GUEST BLOG POST: Starting The Year As Writers

Linda Baie just moved from the classroom after 20 years of teaching gifted students in an independent progressive school in Denver, Colorado.  She is starting her second year as the school’s literacy coach, helping teachers in varied positions at the school with their goals in literacy.  Always passionate about empowering students as writers and readers, she is newly interested in the tech opportunities for literacy.  Linda is the mother of two married children, and just celebrated, with her daughter and son-in-law, the arrival of a third grandchild.  She is the author of the blog, TeacherDance, and hopes many teachers will begin to realize how important it is to write and share their writing with their students.

Some teachers have already had that wonderful first day of school, and some are still planning, planning to have the best start possible.   When others see us having weeks of vacation, we know that in one hidden layer of the brain our thoughts lean toward the next year.  Thoughts go like this:  Next year, I’ll . . . Or, at a bookstore, this will make a perfect example of . . . And, I’m planning to . . .

Building positive learning communities tops lists of priorities at the start of the school year, and writing with a supportive group adds to the glue that helps to create those communities.  From the first day, I provide the time for the students to experience what writers do, which is to write often; and I offer the lessons so students can both improve their craft, and practice how writers live their lives, with awareness of surroundings using all of the senses.

At my school, some writing has already begun, teachers write to students and students write back.  Reading these letters gives teachers a peak into students’ writing abilities and students hear what is important to their teachers before school begins.

In my letter to students, I ask them to bring various items to school on the first day, among them a special bound book for a writer’s notebook.  If they choose not to bring one, I have composition books ready.  We gather lunches, water bottles, writer’s notebooks, writing utensils, and leave for the outdoors, for a place outside the school building where we can sit together to talk, write, play games, and begin to form our class group, including a writing community.

As we settle onto blankets I’ve supplied, I begin with words something like these:  one of the important things writers notice are their feelings.  No other time this year will you have these particular feelings.  You must be wondering about the year with questions floating around in your brain, while dreams (maybe even some nightmares) are also surfacing.  At this time, I share a poem or quote that I’ve copied to pass it out for everyone to tape into the notebooks, to contemplate as they write.  Here are some ideas:

Metaphor, and Thumbprint, both by Eve Merriam

Or, an anonymous quote called Risks, that begins As you journey through life, choose your destinations well, but do not hurry there.

I then tell students to find a private space to consider those unique feelings and record them as their first notebook entry.  I also let them know that they’ll be sharing at least one line that they believe is an important insight discovered so we can combine those lines into a class poem.  For about 20-25 minutes, students write, and I write, too.

When we gather, the groundwork begins for commenting, the first lesson.  I have brought a chart tablet to record ideas for comments.  I write the list as students share ideas for what is helpful and what is not.  I contribute, too.  Then comes a difficult part, who will share their writing first?  There is always one brave soul, thankfully, and then it begins.  It needs to begin so safely, in quite a low-key way.  Enough find it not so scary, and like the positive feedback.  What I do takes some time, but also gives those who are reluctant time to contemplate their own writing, to choose what they believe is okay to share.  When students share their lines, I record them in my own notebook, being sure to get every word correct, and I make no judgment, just say thank you.  Because it is a long conversation, I ask that only two comments be made for each sharing, and that everyone comment at least once.  When we finish, students have heard everyone share a piece of their writing-really a piece of themselves-a big risk!  Each has heard two positive comments about the writing and listened to the different ways others both write and give comments.

After all is complete, I read the class poem, our beginning recording of our thoughts and feelings.  Later, I’ll type it, enlarge it, and post it on our door for the year.  It’s a powerful weaving together of our group.

Here are a few lines of the poem one class wrote:

  The dawn of the day is the beginning of a journey that will end each night.

I tell myself I’m going to work harder this year.  I’m going to get through the

whirlpool of writing, plays, math and unit, and never get frustrated.

This is chapter one of a whole bookful of days, waiting to be lived.

It’s like buying a blank book; it has endless possibilities.

I hope our page will be filled with laughter, learning and smiles.

The year will be filled with changes and surprise, like diving deep into a tranquil

ocean and exploring its depths.

A new year is starting.  I know it’s going to be great, but I’m still filled with

endless questions.

I feel like a tiny flower in a flowerbed, ready to grow with the others.

I hope to create a new, better version of myself.

Well, we go again, into fun and games, love and commitment, friendship and

conflict—really high adventure!

During the week, writing ideas and experiences build from this first activity, emphasizing the awareness that writers have.  Some of the activities I use are described below:

Writers discover things by asking questions:  I find ways to pair students up so they can interview each other for our class scrapbook.  There is one page for a short, biography of each student.  This activity gives students a chance to talk with another classmate they may not know well, to ask questions, to practice active listening.  They are asked to write the interview in a creative way and add personalized illustrations.  Follow-up conversations might occur so they are able to create a satisfying piece about the classmate.

Writers are aware of their surroundings:  During this first week, I give brief assignments to help these budding writers begin to fill their notebooks with ideas.  Each day, I give one.  They come from trying to have students use all the senses, becoming aware that the little things in our lives are worth describing.  They just first need to be noticed.  Teachers should create their own ideas according to your class needs and what students are able to accomplish during the day.

*Record a conversation from your day when you hear laughter.  Go to where the laughter is and describe the scene.

*Record a description of a unique smell that you notice, either at home or at school.  Is it a good or an unpleasant smell?   How will it help you remember this event?

*Write about a recent event that you will remember because of the sense of touch.  Was it soft, hard, sticky, furry, etc.?

*Describe your trip to and from school.  What do you see, hear, or smell that you haven’t noticed before?  How long is the trip?  Do you walk or ride?  What is the route like-city streets or highways?  How long does it take?  Do you talk on the way, or are you mostly silent?

*Describe the view from where you sit.  Do you sit by a window?  Can you see who comes and goes in the room?  Is the chair comfortable, or do you move quickly to the sofa area?

We will move to more personal choices soon, but by now, my students know that in this class they are going to become writers!  They will write a lot, be supported positively, and become more acquainted with the details of their lives.  They will be ready to move into their own explorations with their notebooks of beginnings.