“There’s not much energy in writing right now,” Sarah, a second-grade teacher reflected.
As Sarah often does, she was sitting in my office eating her lunch and processing some of the writing that had been happening in her classroom. An experienced teacher, Sarah is always looking for a thought partner to add creativity and inspiration to her writing instruction. Today’s report was that her classroom was operating in dull status.
The two of us brainstormed about ways she could generate some energy in the opinion writing unit. Her focus is on books and writing about reading which has the potential to be both energizing and tedious.
She went through my picture books, and we envisioned some provocative statements she might make in the middle of them.
- In Octopus Stew, the boy should not be telling such an untrue story.
- Milo and his sister should not have been on the subway by themselves in Milo Imagines the World.
- The shoppers were rude in Yard Sale.
I had some time later in the afternoon, so I stopped by her classroom. A new person always has an advantage when it comes to energy infusion, so I took advantage of that.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
Several children responded. Harry Potter, Katie Kazoo, Mercy Watson… Then, one child held up a small nonfiction book with a tropical fish on the cover.
“That’s not a fish,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” he answered.
Theatrically and playing off each other, Sarah and I continued the debate, to the great entertainment and interest of the students. We took turns examining the cover of the book and noticing the details of the fish which I have since learned is a Blue Angelfish. My argument was weak, and I knew there were plenty of gaps in my logic, but the students were so excited and responsive. When I went back to my office I wrote Mrs. McHugh a letter on chart paper:
I left the letter in her room for her to find, and within the hour I had some responses via Sarah’s text messages.
By the end of the day, I had a response crafted by Mrs. McHugh with lots of input and energy from the class:
Additionally, some of them wrote their own pieces to tag on to the group letter:
Sarah and I laughed about the interactions, and we both recognized the absurdity with arguing about the fish. However, we channeled that energy into the next few days. I went in and admitted defeat about the fish debate, and I offered to come back the following week with a readaloud. Since they’ve been studying whales, I suggested The Stranded Whale by Jane Yolen.
I brought it to the class, and I let them know it’s sad. Several kids voiced a strong opinion against sad books. Others felt differently, and Sarah and I seized the debate opportunity. After discussion and a little writing, the anti-sad book crowd gave in, and I read the story.
Throughout the readaloud, Sarah and I allowed for debate. We found plenty of points to wonder about, but the fun happened when the students did as well. There were characters we weren’t sure about what to think about, pictures we loved, but there were also more important issues to consider:
- Should people help animals?
- Did the children do the right thing?
- Did their actions deserve a medal?
And then, maybe the most striking question to listen to the children develop insights: Should there be sad books?
Whatever concerns Sarah had about energy and engagement being low had diminished as we listened to the students reflect that sad books made it feel more okay for them to have sad events happen in their lives, that they were more like life since life isn’t always happy. “If all we ever read is happy, then we think that’s how life is supposed to be,” one student said. Another reflected that “Sometimes kids can find what they need in books.” Once the conversations were over, students had time to write, and many were still writing after we’d asked them to stop.
One of my favorite all-time professional texts is Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner. In this book, he emphasizes the importance and intersections of play, purpose, and passion to inspire creativity and innovation. Sometimes, as in this case, when students experience elements of play, they experience not only joy, but also discover bridges and pathways to more impactful work.
In the quest to rev up opinion writing, the bridge between silly and theatrical (maybe even absurd) to authentic and important was strong and navigable for this group of students.
Sharing the possibilities for discussions and reflections that exist resparked and refueled the writing energy, and I look forward to Sarah’s lunchtime reflections over the next week!
I am the Writing and Social Studies Coordinator in Simsbury, CT, and I love what I do. I get to write and inspire others to write! Additionally, I am the mom to four fabulous daughters and the wife of a great husband.