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.