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Conferring with Writers in Jonesboro ISD

For the past 8 months, I have been working with teachers in a Writer’s Workshop Institute and it was my pleasure to travel to Jonesboro this week to visit the writing classrooms of three teachers involved in the Institute.  They invited me into their school to see Writer’s Workshop in “action”. Thanks to the very detailed directions provided, I was able to find the right entrance to the K-12 school just fine and a little gentleman was glad to point me in the direction of the office. Little did I know he would soon be one of the writers I would be talking to.

First stop- 3rd grade in Ms. Cate’s room. I was there a few minutes early and got caught up on my “cursive”. I had forgotten all about the “shelf” and that letter z has always given me fits! After cursive it was time for Writer’s Workshop. Ms. Cate told them to get their notebooks (and that is when it dawned on me that mine was back at the office packed up for Institute #4- NUTS!) They all had things they wanted to show me from their notebooks and it was so cool to see evidence of Institute inside, heart maps, boo-boo maps, etc. Way to go Ms. Cate! Your kids had LOTS of ideas for writing.

Then it was time to write… writing time began with kids saying “I’m gonna finish my story from yesterday”, or “I’m gonna start a new story”, or “I can’t wait to write about __________”. I was in a Writer’s Workshop classroom… I could just hear it! I settled in next to a gentleman named Wyatt. He was working on a BOOK! It wasn’t a book yet, but he wanted it to be one! We talked for a bit and he did in fact have a story that you could just SEE playing out across pages. He informed me that it was modeled after another book the class had read called The Quiet Book. (Ms. Cate is bringing it to share at next Institute). His book was written on lined paper, so the first thing I had to help this writer do was get a “vision” for his book- or tell it across pages.

So we said parts of his story out loud and imagined turning the pages as we read. Next we used crayons to make each page a different color. For example, he used the color blue to underline everything he wanted on the first page of his book, another color underlined everything that would go on the next page etc. We counted up the colors and we knew how many pages- or so I thought! 20 colors, 20 pages, BUT little Wyatt reminded me that books have pages before the pages. “The page that is just the picture before you read, and the page that has the writing about when it was written”. Yes Wyatt… I will make sure you have those pages too. I went to go make his book (construction paper and copy paper inside- 5 staples, ta-da- a classroom Random House Publishing Company) and came to show Wyatt. His eyes showed me that this was pleasing to him. I left Wyatt to his work of placing words on the right pages. He decided he wanted to do all of his words, and then all of his illustrations. I also reminded him that words could be anywhere on the page. He decided he wanted them all at the top, but now he knows all the choices that go into making a book and there are still lots of things to think about as he is began writing the words. I let him work.

I moved over to another gentleman (there’s only ONE girl in this class by the way). This gentleman had seen what Wyatt was doing and wanted a part of it. He informed me that he wanted to write a book, “cause Wyatt had given him an idea”. His book was all about friends. and when I sat down, that was all there was on the paper. The title…Friends. And there sat a writer not knowing where to go next with his great idea.

I was knee deep in brainstorming. “What do you want your book to say about friends?” I asked. “Friends can be nice” he replied. I went and got a blank piece of paper- this conference was going to help this writer brainstorm and we needed paper to do it on. I introduced him to a web (not sure if this had been taught in his class previously). We put friends in the middle and going from what he said, “friends can be nice”, I put the word characteristics in a bubble to the side. We came up with 6 or 7 other characteristics for friends. We also generated ideas for things friends can be good at, where you can find friends and things friends can help you with. When this conference was over, he had a cute third grade boy’s smile on his face- he NOW knew what his book about friends was going to be! Whew!

Thank you 3rd grade- time to move to 2nd!

I was a few minutes late getting into second grade (see friend conference above), they were waiting on me to get there to start their mini-lesson. I was instantly excited because on Mrs. Smith’s lap was her Writer’s Notebook! This was gonna be good! And it was… Mrs. Smith shared a personal story from her notebook about her son and the stories they used to make up when he was a young boy about a special rock- a “pet” rock so to speak. The best part of her mini-lesson was that sharing the story touched her. Her eyes got a little glassy, cause she was remembering her now grown son when he was just a little boy. I’m sure there are MANY more stories about that little son to share with the little ones in her own class.

The students were going to be making up stories about objects they had brought from home. Making that object become a character in their story. I couldn’t help but jump in (I know- it’s the teacher in me and the fact that I am desperate for a classroom of my own again some day- SOME day). I pulled their “writing motors” collectively  in the group. I asked each of them which object (there were three on their desks) that they might choose. Some kids knew right away and some had to think a bit, but when they went to their seats, they ALL knew which object to start their story about.

I ended up sitting by a gentleman who was writing about his slinky. Didn’t know it at the time, but he is one of the more promising writers in the classroom- his teacher thinks he may in fact PUBLISH a “real” one some day! He was writing about his lost Slinky and was on a roll (no pun intended).  I watched him write, and when he came to a break I interrupted his work. I asked him to tell me what he was thinking about his story and what was going to happen next. It really looked like his hand could not keep up with how fast his ideas were flying. We stopped at the part where the slinky had fallen out of his pocket.

“What are you thinking is going to happen in this story?” I asked. “He is going to look everywhere for his Slinky and then he is going to find it at the store with all the other Slinkies” ( is Slinky an example of when you should drop the y and add ie? Hmmm…) The fog lifted in my conference and I could see which way to turn.  I decided to talk with him more about that part where he said the boy was going to look all over. I really didn’t want him to JUST write- “the boy looked all over” – that is boring. I wanted him to show, don’t tell, so I went in for the kill.

“That part where you said ‘he looked all over’. I think that is really neat. Where might a boy go look for a Slinky?” We brainstormed out that he could look at his grandparents, at the grocery store, at his school etc. And I asked, “So is he going to ask his grandparents, ‘Have you seen my Slinky?’ What are the grandparents going to say?” To which the young writer said, “no”. I encouraged him to keep writing, told him I couldn’t wait to read more of his story and thanked him for talking with me and moved on.

When I checked back with him 10 minutes or so later, I was so uplifted! He had included going to three or four places looking for the Slinky, asking the same question at each stop. He had included asking “Have you seen my Slinky?”, but with every person he asked their responses were different. Grandma and Grandpa said, “No, but would you like some cookies?” WOW! That is how you teach the WRITER, not the writing!

Thank you so much 2nd grade- time to go see the BIG, BAD, 4th Graders!

Ms. Foote’s class was just coming in from the library when I arrived. They knew right away to get out their Writer’s Notebooks. Today, they were knee deep in writing time. Right away I pulled in close just asking kids to share some things from their notebook with me. I think this may have been one of the neatest experiences of the day because the stories these kids shared with me were REAL! I was getting to know complete strangers through their writing. One gentleman was almost in tears over his story titled Ethan. He had tears in his eyes as he whisper read it to me. Ethan was a friend who had moved away. I think the best line was, “We were best friends forever, until he moved away.” I told the young writer that that is what writers do. They write about what matters. I told him to write everything that makes his heart hurt about Ethan down on paper. When I left him, he had added, “I’m mad that he moved” to his writing and was working up to write the rest.

I moved over to another gentleman who was working on a piece about basketball. Nonfiction. He started with the history of basketball and how it was created. He went on to talk about great players like Michael Jordan, even telling his reader that you can go on YouTube to see videos of Michael’s best slam dunks. There was so much potential to this writing and I wanted him to keep going. I asked him if he had a favorite team and he said “The Celtics”. I asked him what he could write about the Celtics and he said “I don’t really know anything about them”. Well… I’m sure that same computer that has YouTube has Wikipedia! I encouraged him to find out all the cool stuff about his team that he can and to add that to his writing about basketball. He nodded his head considering this idea and I moved on to another conference.

Another young girl stands out from this class period. She was writing a story about her “Marine Uncle”. Problem is the story really had more to do with everything and the kitchen sink, than it did about her Marine Uncle, so we had some talking to do. I started by asking her why she chose to write about her uncle (pretending the story was actually about her uncle). She told me it is because he is special to her and because she worries about him and other people who go to war that they may not come back safely. We had a bit of a heart to heart, I pointed out the part in her story where she said “I pray for people who leave their families that they will be OK”. I told her about my “Army Husband”. I encouraged her to think about writing a letter to those “people” telling them the things she says in her prayers. She nodded her head, and when writing time was over, she was changing things in her story.

Whew! I am worn out just writing it all down, but honestly, it was such a great day! All those stories and hundreds more are why I had a Workshop classroom… and why I work to help teachers across the country do the same!

Where am I headed for my next visit? I can’t wait!

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