I am not a stand up comedian. I really wish I was because middle school kids love silly humor. But I do learn from improvisation, and one of the main rules of improv involves the idea of ‘Yes, and.’
NO stops an improvisational skit in its tracks. However, if you are acting with a group and respond to another actor with, ‘Yes, and..’ it keeps the momentum going and the creative juices flowing.
One of the biggest surprises of my school year so far is how fun it has been to say, “Yes, and..” frequently and enthusiastically to my students. This is a longer blog than usual, because I am reflecting on the different aspects of our Choice Unit, which introduced Writer’s Notebooks, Writing Workshop, the writing process (and our personal preferences while writing), and how to transform notebook writing into a finished piece of writing. This reflection will help me make it better next time.
A great deal has been written about how giving students choice in their reading lives can increase their reading stamina, but more importantly, it can increase their enjoyment for books. I will argue that writers need choice, too, and not just a little bit. They need room to roam in the big ol’ fields of their imaginations, their memories, what they know, what they don’t know, what they understand, what they wonder. Approaching any type of writing with a spirit of curiosity is a massive source of empowerment and a powerful tool that kids can own forever. This is why I began my school year with a unit focusing on teaching kids how to use their writer’s notebook as a useful tool (as opposed to ‘this crazy thing my crazy English teacher makes me do’) and how to transform that writing into a finished piece while offering them tons of supported choice.
Last summer, I diligently kept a Writer’s Notebook. I completed 100 entries. I am forever and eternally grateful to Moving Writers’ 100 Days of Summer Writing because the prompts and noticings pushed, stretched, and challenged my writing in many delightfully unexpected ways. And it was FUN. Now when I turn to writing, I remember how I wrote about why a squirrel might choose to stuff a car engine with 50 pounds of pine cones (it’s true!) or how I described a dystopian scene where kindness is punished dramatically. This way of writing stoked my writing fires, and it was fueled by play. It was summer, after all. No torturous writing of any kind, thank you very much!
I wanted my students to experience that same spirit of play. Even though it is definitely not summer, my main word to my students = “Yes.”
Can I write a fantasy scene with aliens? Yes.
Can I draw a scene for a graphic novel about dolphins? Yes.
Can I write a letter from the squirrel’s perspective? YES!
I am not judging their topics. I am trying to build excitement about writing, and if describing aliens gets kids writing, then so be it. I am betting that this lighthearted attitude I’m cultivating and nurturing will pay off down the road, when the writing tasks become more complex. Beginning our year with play, with yes, with try it, will be money in the bank for my writers and will gather interest all year long.
I began the year setting up the Writer’s Notebook. Students responded to different types of prompts: photographs, illustrations, data, quotations, poems. We imitated them, talked about what we noticed, brainstormed different genres or modes we could try (a dystopian poem! an advertisement!). We also practiced using strong verbs by acting them out in front of the class, playing Kahoot, and by choosing verbs from word banks and incorporating them into the writing by ourselves and with partners (which kids LOVE). We brainstormed with partners before writing and shared ideas with the whole class. We stopped and revised on the spot for a minute by changing a word, phrase, or sentence. We volunteered to share an entry with a partner or with the entire class. We shared a line at the end of class. My goal was to build writing community, to build confidence, and to build the sense that my kids do have important things to say, and it takes risk, experimenting, and resilience. After all, writing is built on a sea of talk. Writing is thinking, and thinking is writing, and, yes, many of us need to talk about it, to see what other people are doing, to get ideas and inspiration from our neighbors, so that we realize we are not alone. We begin to see that we can do it.
Meanwhile, I kept introducing elements of the Writing Workshop. We begin every day with Book Love-10 minutes of independent reading. Then we quickwrite, in order to build writing community, stamina, and awareness of individual preferences during the writing process. I kept telling kids our notebooks are like our second brains, a holding tank for thoughts and ideas that might come in handy tomorrow or in six months. After quickwrites, I teach a brief mini-lesson with a strategy or a focus for the Choice unit. Then, we move into Writing Workshop. Kids often asked me questions like this, and it was back to yes.
Can I draft in my notebook? Yes.
Can I draft on a Chromebook? Yes!
I don’t like my first draft. Can I change it? YES!
For the Choice Writing unit, students chose a quickwrite entry they had drafted during the first few weeks of school or created a new one. They could write in any genre or mode. We all had the same goal: use strong verbs. And, to help them cut to the bone (cut words, phrases, or sentences for clarity), their final piece of writing could only be 100 words! (This idea stemmed from Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days).
Oh..that 100 word limitation drove kids berserk. It was the ONLY thing most kids did not like about the unit. However, I kept clapping my hands with glee. It taught my seventh graders to reread again and again and again, and CUT. Kids kept asking, “What were those ‘really bad words’ again?” and I directed them back to their list of words like very, extremely, or a lot. It forced them to adjust their sentences, and it resulted in more clarity and more urgency in their writing.
When we finished, kids recorded their strong verbs they used in their piece, and described how those verbs strengthened their writing. I only assessed their verbs and their editing. I also kept notes on kids who still struggled to employ strong verbs and need more practice. I’ll make sure to run a few group or individual conferences to help them move forward. I only noted strengths in my students’ writing, and this was the best part of all. Students who struggled with verbs still had other strengths I could easily name and describe to them, like a strong ending, using dialogue, trying some figurative language, or using powerful voice.
We ended the unit by sharing either two sentences or the entire piece with the whole class, and we nibbled on chocolate to celebrate. Many students thought differently about their writing after reading it out loud. Some noticed editing errors, while others mentioned how different their writing sounds when they read it. Many felt pretty darned good when their writing got a laugh or a smile from their audience.
I loved the Choice Writing unit. It was a breath of fresh, fun, rejuvenating air. For years, kids would say to me, “Could I try ….” and I’d regretfully say, “No, we’re working on THIS thing,” knowing full well how powerful it is to give young writers permission to excavate and explore.
Our play led to choice, which led to much higher student engagement. Some students were even empowered by their Choice Writing. Of course, some students struggled, but it is all part of the learning journey.
All writers struggle. And then we pick up the pen and keep on trucking. We keep finding our voices. We keep playing! Money in the bank. Gathering interest. Well worth four weeks of our time.
I will keeping saying, “Yes, and..”