Some days, writing workshop just doesn’t seem to work. In her book The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (and They’re All Hard Parts), Katie Wood Ray talks about how, in order to have a successful workshop, we need to realize that it is always going to be a little bit beyond our control. That’s a hard thing to think about. It is hard when you have done three weeks of mini-lessons on generating ideas, only to still have children who can’t think of anything to write about. It is hard to have children who come up to you and say, “I’m done” even though you have done everything but brand them with the phrase “When you think you’re done, you’ve just begun.” It is hard when you are giving a mini-lesson and despite several polite admonitions, there are children still doodling in their writer’s notebook or tearing it up and throwing it on the floor (and you think they may as well do the same thing to your broken heart!). It is hard to have 66 different kids every day, all of whom are at a different place, and all of whom you are determined to help as writers. Some days, it doesn’t feel a little bit out of your control: some days it feels like the floodgates of chaos have been let loose in your classroom.
There have been a few days in my classroom when I have felt that way, and I have left at the end of the day feeling dejected and useless. I convince myself that the children aren’t internalizing these strategies and I second-guess everything I have done. Then there are days, like today, when I realize why I do this. One of my favorite Lucy Calkins quotes is that, “We cannot assign brilliance, but we can create conditions in which brilliance has occurred.” Over the past month of school, I have seen children who have all but given up on writing, and many of them are starting to turn a new leaf.
The work the children have done decorating their writer’s notebooks has left me just breathless. I wish that I could post pictures of the things that have done, because it has blown me away. I’ve never let them decorate them on their own before, and now that I have, I have had children who have put pictures, pins, magazine clippings, letters, duct tape, and all sorts of things into their notebooks. They are beautiful, and the kids love them. I honestly wouldn’t care if all they did was walk around and write in their writer’s notebook like it was a journal, because we have accomplished the most important part: the belief that writing is special and that I can do it.
Last week, I had a conference with a boy who confessed he just didn’t like to write. He tended to write about things that he thought I wanted to hear about, and didn’t think he had anything to write about. I noticed that he had some toy cars he was playing with on his desk. Instead of doing what was my first reaction, telling him to put it away, I asked him to tell me about why those cars were so special. He then proceeded to tell me all sorts of things about cars that I have never known before, and told me how his dad fixes up cars and he gets to help him. I told him I was amazed at how much stuff he knew about cars, and that he could teach all of us so much through his writing. Needless to say, he had a story, and he had a story that he was excited to tell. Have I fundamentally changed that child and turned his life around? No, I haven’t, but then again it is only October.
We have done heart maps in my classroom, which are basically just hearts drawn onto papers that we fill in with all of the people, places, things, memories that matter to us. The idea has been around for a bit, but it originated with Georgia Heard. I’ve taught my kids that above all else, writing should matter. Today, I had a girl come into class and tell me that she was talking to her sister about heart maps over the weekend (I know right? I felt like I had won the lottery just right then.). Well, her sister and her decided that they should do “world maps” and write down all the stuff inside of it that they want to know about the world. It was brilliant, the idea of a blank world and you could think “What in the world do I want to know about?” Absolutely brilliant—I mean, she should market this idea and sell it. That right there is the brilliance you can’t assign: it comes from having faith that these children can write and can do amazing things as writers. That moment today reminded me that I am doing the right thing.
I have had so many of these wonderful moments, and I don’t want to let the negative ones overshadow that. I have to keep reminding myself that these children are nine and ten years old and I am asking them to author their own writing life. I am getting them to create a world for themselves as writers, and that is some serious work. It has looked like, and it will continue to look like, a mess. But it is the most amazing, most special, most endearing mess that anyone has written down on paper. And I absolutely love it.