“Your assignment for today class is to write your state report in the voice of a snowman.”
“ A snowman?” you ask.
“ Yes, a snowman.”
This was simulated out of a conversation I had recently with a 3rd grade teacher where somewhere along the line someone thought it would be a creative idea to assign all 3rd grade students to write their state research reports in the voice of a snowman. A snowman? Yes. A snowman.
“A snowman?” I asked. Yes, a snowman. What does the voice of a snowman sound like? I wonder, as distant memories of Frosty’s voice pop into my head, “Haaaaaappy Birrrrrthdaaaaaay!!!” What do snowmen have to do with state reports? What if you have the state of Hawaii or Arizona where snowmen do not reside? Would it be a melting voice? A snowman? Yes, a snowman.
And then to top it all off the report was to then be written in the shape of, yes, you guessed it, a snowman. Now call me crazy, but wouldn’t it make more sense to have a state report in the shape of the state the report is on? Or perhaps just simply shapeless unless the writer chooses to make the report in any shape at all?
Wherever this idea came from, one must recognize that its’ intent, I believe, was to allow for creativity in writing these reports. My hunch is that what got in the way of this good intention was inexperience in writing, the writing process and how creativity can be discovered and is easily accessible to all writers through the study of authors and illustrators in ways that make sense for the writer and the purpose of the writing project. So many of us grew up without any writing instruction at all and many feel uncertain about how to teach writing. Most teachers see themselves as readers but very few will identify themselves as writers.
So this 3rd grade teacher, Ashley and I decided to begin the journey encouraging students to create their own books on the states they were studying. We began this unit of study with an introduction to a non fiction book called, A President from Hawaii where we asked the students to read like writers and envision how they might use some of these techniques, or MOVES in their own writing. I read, did some thinking out loud, but not much before the students began to identify the many moves made by both the writer and the illustrator while Ashley charted their thinking on the white board next to us all.
As usual I found myself marveling at the kids “reading” of this text. Amy recognized that the illustrator used a variety of techniques which included a background image that was either watercolored or collaged and then actual photographs and images were layered on top of that.
Joe saw that the photographs were delicately framed in bamboo, but not on all pages. When we wondered why the illustrator might have made that move Michael wondered, “is the bamboo only shown on those pages where there were natural scenes in the background where bamboo really grows?” And in looking back we identified that it was shown on the images of mountains and beaches, but not on the pages that showed cities.
Shane talked about the bold words. Michael noticed how the information was embedded within the text. I wondered going into the class if this book had enough moves in it, but of course they went deeper than anticipated.
Next, I shared a variety of non-fiction texts and asked them to take some sticky notes and do some noticing with a partner and then come back to the larger group and share one on the moves made by either the author or the illustrator that they might try.
I like this word, move, because it is more accessible to students, teachers and even non-writers. In most professional texts these “moves” are referred to as craft, and the goal is to identify the different”craft” used by an author. I myself I have used the word craft in my teaching but often found it did not resonate with those who were not engaged heavily in the process of writing already. And by all means if “craft” resonates with you and your students then stay with it. Katie Wood Ray’s description of Craft in her book, Wondrous Words is beautiful. I am always seeking alternative ways in for writers.
The word, Craft, carries with it a sense of “crafty” in that it is something that is part of an artistic process and that some are better at it than others, or that some have a “gift” for it. Those with that gift are “writers” and those who were not lucky enough to be born with an affinity for “craft” are not writers. Craft can be a loaded word in that it also has an underlying assumption that there is a “right” way to make the craft. (See paper plate snowman) One teacher explained that because she didn’t know what craft was that it automatically distanced her from writing and made her feel even more inferior. She did not see herself as a writer and the idea of craft did not help her to move away from that identity.
The process of identification is a critical one when working with writers. Once someone actually manifests the idea of “I am a writer” then all things begin to change, as they “see” themselves as writers they find the confidence to play a little more, to worry a little less about doing it “right”, and discover the freedom to explore and try on some of the moves of others writers.
“Moves” seem to be more available to some. Identifying these moves actually moves writers closer to that place of identification. Anyone can try out a move. In asking students (be they 3rd graders, 33 year-olds or 63 year olds) to try a”craft” is something that some cannot identify with. Trying a move in your writing is like trying a dance move. It takes out that ethereal sense of “writer” and brings it down to earth, making writing available to writers of all shapes and sizes.
When the students regrouped to share their findings, their books were loaded with sticky notes and “moves” they would like to possibly try. Each set of partners shared one move that impressed them the most. The possibilities seemed endless.
So when I returned to that classroom I was eager to find out what had transpired over the week and what I found when I walked in was a very busy writing workshop with paper and scissors and computers and crayons and markers and pencils and busy writers abound. There was a buzz in the room and so I began conferring to find out more.
What I discovered was that the “move” most decided to try was to write their reports in the “voice” of something significant from their chosen state be it the state bird, produce or in the Hawaii report in the voice of the waves. I had to laugh because this project started with the idea of voice and seemed to be ending here as well. The idea of personifying something from their state took on a life of it’s own so much so that the narrator from Alabama, “Fuzzy the Peach” actually “visited” the narrator, the Cactus Wren, state bird of Arizona, on the pages of the Arizona book. So now these kids were learning not only about their states, but about the states their classmates were studying as well. They were collaborating and sharing ideas and admiring each other’s work and ideas during the process, finding an immediate audience with authentic feedback. One gets an idea from another and it snowballs. It was infectious.
I also noted how all of the writers were in such different places and stages and that for some, the gift of time to really work on an illustration with incredible depth and detail was appreciated. “I love making this book!” Josh told me. When I asked him why he said that it was fun, relaxing and enjoyable to show his information in a book. I could see from his writing alone that it was not something he excelled at as his letters looked young and his words were far and few in his research, but by focussing on what he loved about his state of California, the sports teams he was creating the most detailed images in the room.
I also realize having the eyes of the occasional observer are different eyes than those of the teacher who has a list a mile long of things to get done with her students and that handing that time over, even when we know it is valuable, can feel too long or too free or too unproductive. Fortunately, this young, intuitive teacher, Ashley, understands and sees the value in what each child is doing and how individual the process of each student is. It takes patience. Then it takes more patience. It is not easy for every student and there are always those who struggle, those who seem to be wasting time and those who are not engaged. It takes time and it takes a great leap of faith and trust in ones’ self and the kids themselves.
Finally, I noticed was how sacred the oaktag was to these kids. Some cut theirs into smaller pieces to make more pages, others just talked about how lucky they were to be using such expensive paper and how it was different than any other “paper” because it was so sturdy and perfect for book-making. One girl stroked the smoothness of the tagboard telling me how she just LOVED the feeling of this paper.
All of these things, all of these tools, all of these conversations, all of these moments are part of being a writer, of the writing process of a working Writer’s Workshop. It is messy, it is chaotic, it is time consuming, but it is organized chaos where the voices, choices, creativity and sounds of the writers are front and center and the snowmen, well, they are out where they belong, on the playground.