Working with Student Writers

As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, one of the most valuable aspects of publishing student writing online is that it provides students with ownership of when and what they publish, but also the opportunity to interact with a real, global audience.” I mention this because it’s important to note that errors/mistakes made are OK, a point the ELL teacher was supportive of. 

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Tom Romano, in his book Clearing the Way, writes about the uncorrected errors embedded in students’ writing. He says the following:

“I let them stand…out of respect for error and the part it plays in the process of writing. Human beings are usually messy when they create.” He encourages teachers to look through–not with a red pen clutched in one hand to expertly edit, but an openness to the possibilities of– the messiness to the essence of student’s writing.

Book at Amazon

An openness to possibilities…for me, that’s what writing is about and that is what most attracts young writers–the possibility to create a new space.

A middle school, ELL teacher was kind enough to introduce me and ask me to share a few words. I had only planned to write with students during this sessions, so I had to fall back on stories and ideas I use to excite adult writers who may need help getting over the idea that their writing may be read by a global audience. 

This is essentially what I shared with the 8th grade students in Ms. L. Incardona’s class at Heritage Middle School…Of course, I shared one of the most moving stories I’ve experienced myself, that of an older New Zealand teacher (“with lots of wrinkles and white hair” is what I said to emphasize this to the students):

Have any of you ever written for someone else? [Most hadn’t, with the exception of grocery lists]. When you write and publish, you connect with other people who read it, who have thoughts and ideas about what you’ve written. When I was in New Zealand, I met a teacher who had never published anything online [we discussed what a blog was, and two students spoke up]. She didn’t feel comfortable writing about her work in school, but she had a garden that she loved to work in. So, she decided to write about that garden. 

She never imagined that her writing about the garden in HER backyard would be very interesting, but to her surprise, someone started leaving comments on her blog. Someone was interested! It was a university professor who had, to the teacher’s astonishment,studied gardens and had noticed something. This was the beginning of a conversation. 

Imagine taking something that you see as ordinary, no big deal, and then sharing it with someone else who thinks it is incredible! How would that make you feel? That’s why I would like to invite you to share your writing online. Would you like to do that?

With that introduction aside, the teacher set the lesson in motion about writing a myth. Earlier in the week, students had been introduced to the characteristics of mythology. They had the opportunity to read examples of myths (mentor texts, a term, BTW, I hadn’t heard until earlier this my day, we just called them examples of writing to emulate and adapt from) and analyze their characteristics. 

Since I had missed that class discussion, and to set myself up as a fellow writer who was NOT an all-knowing adult expert, I asked teacher teacher for a quick review…and 8th graders jumped right in to respond. What a delight! 

Here are my notes:

After that, the ELL teacher divided the class up into groups of 2, and I joined two 8th grade young men who had decided to work together. We brainstormed a bit as to different “Why” and “How” questions to explain. After a few minutes of that, I suggested we each write for 5 minutes to see what we came up with about our favorite idea. Of course they began immediately, and pretty soon, each had a paragraph written (so did I).

What I noticed about their writing is that their writing was more “non-fiction” than a myth story. However, once I read my story (shown below), the “lightbulb” went off and they saw how they could begin the story. Of course, their own writing definitely influenced the group piece they worked on.

Since we were to develop a myth story as a group, we began to discuss, combining our ideas. As they discussed the ideas, they decided to change some of the elements from each of our individual stories. Instead of too much dark (which had been one of my elements), they suggested too much sun…this resulted in the earth having TWO suns, causing too much brightness, which was later adjusted from too “bright” to “hot.” 

Once they started “writing,” I asked them if they had a computer they could write on. They asked Ms. Incardona, and she began checking out Chromebooks to the students who were ready for them. Student #1 immediately logged into GoogleDrive, created a GoogleDoc, then promptly turned the Chromebook over to Student #2, who had volunteered to type.

From that point forward, the conversation was fast and furious, one student typing up what he and the other writer discussed. As they got even deeper into the story, they went back and forth about the elements of the myth they wanted to include. For example, there was discussion about the badger being the protagonist in the story (that had come from my draft). 

“What’s the most hated animal?” I had asked them.
“The skunk,” Student #1 replied immediately. “We could say that the skunk’s spray was the most majestic and wherever it’s spray fell, flowers ‘sprung up.'”  At this point, the boys were lost in the story and I stepped away to listen to other groups.

When I returned, I noticed that the animals had decided to take a vote and that the skunk and the zebra were the two highest. These animals were to go on a journey to find a way to repel the sun. “We don’t want to destroy it,” Student #1 and Student #2 confided. I was amazed at this attitude and, gratified for some reason. Simply, they wanted to find a non-harmful way to remove the 2nd Sun that was burning up the Earth. At the end, when a student who had been absent joined them (Jesus), they solicited his input for how the myth should end.

The teacher was quick to point out the irony in the story between the skunk and the zebra. Why don’t you read their story and see what you notice?

You can read their complete story online at the EC Connect: Publishing Student Writing blogHow the Skunk Got His Bad Smell,which is a new blog for publishing student writing.
Please do leave some feedback.

By the way, in case you’re curious about MY piece that I wrote, here is what it looks like on paper and typed:

Typed version, and my 2nd draft (I had a lot of fun writing this)

The Sacrifice
by Miguel Guhlin

In a time long ago, when the sky lay like a dark blanket over the earth, the animals came together and cried, “Why is it so dark all the time?”
The birds tweeted, “In the dark, we can’t find leaves and twigs to build our nests.”
The dragons roared in gouts of fire, vain pride and arrogance twisting their words, “In the dark, we can’t see how pretty and shiny our scales are, except when a comet flies by every 1000 years or so.”

The bravest of the animals, the mouse, stood up and said, “Why don’t we ask the old woman who gave us life what she can do for us?” Since the mouse’s wisdom and bravery were known to all, the animals agreed. But, since no good deed goes unpunished, they voted to send the Mouse to ask her, she who was known only as Lucinda, the Mother of All.

The Mother of All groaned, the muscles in her back straining at the load of wood she carried in her arms. While she could have easily commanded the behemoths on land, or the leviathans of the ocean to carry her load, she valued independence above her authority. “What doesn’t kill you,” she liked to say, “makes you stronger.” No matter the deaths of countless creatures in the dark, all yearning for light. “I’m too tired to give birth to a Sun. That will have to be someone else’s job,” she thought wearily.

As she tramped down the dirt path to her cottage, she espied a small, stout creature. “Ah, the brave mouse seeks me out!” After inviting the Mouse in for some tea, she listened to his request.
“So,” she began, the problem is you can’t find your way around in the dark with bumping your noses, eh?”
She snorted, “Silly creatures. If I’d meant for you to have sun light, I would have started with a Sun.”
Leaning in, her gnarled hands clasped together as if in prayer, “I can make the change to the world you need but you must give something up, Brave Mouse.”

The Mouse stood straight and said, “I’ll do anything for my fellows.” Not an ounce of fear stirred inside him.

“For all your life,” Lucinda said, “you have been the bravest of all animals. Your courage has been a source of encouragement and a light in the darkness. Now, I am going to make it the light.” The Mouse gulped.
“What will happen to me?” asked the Mouse.
“Oh nothing…except you won’t be respected as the bravest anymore, and you will feel the fear others feel.” With that, she held wide her hands and clapped them together. A powerful light appeared over the Mouse, and begin to rise into the sky.

As the Mouse found his way back to where the animals waited, he heard a strange noise in the trees. The birds sang of danger approaching, not knowing it was Mouse for whom they waited. Mouse only heard the danger song, and felt overwhelming fear, scurrying into the bushes to hide.

As Mouse continued his journey, he felt dragon-fear, the worst of all fears, and though the dragons noticed him not, he squeaked piteously until they flew past to glimpse their scales in the bright Sun.

At last, Badger noticed Mouse, fearfully moving from bush to bush, always afraid. “Mouse, you have done it!” he cried. “What’s wrong?” he asked when noticed Mouse’s fearful glances.

“I’m afraid,” cried Mouse.
Badger said, “Come with me, dear friend, and I will show you where you can hide and live.” From that day forward, the dragons and the dodo birds sang the song of Mouse’s bravery and his sacrifice. And, when Mouse can stop shivering and be still in his mousehole, he can hear the echo of the song in his heart and recover his courage.

Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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