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STORIES FROM OUR WORLD: DISCOVERING THE WRITER’S LIFE

Some years ago, I sat in a meeting in which a teacher complained that her kids “just never seemed to have anything to write about.”  Several others at this meeting chimed  in to agree, and soon this seemed to be the consensus of the meeting: kids, in general, had very little to write about, or wrote about the same things over and over and OVER again.  Big collective sigh.  

Driving home from that meeting, I thought of how often we ask our kids to reach into their lives for small moment stories, memoirs, personal narratives, and even poetry.  “Open your writer’s notebooks,” we ask after our mini lessons, “and create an entry from your writing lists!”, and then they turn to lists which generally say: trip to Disney World, the time I scored the championship goal, when my dog Rocky died.  Chances are, they have written versions of these before…and chances are, we’ve read hundreds and hundreds of versions of these as well.  The boredom, I believe, is equal on both sides.

Circling back to my own sixth graders, I know that their experiences are often limited by the very comforts and privileges they enjoy.  They write about their own world time and time again, dutifully trying out new strategies and stretching out their writing stamina, even as they begin to be curious about engaging in the wider world and exploring new perspectives.  Last year, in an effort to harness this curiosity and give my students a chance to write about this wider world, I introduced Stories From Our World.  Every once in awhile, I’d present video clips about events in the world, and ask my kids: So, what do you think? what does seeing this make you wonder or wish for?

The writing that came from these explorations just blew me away, and I came to understand something crucial to my writing instruction: if I wanted my students to discover joy and purpose the writer’s life, I needed to present them with opportunities.  I needed to infuse our writer’s workshop with avenues for my kids to discover perspective, and experiential knowledge that lay beyond the boundaries of the particular place in which they live, and the limits of that place.

This year, half of our Friday Slice of Life writing has been devoted to Stories From Our World.  Here are some examples of the prompts I created:

  1. This was in honor of MLK Day, when I wanted my students to think beyond the “I Have A Dream” speech, which they have (unfortunately) heard so often that they have really ceased to listen to its inspirational message.

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2. For this writing prompt, I thought it would be a wonderful learning opportunity to learn about the struggle many children have just to get to school, in order to receive what my students take for granted: an opportunity for an education.

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3. Here, I shared a video which brought me to tears.  It brought my students to tears, too. And they wrote with heart wrenching beauty about what they thought, and what they learned:
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In each instance, my goal was to encourage my students to experience something outside their realm of knowledge, and to write about how this experience had moved them and shifted their thinking.   And, in each instance, my students rose to the occasion: they thought carefully about what they had seen, they talked to their parents, they did extra research, and then they wrote like this:

You see children from all around the world just like us, but God didn’t send them as much luck as he sent to us. There are rich and spoiled children that just want more, but there are some children who need more. There’s a difference in want and need, and this video is a reminder of that.

To begin to understand the difference between wants and needs…now that is powerful stuff!

We spend so much of our writing workshop time focused on craft moves, and how to make our writing engaging and beautiful; but I want my kids to know that the writer’s life is also about paying attention to the world, responding to its vicissitudes, and taking a stance about their place in it.  This is why we write. And this is why we need to know how to write.

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Tara Smith View All

I teach Writing Workshop, Language Arts and Social Studies to sixth graders at a middle school in suburban New Jersey. This blog is my attempt to capture all the "stuff" that goes into my teaching life - the planning, the dreaming, the reading, the preparing, the hoping and (above all) the kids.
Please note that the content of this blog is my own. It does not reflect the opinions of my employer.

16 thoughts on “STORIES FROM OUR WORLD: DISCOVERING THE WRITER’S LIFE Leave a comment

  1. Tara, this post was extraordinary. I read it this morning and reread it and knew I had to share widely. I love it for many reasons. I love how you are incorporating different media into Slice of Life, something I hadn’t thought of doing. I love how you are challenging your students to examine their lives and assumptions. I love how you teach from a social justice perspective, and your last few lines resonated in my heart: “We spend so much of our writing workshop time focused on craft moves, and how to make our writing engaging and beautiful; but I want my kids to know that the writer’s life is also about paying attention to the world, responding to its vicissitudes, and taking a stance about their place in it. This is why we write. And this is why we need to know how to write.” Having these beliefs and a vision for why we need to be able to express ourselves clearly, to have something of substance to be saying and sharing….it makes the work we are doing so much more important. This is a post I’ll remember always.

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  2. Tara,
    I am so awed by what you share with your students.They are so lucky. We teachers need to open the eyes of our students to the world. No matter their situation, they see only a little piece of the world. What beautiful citizens you are helping to raise.

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  3. Tara,
    I second Stacey, your work is inspirational and I would have LOVED to be a student in your classroom. Your take and action on the age old, “I don’t know what to write” will inspire your kids for the rest of their lives.
    I am going to be looking for similar way to inspire wonder and writing lives in my first graders, it can be done I am sure!

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  4. The work you’re doing with your kids is profound and inspiring. I wish I had a class of my own right now since I would be implementing this on Monday morning if I did. It is powerful to write about what we don’t know. It allows us to think deeply, broaden our perspectives, and have more empathy. Bravo, Tara.

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  5. Thanks, Tara, for a post that will be used by many teachers. I love the way you’ve broadened the writing responses of your students by opening the wider world to them. And what better way to do that than with video clips! I’ll be back to watch them.

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  6. You really hit the nail on the head. Sixth graders are more than ready for stretching beyond their own world (in which they often feel very confined) to experience the differences that exist in the world beyond. In my ESL classroom, we didn’t need to watch video clips; the students were from far away places and were trying to make sense of this new world in which they found themselves. Kind of the opposite of what is happening in your classroom. But there was one unit that really inspired them: We learned about the young woman from Afghanistan who was shot in the head,but who went on to share the Nobel Peace Prize! That really got their attention and inspired some beautiful writing. Thank you for sharing your very inspiring post today.

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  7. This is such an inspiring post. What a wonderful way to show kids that the world is much larger than their house, neighborhood, classroom, town. And also a great way to combine tech with writing. You are creating thinkers and world citizens. Thank you!

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  8. What a beautiful post. I love the listening to the problem and finding a creative way around it. Yes, writers are encouraged to write about what we know, but it wouldn’t be much without writing about what we don’t know, too. When those places meet, sparks.

    I love your closing paragraph. I know you’re a Mary Oliver fan, so you’re probably familiar with her words: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

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  9. What a beautiful post. I love the listening to the problem and finding a creative way around it. Yes, writers are encouraged to write about what they know, but it wouldn’t be much without writing what you don’t know, too. When those places meet, sparks.

    I love your closing paragraph. I know you’re a Mary Oliver fan, so you probably know she wrote: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

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  10. Your teaching practice continues to be an inspiration for me. I started doing snippets this year and asking my students to respond to anything from a quote, a video, or a poem. They have surprised me. I agree that we need to give our students a larger world view and help them find their place in it. Thanks!

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  11. Tara,
    I just posted this on the wall of my cubby yesterday as a reminder to myself as we finish wintertime testing blues. It’s your perfect counterpart in reading!

    Enablers vs Goals
    From Comprehension: The Role of Text, Talk and Task
    An IRA Webinar
    Presented by David Pearson

    Phonemic Awareness may be important
    but only because it is on the pathway to

    Phonics, which may be important
    but only because it is on the pathway to

    Word Reading, which may be important
    but only because it is on the pathway to

    Comprehension, which may be important
    but only because it is on the pathway to

    Reflection, Critique, and Empathy, which may be important
    but only because they are on the pathway to

    Civic Participation, Self-efficacy, and the
    Good Life.

    The reason we give instruction in reading is not to teach
    skills but rather our goal is to develop people who are good
    citizens who are able to live a good life and fulfill whatever
    goals they have for themselves on this planet.

    Teaching is a moral enterprise ultimately!

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  12. I love how you cut right to the core and solve the problem at hand. Isn’t that what we want to teach our children? Brava! I was mesmerized by this post. As usual, you have given me just what I needed. I was just going to do a writing prompt about describing a bedroom without telling us whose it is or what that person is like. This video about children’s bedrooms gives me more of a unit instead of one prompt. Thank you thank you.

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  13. Tara, I love this idea. I’m already thinking how to adjust it for a younger age group. It’s also a reminder to make the most of shared experiences and to try to create a few more. Thanks so much for sharing.

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