there. My first “writing” was copying out short passages from books I was reading. I also copied out individual words, unusual words I had never encountered before. It was a while before I started to write down my own thoughts and memories, to describe things I noticed that caught my attention.
After years of filling my notebook in this manner, I found that I had a created a good collection of short writing pieces, unshaped and unrevised. But I was also struck by that fact that most of my entries were what would fall into the category of nonfiction. There were recorded memories (potential personal narratives, memoirs, ”slice of life” writing), there were observations of nature (the beginning of nature writing), there were quotes from my reading (possible essays in social studies, history), and, of course, lots of fragments and individual words (the beginnings of poetry.) I also realized that I remembered my writer’s notebook experience as one of enjoyment and accomplishment. No one was looking over my shoulder to see what I was writing, no one was putting pressure on me to write a certain amount of words by a certain date. Maintaining a writer’s notebook had been fun and pain-free. I knew that this would be the place to start with teachers who were very fragile with the idea of being writer.
I remembered my writer’s notebook experience as one of enjoyment and accomplishment. No one was looking over my shoulder to see what I was writing, no one was putting pressure on me to write a certain amount of words by a certain date. Maintaining a writer’s notebook had been fun and pain-free. I knew that this would be the place to start with teachers who were very fragile with the idea of being writer.
So I asked teachers to bring a writer’s notebook to our first monthly professional development meeting of the new school year. I was pleased that every teacher did in fact bring a notebook to our first session, although I could sense the wariness they were feeling. Was I going to make them write something, they were probably thinking. I began by showing my colleagues my writer’s notebook that I had been filling for quite a few years – the favorite quotes I had collected, lists I had made, short observations and descriptions of experiences I had had. I showed them my lists of interesting words, and my unskillful but earnest attempts at sketching – an insect, a leaf, a tree. I told them that this is all it took to take on the identity of writer – being curious and having a place to collect your impressions in written form. I could immediately sense their relief that this was something they could do. That’s how we began.
As we continued to meet monthly throughout the year, I always started our session by sharing something I had collected in my notebook. I would often share a quote, but I made sure I also included some short pieces I had written myself. Then I would invite others to share. Sharing came slowly at first, but after a few meetings, most of the teachers in our group were willing to share something they had written. I could feel a growing sense of comfort as we did this kind of writing and sharing together. While the level of feedback was quite undeveloped, not much more than “Thank you for reading that”, there was a strong sense that the teachers enjoyed the routine we had put in place.
Later in the year I asked the teachers to choose something from their notebooks and extend it into a longer piece. In the preceding months I had begun to share with them samples of one-page essays that can be found on the last page of some magazines – Sports Illustrated, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Newsweek, and other home, garden, and nature magazines. These essays usually took the form of memoir, what some have taken to calling “slice of life” writing. The fact that they were one page in length gave us a manageable limit. These short pieces also gave us the opportunity to refine our understanding of genre, including types of multigenre writing. With these essays as guides, we made our attempts at growing our shorter pieces into longer, more shapely pieces.
These kinds of essays turned out to be the perfect vessels for my fellow teachers, for they could now see a way into writing about their own families, vacations, childhood memories. I was amazed at the quality of what they wrote, and we were all moved and delighted when one brave soul agreed to be the first to read her piece aloud. We enjoyed listening to the story about a parent who had kept a guest sign-in book for all the gatherings and dinner parties at her house during her whole married life of fifty plus years. We were delighted by one teacher’s memory of sitting beneath her mother’s baby grand piano as a child playing with her dolls, as her mom gave piano lessons. We laughed at the story of one mother giving her son driving lessons. What had at first seemed scary and impossible now seemed almost natural. I came to believe that it was the ease and comfort of the writer’s notebook that allowed this to happen, that allowed teachers to grow their seed ideas into accomplished one- page essays. Even though we had begun the school year hesitantly tip-toeing around the notion of teaching writing and practicing as writers, by the end of the year we had learned that writing grows from small imperfect attempts. We had started to learn something about choosing a topic. We learned the importance of having mentor texts. We learned the importance of having a supportive audience for one’s writing. Most importantly we saw that keeping a writer’s notebook was an easy, carefree way to start on the journey to becoming a writer, and that we could bring these habits and experiences into our classrooms
We began our second year of professional development together by continuing to use our writers’ notebooks as a way to launch more formal pieces of writing. We now had an initial vision of how we would connect our own experiences of writing with a writer’s notebook to our work with children. The first question we grappled with was at what grade level we should introduce notebooks in the classroom. There was disagreement about whether young children just acquiring the rudiments and control of print were ready and able to maintain some form of writer’s notebook. I reminded my colleagues of how I had used my notebook to collect various kinds of writing. Perhaps we could start that way – by showing our own notebooks to our classes.
As we worked together through the year and experimented with different versions of the notebook (keeping a whole class notebook on chart paper, created through interactive and shared writing, in Kindergarten; incorporating a writer’s notebook within the already established writing folder in first grade; using a steno pad notebook in second grade), we came to the conclusion that what we were really doing was teaching a habit of mind. We were modeling the sense of curiosity that drives us to capture in writing our noticings and observations and experiences. We were demonstrating how writers collect their ideas and choose topics that are personally meaningful to them. We were seeing that if we are going to ask and expect children to write, then we needed to show them how writers go about doing it, start to finish.
What we were really doing was teaching a habit of mind. We were modeling the sense of curiosity that drives us to capture in writing our noticings and observations and experiences. We were demonstrating how writers collect their ideas and choose topics that are personally meaningful to them. We were seeing that if we are going to ask and expect children to write, then we needed to show them how writers go about doing it, start to finish. what we were really doing was teaching a habit of mind. We were modeling the sense of curiosity that drives us to capture in writing our noticings and observations and experiences. We were demonstrating how writers collect their ideas and choose topics that are personally meaningful to them. We were seeing that if we are going to ask and expect children to write, then we needed to show them how writers go about doing it, start to finish.
In our first two years of professional development together we went from collecting items in our notebooks to our fledgling attempts to move on to finished pieces. In our third year of working together, we continued to expand our writing by working together in two writing projects that connected to nature / science and social studies writing. For our first writing project, I asked teachers to bring in an object from nature, along with some writing they would do in connection with it. For example, I brought in the remains of a paper wasp nest that had hung near the sliding doors over our patio. I showed the notes I had taken from reading about this particular kind of wasp, and then read the poem I had written about it, in which I tried to combine my mix of fascination and fear with facts I had learned. Other teachers did the same with the husk of a cicada, the remains of a giant sunflower head, a beautiful light-green Luna moth found injured along the street, a bat skeleton found in an attic. Some read what they had written in their writing notebooks, others showed lists of interesting facts they had discovered, one wrote of a memory the finding of her object had invoked. We found this a useful writing exercise that we could easily bring into the classroom, where children love to share things they have found outside. It demonstrated to us that there are many forms writing can take as we attempt to do nonfiction writing – it can result in lists, expository, and even narrative writing.
Our second project involved doing an interview with someone – parent, friend or other relative who had done something interesting, or had an unusual job or hobby. I asked them to think of how they would present their interview in some form of writing. Once again I found myself moved to write a poem. It was about a friend whose father had been in the diplomatic corps and had spent her years growing up in Pakistan, Australia, and Italy. Another teacher interviewed an uncle about his experiences in the Korean War, and presented it in interview format; yet another teacher chose a narrative form to talk about her parents’ involvement in a project to harvest silk from silkworms that was then used for cross-hairs in weaponry during WWII! We were amazed that the colleagues alongside whom we worked had such fascinating stories to tell. We were also seeing how writing helped us give focus to our stories so that we could share them with others. We certainly could bring this important message into our work with children: there are many fascinating people nearby, many intriguing objects just outside our windows.
As we worked together in this third year we came to realize that much of the writing being done in our classrooms had fallen into a kind of lethargy of journal writing. Children continued to put writing in their daily journals but this writing would often get jumbled up with older entries, so that you couldn’t always tell where one ended and the other began. There wasn’t yet a strong sense that writers are people who have a goal – to complete a piece of writing. We decided that the best way to demonstrate was for teachers to show their students how they had managed to capture an idea, had chosen how to develop it into a piece of writing, and had shared it with an audience. Of course, to begin to change this way of writing, from using daily journals to using other formats – individual sheets of paper, for example – meant changing some cherished writing routines that teachers had been using for years. While we didn’t always agree on what was the best solution to this dilemma, we did see that it was an important issue, the kind of issue writers grapple with.
Since we wanted the writers in our classrooms to think of writers as people who have a goal, as people who make ‘books’, we needed to make sure that the kinds of books we read during read-aloud helped children envision the possibilities of conveying information and experiences in ways that would engage and entertain, with words and pictures. When we began to make the study of mentor texts a focus for our third year of professional development, we found that we didn’t all agree on the purpose of read alouds. Since teachers for some time had felt the need to cover more math, science, and social studies content, read alouds were often done for the purpose of conveying this content. Teachers felt that most of the time they didn’t have leisure to talk about how the writer chose to convey that information. There was an unspoken tension between reading for information versus reading to learn the writer’s craft. It was a tension that we never really resolved, but we did manage to bring this issue to the forefront of our discussions. I continued to sense that we as teachers were continuing to see that teaching was an ever-changing process of problem-solving, and I hoped that this would become the natural mode of interacting with children in our classrooms.