A Trio of Mini Lessons to Riff Off

“I am still learning.”

Michelangelo Buonarroti

Is the process of teaching kids how to craft a lead wearing you thin? Is the predictable architecture of a beginning, middle and end leaving you hungry for something different? Are you feeling like the writing workshop is an antihistamine you suck down every day? Maybe it’s time to try something a little different.

It’s easy to get into a paint-by-numbers routine when scripting mini-lessons, easy to fool yourself that it’s that simple. If I just provide the outline and the colors, they’ll be able to recreate the Sistine Chapel, or at least one angel, heck, how hard can that be? However, if you’re like me, there comes a point in the year when I’ve run through all my key mini lessons on craft and I notice that my students’ writing has improved marginally but there’s still a lot of space to grow. Here are three mini-lessons that can help students till some of the larger writing fields out there; lessons you can spin off of time after time to help students shape writing that has an impact.

Words Matter

As writers, words are our brushes, paints, chisels, hunks of rock; writers build worlds using words. Perfect words may be simple or complex; writers need to develop an ear for language and how to find the words that will bring an image or a feeling to life. Some key ways to build a love of words with your students is to use dictionaries and simply generate word lists. Share some words you love, words you love to say, words you love the meaning of, giant words and ant-size words, let them in on how cool words can be. Another great way to indicate the power of words is to take a sentence from your own writing and circle a single word. Generate a list of five or six other words you could use. Try out each one and have the kids respond. Then build in context, fit the sentence into a paragraph or cement it to a larger chunk of writing. Discuss if the word choice wobbles within this new context. Is there a right word? It’s all great fodder for conversation and it also illustrates just how difficult the task of writing is. Got a great word-based lesson? Post it up!

The Bigger the Issue, the Smaller You Write

Ralph Fletcher talks about this idea in his book, What a Writer Needs, (p.49). Essentially the territory he’s mapping is the same as the sage old writing advice, “show don’t tell.” People like to write about significant moments. Death and love inspire a lot of writers to sit down with paper and pen trying to capture huge waterfalls of emotion. However, writing about big issues is usually overwhelming and the writing easily becomes mundane or muddy as the writer fumbles to encapsulate an experience that resists a container. The key is to capture the small story that lingers on the sideline of the war, the disaster, the wedding, the funeral, or the divorce. One interesting way to teach this lesson is to present the students with a complicated image from a disaster site or a war zone. It should be a photo that opens itself to story, one that isn’t too graphic, (check out the annual photo journalism awards for some possible ideas: http://www.worldpressphoto.org/). On a sticky note, (limit space to limit time), have students write a couple of sentences about what they see. Then share out in pairs, small groups, trios, or whole class. What have they honed in on? What’s the focus of their written snapshots? What’s the feeling behind the writing? Weave in the idea that truing details based on description can often access emotion more successfully than a dissertation on feelings.

This lesson can also be done as a teacher model using a powerful moment as a focused example. Write a short piece two ways in your own notebook. Use this written duo to show students your thinking; it’s also kind of a fun exercise to play with. Take a big issue and overwrite it; then, work within the cracks and try to write about the same idea set keeping the writing small. Notice what happens. Share with your students. You can also have them try this second exercise independently and explore what happens.

Remember the Reader

Often when student writing becomes garbled and unclear, the writer’s forgotten that he or she is a storyteller weaving a word web that others must be able to decode. Toni Morrison speaks of the dance that’s created between the writer and the reader: “The words on the page are only half the story. The rest is what you bring to the party.” This is an important data point for writers as well as readers. The reader cannot participate in a conjoined experience if the writer does not use language skillfully enough to apprehend a story. Young writers particularly live in their own imaginative worlds and developmentally it can be a struggle for them to recognize audience. Once again, model thinking using your own writing to demystify the concept. Share a snippet of a piece. Have the students put it to the test: Can they imagine what’s happening? (A fun way to do this is to have them do a quick sketch or comic of what’s going on.) Keep your piece short and try to use humor to your advantage. Have the students compare their quickly jotted imaginings. They will no doubt vary to some extent indicating that the “dance” is always slightly different for each reader.

Another valuable thing to do as a class is to generate a list of questions to help the writer see what a reader needs. Some examples are: Can we imagine the setting? Are we able to make a movie in our minds? Does the movie have the sound on mute; do we need more dialogue to imagine the scene? Does the movie flow from scene to scene smoothly and make sense? Are the characters fully developed? Do we know what they sound like? Do we know their habits? Do we know who the main character is? Sometimes I focus on one or two of these questions during the writing share to help students begin to build a sense of audience.

The main thing to keep in mind is that writing is complex work and by extension, the teaching of writers is also complex. I am continually caught up in the process of trying to see the writer who might be, gently chipping away the marble that holds them back. This is work that demands patience, faith and skill. Can we all do this work? Absolutely but remember, it is work that will never be finished no matter how dedicated and artful a teacher you may be. Take a moment each day to find inspiration, to look at your writing workshop from a different angle, find a unique perspective, refresh your tool set, and follow your intuition. What the writers in your room really need is for you to believe that their writing matters, to have faith that they can improve, and to relentlessly seek out their inner voice, the small sounds hiding out in nooks near the heart that when blown into a song of words give shape to the human experience we all share. This is what you, as a teacher, bring to the party.

9 thoughts on “A Trio of Mini Lessons to Riff Off

  1. I have always been really interested in using photojournalism during the writing workshop. Have you tried this at all? What results did you get? Have you ever had students take their own photos, then write about them?

    • I’ve tinkered just a little but I’ve been thinking about pushing more in that direction from time to time, rooting the idea of visual literacy in their heads through creative construction. I did a really cool cooperative project with a high school film class. My students wrote poems and memorized them; the high school kids made short video clips of each poet reciting their poems on the move. I remember one kid’s voice came through the dark tunnel of the slide and then her head popped out! With the new surge towards the Common Core, I am thinking of exploring some of this photo-journalism turf within my social studies strand next year. I think photo journalists so some really interesting work. Check out Peter Turnley’s website: http://www.peterturnley.com/

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