Topics That Make Teachers Cringe

This is some of the work that’s been going down in my writing workshop the past couple of weeks.

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The Fox and the Rabbit and the Case of the Mysterious Poop

By Sarah and Hana

Chapter 1

One day, Fox and Rabbit were walking by the meadow to go Animal-nese School. (P.S. Animal-nese School is where animals learn how to speak Animal-nese, a language that all animals understand. Once they learn it, they can never forget it.) Fox said to Rabbit, “It’s time we go to class,” so they went. The teacher said, “You’re late! You’re late! Morning detention for you guys!” “We’re sorry, we’re sorry,” said Fox and Rabbit. The teacher gave them a dirty look. The teacher said, “You’ll have to stay after school.” Then tears started rolling down Fox’s face, “I don’t want to stay afterschool.” “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” they both shouted. The teacher said, “Do you guys want to go to the principal’s office?” “NOOOOO!” they shouted. More and more tears appeared on Fox’s face. Rabbit ran out of the room bursting with tears. Fox followed her. The teacher grabbed for Fox’s paw but she was too quick. Fox and Rabbit huddled outside the bathroom.

Fox said to Rabbit, “I need to go to the bathroom. Will you guard the door for me?” “Okay,” said Rabbit and Fox went inside. She closed the door and locked it. She smelled something disgusting. She looked down into the toilet. “Ewww, POO!” she said. It was the biggest poo she’d ever seen. Fox opened the door to show Rabbit, but just then Rabbit smelled the poo, “Fox!” she screamed, “What did you do?” Fox said, “I didn’t do that!” Rabbit said, “Sure smells like it.” “I thought you were my friend Rabbit.” “I am.” “Then let’s find out who polluted the bathroom.” And the mystery began.

These students are focusing on writing territories that make teachers slightly uncomfortable and confused. Do we let this flow or do we intercept? An interesting exercise that I use to ground myself is to step back from the immediate and ask myself: “What do these writers know?” By inverting my stance and focusing on the positive, I can often see where to set my compass.

Sarah and Hana’s detective yarn, “The Case of the Mysterious Poop,” is actually housing some decent grade three writing. They are developing characters using dialogue. They have a healthy balance of action, description and dialogue. Have they inserted a problem? Yup! Are they using a mentor text? Absolutely, they’re following a “mystery” formula similar to that in A-Z Mysteries; they’ve got detectives, clues and a mystery that needs to be solved. Are these writers writing about something they know about? Hard to deny that! Given all the instructional pieces that are coming together in this piece, can I overlook the poop?

Ellin Oliver Keene, a literacy expert, muses: “I wonder how many times I’ve said, ‘Write what you know’ and looked forward to a touching personal narrative that predicted how socially conscious a child would be as an adult. I called that topic choice!?!” It’s very easy to derail a writing workshop by carving “choice” around our teacher preferences instead of fostering an environment where students authentically choose their expressive paths, cultivating a personal writing turf that is exploratory, relevant and genuine.  Ralph Fletcher in his book titled, “Boy Writers,” and Thomas Newkirk in his work, “Misreading Masculinity,” both deconstruct a lot of the parameters we use to confine the imaginations of boy writers; I think it may be time we open our minds to include renegade girl writers in this conversation as well.

Next time a student topic rocks your boat, try to keep your sense of humor. When confronting a dicey topic, I’ve found it’s best to smile and enjoy the ride. I’m pretty certain Quentin Tarantino’s “small moment essays” didn’t erupt into the script for “Kill Bill!”

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