Once again, we offer you a piece from Fran Haley, a literacy coach in Wake County, North Carolina. Last week, we shared Part I of her guest series on teaching writing. This week, she takes us even deeper into the heart of writing.
“When you write a memoir, you aren’t writing about your entire ten or eleven years of living. What do you want your reader to think or feel? Decide on that first. Then pick a moment when you learned something about someone, about yourself, or about life. Your job as a writer is to bring the readers into that memory so that they live it with you, like it’s happening right now.”
– Fran Haley, to fifth grade students
I was initially invited to fifth grade by my extraordinary colleagues, who thought I might help inspire students to write meaningful memoirs. In the end, however, it was the students who inspired us.
The collaborative writing of my memoir developed out of the need to model, think aloud, and share the writing process simultaneously with students, but they weren’t just witnesses or passive participants. They became a team of editors, critics, and sojourners who walked back in time with me to live pieces of my childhood.
As mentioned in Collaborative Writing, Part 1, I started out giving students a choice of my memories: Do you want to help me write about The Mysterious Noise or The Time I Was Death? This later morphed into a choice of feelings: Do you want to help me write something suspenseful, something that will make you laugh, or cry?
If the students wanted to laugh, we wrote “The Time I Was Death,” concerning a last-minute costume for a party I didn’t know I was supposed to attend when I was in fifth grade.
One class said, “Make us cry.” We wrote“The Kitten’s Song.”
When you are collaboratively writing your own memory, you have to fill students in on just enough for them to have an idea where you’re going:
Okay, ladies and gentlemen, you’ve chosen to help create a story which will make you cry. The topic is a sick kitten. A good writer anticipates questions of readers and works answers into the narrative. What kinds of questions do you think a reader would have in this case?
The students generated this list: Why was the kitten sick? How did you feel about it being sick? How did you know it was sick?Where did the kitten come from? When did this event take place? How old was the kitten? What did you do to try to cure it?What did the kitten look like? How long was it sick? Did it die? Could you play with the kitten? What was its name? How big was the kitten? Was it a boy or a girl?
Thus the framework for the narrative was created; my goal was to answer all of these questions as we wrote the memoir together.
As words went on the pages under the document camera, the tiny gray-and-white striped kitten was born. Within a day she was pushed away by bigger, stronger siblings who got all their mother’s milk. When I picked her up, she was about the weight of an egg in my hand. I was horrified to discover a raw, red sore where her tail should have been. I was afraid the mother cat had bitten it off, but my mother explained that this condition is spina bifida.
What is spina bifida, Mrs. Haley?
Hmmm. Readers may not know what the term is either. How can we help them know the meaning of spina bifida?
Maybe your mother can explain it to you so everyone can know. Also, you need to go back and tell us the name of the kitten. You forgot.
I’m saving the name for a reason. We are building up to it.
The hook comes in letting the narrative unfold without giving too much away too soon. Here’s how the kitten’s name was revealed in the draft:
Mom handed the dropper of milk to me and I put it up to the kitten’s mouth. She didn’t take it.
“Mom, I can’t do it!” By now my hand was shaking.
“Give her to me,” said Mom.
My mom could fix anything, I knew. Once she had rewired our oven all by herself. She made beautiful clothes for us and other people to wear. As I placed that tiny gray and white kitten in my mother’s capable hand, I was sure she would make the kitten well. I remembered a song then, from a movie I watched on TV with Mom. The song was “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music. Part of the lyrics are: “Small and white, clean and bright, you look happy to me … blossom of snow may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever.”
One student waved her hand wildly: Oh, Mrs. Haley, I know that song!
The rest of the class didn’t know the movie or the song, so we paused as the girl sang it for us in a pure, sweet soprano. There was a reverent hush in the room as we got back to the writing:
In that moment, the kitten’s name was Edelweiss. As my mom tried to put milk into the kitten’s mouth, I sang the song over and over in my mind.
The milk just ran down the sides of the kitten’s cheeks. When I looked at my mom’s face, her mouth was set in a straight line. Tears were rolling down her face like the milk on the kitten’s cheeks.
After a few minutes, Mom said, “She’s already gone.”
“NO!” I wailed. “Keep trying!”
Sniffling was audible throughout the room. I could hardly see the page or the document camera; long-ago tears welled up afresh. We pressed on to finish the memoir, wiping our eyes. One student, sighing, summed it up at the end: Mrs. Haley, that was so terrible and wonderful.
As the students worked on their own memoirs, they focused on what they wanted their readers to feel. The depth of emotion they incorporated was astounding. We tasted the anger of one girl whose family had moved many times; we felt the loss of friends she’d had to leave behind. We experienced another girl’s anxiety giving way to joy on the birth of her baby brother.
Rich, rich slices of life, shared and savored.
For the last couple of years, we have connected with Fran Haley, a K-12 ELA educator and literacy coach at a Title I school in North Carolina, via Twitter and some in-person conversations at PD we have facilitated in Wake County. She has a wise soul and her insightful perspective prompts us to think more deeply and act more intentionally. As a child, Fran imagined herself as characters in the books she read. Then she discovered the power of writing. She continues to study the craft of writing and to stretch herself with various genres, experimenting with voice and perspective. Nothing delights her more than seeing students get excited about writing. We are honored to share some of her enthusiasm with you through this guest post, the first in a two-part series.
“Every moment is a teachable moment as well as a writable one.” –Fran Haley
When it comes to teaching writing, teachers know the three Ms: minilessons, mentor texts, and modeling. A fourth M, however, is a little more problematic: motivation. Despite the teacher’s careful selection of high-interest, quality texts and the deeply important think-aloud, there’s that student who just does not want to write.
So much for Common Core Writing Anchor Standard 5: “Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting …” because, darn it, that student doesn’t want to write at all, let alone develop or strengthen any writing. Forget the rest of it. We pull everything out of our toolbox and none of it sparks that student.
But CCR Writing Anchor Standard 5 doesn’t end with developing and strengthening; the final phrase is “or trying a new approach.” This “new approach” surely means students rewrite pieces from different perspectives or take different stances, but might it subtly hint at an opportunity for those of us who teach writing? Different things work for different teachers; the dynamic of each classroom, the ebb and flow between teacher and students, is never the same twice. For me, as a teacher and literacy coach, collaborative writing was the “new approach,” which reached even the hardest-to-reach student with that fourth M and brought student writing to life.
Perhaps it was mostly because I love writing; I tell that to students up front. Passion, we all know, tends to be contagious. Perhaps it was because the fifth-graders took my carefully selected mentor texts into small groups for a few minutes, where they read to each other and discussed what they noticed about the form and the author’s approach, as I listened in. Perhaps it was because I let the class vote on the topic of the paper from several topics I hoped might work. Most of all, I believe that the collaborative writing of my memoir—my own memory, my own thinking, shaped by their input—was the hook which pulled every last one of them. The students became part of the process; the process became synergistic.
Collaborative writing closely resembles shared writing, except that students take on more of an advisory role; the goal isn’t to complete a model piece quickly but to have students contributing during the whole messy process of good writing. Once the topic was agreed upon, I started writing under a document camera. The students helped create an appropriate beginning. They began to ask critical questions, from characterizing my family members in the memoir to whether or not “that comma” was appropriately placed, and why. The students asked me to define some of my word choices; once or twice they even recommended better ones. We even debated artistic or stylistic choices.
The students saw things I didn’t (Are we not always a bit myopic with our own work?) and made spontaneous suggestions which improved the narrative. They watched, nodding approval, when a sudden inspiration sent me back to the previous paragraph to insert a thought (I was, after all thinking aloud). The students actually caught “holes”–gaps in the logical flow–that I had to go back and fill!
Together we completed our first draft, and when the final period was placed, the students applauded. All of them. The memory was mine, but we all owned the work.
Afterward, when it was time for “you do,” the students generated numerous ideas for their own memoirs, and that student who hadn’t ever wanted to write was the most excited. His memoir about telling the truth after an unwise choice ended up being one of the most moving.
Yes, there was still planning, revising, editing, and rewriting to do, on our collaborative draft and on their individual ones, with much, much conferring, but the difference was that all the students wanted their work to be powerful, to impact their readers.
And they did.
Last year, as the Common Core state standards were implemented in full-force by schools across the country, “close reading” of “complex text” became the focus of many educators. In fact, as teachers aimed to amp up their instruction to align with the standards, they labored over text selection wondering if their choices were worthy of “a close read.” In many cases, complex text was supplanted by hard text and presented to students by enthusiastic but uncertain teachers saying things, such as:
- “Let’s do a close read of this text.”
- “We’re going to closely read this text.”
- “Let’s be sure to read closely and carefully.”
In fact, by the middle of October of last year, close reading was so emphasized in the schools Kim’s sons attended that it became the subject of sarcastic dinnertime humor. Her younger son would ask her older son, “So Matthew, did you read (imagine a ten year old child using air quotes here) ‘closely and carefully’ today?” For Matthew and Nathan, close reading was akin to a story map or a diorama—one of those things that teachers ask you to do in school.
As we ready for the new school year, it is important to remember that making meaning is the essence of reading. If children are leaving our classrooms with the idea that close reading–or in other words, mining text for its deepest meaning–is simply something that teachers ask you to do in school, then we must work hard to reclaim meaning making as inherently valuable to reading. Perhaps this year, it might serve us better to reserve “close read” and variant terms to use in professional planning conversations with colleagues. We should exchange ideas about the different ways we are able to help children reach new understandings or achieve insight into a text, or, in other words, read closely. Perhaps we needn’t remind students that they are reading closely but rather, that they are doing the important work of reading: understanding.