You got the MOVES! Writing Non-Fiction with Voice, Choice and Clarity in Creativity

“Your assignment for today class is to write your state report in the voice of a snowman.”

“ A snowman?” you ask.

“ Yes, a snowman.”

ImageThis 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.  ImageNow 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. Image 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.

Image

Photo Credit: craftidea.info

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.

Image

Image Credit: inkygirl.com

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.

ImageAll 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.

Brick by Brick

I must confess.  I have been trying to write a book on education for years.  I have actually even put together what “looks” like a book, but if I am completely honest it sucks.  I love to write.  I love to write to discover what I am thinking or wondering about.  I love to play with words.  I love to write but I do not like the voice I put on when I am in book writing mode.  Why?

It dawned on me this morning that I hate what I have written in these books because as soon as I start to write something for the book I put on my slick persuasion blazer and bowler hat and begin the song and dance to show you my “expertise” in teaching and the classroom.  I become the evangelical used car salesperson of education.  I  try to cover everything that I know in order to create the be all and end all, the educational Bible of the century…and ultimately it is a massive failure.  In it I lose my truth, my voice, the essence of who I am which is not an expert of anything, but someone who thinks and wonders and reflects…alongside those I work with.

Image

So, how can I ask you to come along with me as I shed the slick suit with all the answers and indulge me in some way?  I have so many questions that I would like to explore and yet all of them seem are rooted in the theme of how to make our teaching and our classrooms authentic places where learning can and does happen.  How can we engage students instead of disengage them?   How can we change an entire system?  We can’t.  But perhaps what we can do is shift our thinking about our students, our classrooms, and the systems and begin to view them through a narrative lens.  What are the stories in your classroom?  What are the stories of those students you work with?  What are the stories in your literary life?

Research tells us that 70% of what we learn and remember is through a narrative form and yet 98% of the information we provide to our students is in the form of straight fact.

Elizabeth is a beautiful 7th grade soul struggling with a major disconnect between her Social Studies textbook and her sense of wanting to know and understand.  When I first worked with Elizabeth she took me up to her room and showed me her bookcase and all of the different books she liked to read.  She talked openly and freely and with great fluidity about who she was as a reader, what she liked, what she didn’t like and she laughed as we talked about “fake reading” and how she does it in school and so do all of her friends.  She was animated and those beautiful brown eyes danced with enthusiasm and purpose.

Fast forward to the dining room table 10 minutes later where Elizabeth and I will attempt to tackle her Social Studies homework for the night.  Her shoulders slump as she leans over and pulls out the Mount Everest of Textbooks.  It must weigh at least 5 pounds and it is only one of the many texts that Elizabeth is being asked to shoulder.  She lets it thunk down on the table and the reverberations from that book shudder across the table.  This is a heavy book, filled with endless information and Elizabeth’s long sigh confirms that the drudgery is about to begin.  First I ask her to tell me about the book.  She stops and thinks.  I wait.  I ask her what it feels like to read this book.  She thinks and eventually responds, “It is like reading a brick wall.  I try and I try but it is like I can never get through it.”  I am stunned and rendered speechless at Elizabeth’s ability to create such a powerful image for what this experience is like for her.  She is a deep thinker.  She likes to make sense of her world through simile and metaphor and I am in awe of her brilliance and so I tell her so.  She does not feel this way about herself, however.

Image

And we then begrudgingly open the monster of a book and begin.  She is reading about Russia.  Ahhh…yes Russia I begin to remember as both of my kids went through 7th grade with this same teacher and her passion for all things Russian in just one year.  The page she opens to is busy with color and information galore.  It is a smattering of information intended to inform, but to me it looks as though someone vomited everything they may or might want to cover in a chapter onto the page.

We begin with the title and I talk to Elizabeth about making these titles into questions.  Her eyes brighten.  She likes that there is something she can actually “do” to begin to make sense of the text in front of her.  We peruse the page and I move her to the bright green box at the left labeled major concepts and key vocabulary in an effort to activate schema and perhaps do some front-loading to guide her through the reading.

We get through one concept and as I try to conjure up as much information as I can about Russia I quickly realize I am as schema depleted as she is. We press on to vocabulary keeping the key ideas in mind as a purpose for our reading…should we actually get to the reading part.  There are 5 words and in each of those words lives worlds of information.  Elizabeth wants to know more.  What is a Czar?  How is that different than a president?  She is inquisitive, engaged and interested.  A half an our of our time has passed and we have yet to actually even “read” anything!  I move us along…feeling the time crushing in on us.

Image

We start with our questions to read with a purpose and not three words into her reading there is a vocabulary word that she is stumbling over.  She looks up at me and I continue on to the end of the paragraph. I ask her if she understands what she is reading. She shakes her head no.  We talk about stopping and thinking about her understanding and stopping at that point where nothing makes sense anymore.  She goes back and stops at the third word.  It is the same word that she looked up at me on.

We talked about how readers think about their own thinking and how knowing when to stop was as important as knowing when to read on.  I pointed out to her that she “knew” when she didn’t know because she looked up at me.  I want Elizabeth to think about her reading and her understanding as she moves through the text and to stop when she knows she has lost meaning.  She stops at a heavy-hitting vocabulary word, not identified in the neat green column that the publishers deemed as vocabulary.  I help her break down the word and ask her to think of what it reminds her of.  Together we make sense of the word and then she reads on.

And so we work and trudge on as far as we can together in this text knowing that IF Elizabeth is going to actually “get” anything out of this text then we must continue at this snail’s pace to ensure understanding.  It is a process that I am engaged in alongside her as I too question and attempt to make sense of the listing of facts and how they do or do not connect.

Image

There is no narrative in this text.  Nothing for us to grab onto in this endless sea of facts that now seems to weigh heavily on both of us.  And so I attempt to shorten her assignment, knowing she will not get to the questions she has to answer by the end of our time together, but making the choice to allow Elizabeth some true understanding, taking time “out” of the text to Google and get a sense of story that is so lacking in the text.

Who were this Czar and his crazy wife?  Why do they just mention these people in a list of others without letting us know why she was crazy?  And so we Google again and go deeper.

It is hard work.  And I have to question why so much is assigned in one night, but my questioning does not change the fact that those questions are due tomorrow.  She stops and flips through the pages ahead to see how much more she has to read for this one night’s assignment and a heavy groaning sigh escapes her mouth as she rolls her eyes to see we still have 6 more pages to go through.  I look at her and say, “Brick by Brick is all we can do here so let’s just keep keeping on.”  She rolls her eyes again as fatigue begins to move in and we press on.

Image

So how do we challenge this idea of more is better?  Do we want our students going nearly an inch deep and miles wide or do we want to advocate for depth over breadth?  Are we giving our students enough time and the right kind of books to gain a true understanding of whatever it is we are teaching?  Or are we more interested in coverage and checking things off a list?  Do we realize that each time a student comes to a text that is their FIRST reading and that the knowledge we have comes from numerous readings, rendering it much easier to understand?  Are we aware of what it is like for our students?  Are we thinking about that and what that assignment “looks” like for our kids at home?

Less is more.

And in my attempt to write “the” book I realize this too was my problem as I tried to cover everything and rarely went deeply with anything.  And so now I write this blog where I find myself going more deeply with my thinking.  I threw the book out the window because I realized what I was trying to do in all of those attempts was to cover EVERYthing and to do it from an all-knowing omniscient voice.

I do not know everything.  In fact there is so much more that I do not know than I do know.  Living in this information age, information is cheap, but connecting it and making sense of it is priceless.  And so in the name of less is more I write  to wonder, question and begin to figure out my thinking.. brick by brick.  And don’t we want the same for our kids?

Image