Some ideas about supporting young writers in the Classroom Slice of Life Story Challenge

On Monday, I wrote a post about our classroom writing blog and the way this type of “digital writing notebook” enhances our work in writing workshop and helps us gear up for the March Classroom Slice of Life Story Challenge. Long-time slicer extraordinaire Katie Muhtaris stopped by to leave this comment:

Tara, I’m taking the plunge with my kids this year. They already have blogs set up and well established. My question is, as a long time slicer, I know how challenging the SOL challenge can get. Can you talk more about support young writer in slicing? Or are there already some posts up on that? I’m confident that my stronger writers will push through as writers do, but for my students that need more structure I don’t think my invitation of the day will be enough. (At least it hasn’t been in the past.) What thoughts do you have on how to support these writers while still empowering them and not enabling them?

I left Katie a brief response, but her questions and concerns stayed with me, and I thought I owed her (and other teachers thinking about taking on the Classroom Slice of Life Story Challenge)  a more complete answer.  So here goes, a few suggestions that have worked in my classroom:

Slice with them:

To begin with, Katie is absolutely right.  Just as those of us who slice every day in March will struggle to find “stuff” to write about, our students will, too.  And just as we will struggle to find the motivation to stick with it, day in and day out, so will our kids.  I believe that (as with so much else when it comes to writing and reading) the most powerful thing we can do for our students is to participate ourselves – to live the every day writing life we are asking them to.  They need to see our daily slices on the class blog, it serves as the most powerful invitation and encouragement.  You do not have to write a whole new students-only slice, it can be an excerpt of the slice you are posting on TWT.  All that matters is that when they log in to the writing blog, they see that you have been there first.

Extra support:

Katie was concerned about those of her students who need more support, and, after thinking about this for a bit, and remembering past classroom challenges, I would have to say that even some of our strongest writers  will need extra support.  March is a long month – and slicing everyday truly is a challenge.  So, I offer the following tips to my students starting at the second week of the Challenge:

1. Prompts and topic lists:  These are very general – two or three at the very most, as part of the daily invitation. Examples would be: Did you notice your family pet do something really silly or unexpected today?    Is there a Slice of Life hiding in the cafeteria today – pay attention at lunchtime, just in case!  

A topic list would look like this:

  • and everyday item in your room/ your house

  • the contents of your backpack and what they say about your school day

These are designed just to jog my kids’ memories, to get them started.  Some are bursting with ideas at the beginning, but “get stuck” during the end of the second week, so prompts and topic suggestions become lifelines back into the writing groove.

2.  Heart maps and writing entries in their writer’s notebooks. My kids create heart maps at the beginning of the year and add to them all year long. By March, these maps are pretty full of people, places, events, thoughts – all perfect idea starters for the March Challenge.  Similarly, notebook entries become wonderful places to revisit for ideas: that entry about baking cookies with Grandma over the holidays may lead to an idea for a lovely Slice of Life.

3. A photograph, quote, or half finished line. I like to add these to the  daily invitation, too, as a quick idea starter.  Sometimes, I post a copy of this invitation on the whiteboard in our classroom, to serve as an idea starter  all day.

4. After school brainstorming sessions and check-ins: This is really critical for those of my students who need a lot of writing support.  A short check-in before they leave for the day assures them that they have something to write about; they jot down a quick sketch of their idea in their writer’s notebook or a sticky note…and they’re off to ice-hockey practice or piano lessons feeling better about what they will slice about later that evening.

5. A mid-March party, and big celebration at the end.   Because…hard work deserves celebration!  As I said to Katie, “these are extrinsic rewards, and some may frown at them, but it keeps the momentum going and makes it fun”  – and my kids love these celebrations.

Q. Does it always have to be a  “real” Slice of Life?

A.  No.

Finally, I think it’s more important that my kids  participate daily than that their post is a “true” slice of life.  My struggling  writers benefit the most from slicing every day, so I don’t get too bent out of shape if the slice doesn’t fit the usual format.  After all, we bend the rules here at TWT on the odd March Challenge day, too!

The best part of the Classroom Slice of Life Story Challenge is that it allows all our kids to flex their writing muscles in a supportive environment.  It never is an easy undertaking, it definitely adds to the amount of stuff we have to read and keep track of every day, and it can be quite overwhelming.  But, it is SO worth it!  Our kids feel a tremendous sense of well-earned accomplishment for themselves, and (best of all), there is a collective sense of “hey, we did this together…how awesome is that?!”

Awesome, indeed.