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The exchange always goes something like this:
“I can’t teach writing.”
“Yes you can! If you have ever been inspired by words on a page, then you can teach writing.”
If you can read and ask questions when you read something that is not clear, you can be a writing mentor. Whether we are reading a newspaper article, a scientific journal, a novel, or a poem, who wants to read words that are void of ideas?
Great writing begins with an idea crafted to words on a page by a courageous writer.
Madeline L’Engle in, Walking on Water: Reflections of Faith and Art, confides, “I am grateful that I started writing at a very early age, before I realized what a daring thing it is to do, to set words on paper, to attempt to tell a story, create characters.”
The most important thing we can do when it comes to teaching a child to write is to value their imagination and to teach them to do the same.
In my book, Habits of Being: Artifacts from the Classroom Guild I’ve collected snapshots from my experience teaching my own children and students in my Guild to demonstrate just what happens when they engage their curiosity.
Ask yourself, “Do I want my child to write formulaically or to write for real?”
Teaching children to write for real begins by teaching them to believe that their ideas are important enough to do the work of shaping words on a page.
Teach your children to become storytellers. Regardless of domain—fiction to non-fiction—great writing tells a story. Writing is a wonderfully tedious process. Provide writing opportunities that teach children the cardinal rule of real writing: Imagination first. After all, imagination is the seat of great ideas. When children discover that their imagination is valuable and relevant, they will work diligently to refine their voice. Purpose helps writers develop habits of being that motivates them to move through the writing process:
Moving from reading and recognizing ideas, to engaging in personal expression through writing, develops an awareness of the world at large. When students are encouraged to engage in the process of writing, they will discover the power of words.
Great writing is work connected to the soul. Great writing brings shape to imagination. Great writing evokes, engages, and inspires human curiosity.
Students who engage in the process of real writing will develop confidence in their voice, strengthen their ability to communicate new ideas and become keen observers of their world. Authentic voice is a one-of-a-kind fingerprint. And those are words on the page that are worth reading.
Taking notes is a foundational skill that will accompany your student through their entire educational journey and beyond. Even though there is no right way of taking notes, it is important to learn how to extract relevant and pertinent information from a text in a neatly organized, concise manner. This takes practice. As students are encouraged to practice over time the art of capturing the most important details from their reading, they will begin to recognize how the intricacies of a story fit into a larger picture. This is precisely how a Habit of Being is established.
When readers take note of character development, trace a setting, and watch a plot thicken, they are learning more than just the skill of recording facts, they are actually beginning to realize the potential of storytelling. Teaching students to dig into a story, to do the work of reading for meaning, enables them to discover how language has the power to communicate significance. Learning to take notes helps to lay the foundation for rich, clear, and organized writing.
Some might argue, when faced with a classroom of 30 students, or even when faced with one student sitting at a kitchen table stubbornly refusing to write, that teaching from a textbook that tells the student what to learn is an easier method than pulling teeth trying to nurture the independent skill of note taking. We would argue that learning to extract information from a story trains students to do the hard work of, not only attending to the details of reading, but more importantly to develop the skill of integrating knowledge into life outside of the book. As students discover the details and framework that make a story great, they will apply this new-found knowledge to broader academic pursuits in all subject areas.
Nothing fosters the higher-order Critical Creative Thinking that allows students to form ideas and opinions about real life, more than hashing through a story in a discussion circle. What begins as an imagining in the mind of the writer is translated to story, and in turn, transferred to real life through group discussion.
Blackbird & Company literature guides have discussion questions built into every section, providing the framework for weekly interaction between you and your students. These questions are designed to spark student’s memories, trigger their interpretations, and get them thinking beyond the page about how a story can relate to their actual lives. Add to this the opportunity to cultivate a cozy book-minded community and share original ideas during the fifth week of culminating projects and you will have a crafted a literary tradition. In time, students who celebrate books regularly will become excited and amazed about the potential of the written word.
Consider the following when putting a group together:
COMFORT & SIZE
Gathering in a comfortable area, whether in chairs or sitting on the floor, helps set discussion time aside as special and relaxed. Groups of 6-8 work best for allowing everyone to participate.
Clustering students with similar reading skills alows the group to coalesce. As students begin to feel comfortable with their group even reluctant speakers will share what’s on their mind.
Having a regular scheduled time each week helps students pace through their reading and builds anticipation.
Be inspired by student responses and guide the discussion where it wants to go naturally. Don’t worry if things get a little off track as long as students are thinking creatively.
Feel free to use the questions creatively. For example, assign each question to a different student for presentation to the group; allow two groups to take sides and debate the pros and cons of a particular question; use the questions as writing prompts for paragraphs or essays; allow students to role play their response to a question. Use your imagination. The possibilities are endless.
On this first day of spring step outside, celebrate the blossoming and craft a haiku greeting.
How to craft haiku:
s e v e n s y l l a b l e s
1. Haiku poems consist of a three-line stanza—16 to 18 syllables total—written in the following pattern:
Line 1: 5 syllables
Line 2: 7 syllables
Line 3: 5 syllables
*Slight variations in syllabication is appropriate as this helps the poet maintain "one thought in three lines"
2. Haiku poems are typically observations of nature (though the form welcomes other topics), often making reference to the seasons.
3. Haiku poems are tiny snapshots capturing moments in time.
So, a "haiku moment" describes a scene that leads the reader to a feeling.
But, remember, your three lines should be woven to a single thought:
and I croon in the
scent of Spring's dotted song, swoon
in her blossoming colors
During the fifth week of Discovery, Section 5 encourages each reader to develop a creative culminating project with options that provide a variety of ways to demonstrate deep understanding of the book. Your students will not only have a chance to demonstrate their originality, organization, clarity of purpose, and critical thinking skills, more importantly this culminating endeavor will allow them to show off what they have learned in their own, uniquely creative way.
Students really love sharing their culminating thoughts about great stories. Encouraging readers to create Section 5 projects with a high level of execution teaches them that their ideas are valuable and builds integrity into their work.
This sweet and yummy final project was sparked by our Robert McCloskey Earlybird literature discovery guide. After reading Blueberries for Sal, this student was inspired to do a little research on blueberries and bake muffins for his friends! Learning over great books is so rich!
Take a look at our Flickr page for some great examples of culminating activities. We'd love for you to share your ideas.
Not possible you say?
Wherever you are this very moment, look around, hone in on a cluster of objects.
First, look. Trace the edges with your eyes.
Next , grab a chunky marker and a piece of paper. Beginning with your eyes focused at the bottom of one of the objects, begin to follow the outline edges (very s l o w l y), moving the pen at the same speed and direction as the eyes. Do not look at the paper—keep your eyes off the page! No peeking! And, do not lift the pen! Try to make the pen in your hand "see" all the curves and bumps that your eye sees.
Don't rush. Making a connection between the eyes and the hand is a slow motion exercise. Only when your eyes are back where you began can you lift the pen from paper to see with your eyes what your hand saw.
You might giggle the first time you try blind contour because it takes a few tries to sync the sped of eyes and the hand. But when you stop giggling, you will see that the lines achieved during a blind contour are unique, beautiful in their own way.
Remember, the ultimate goal of blind contour drawing is to practice "seeing" the world with your hands. If you practice often, you will begin to notice moments when these drawings are more realistic than the drawings you made using eyes only.
In her book Walk Two Moons, Sharon Creech repeatedly uses the phrase “trying to catch fish in the air” to mean trying to achieve the impossible, when disillusionment is a much more likely situation. And as a writer with an idea, she doesn't just leave us there, no. Sharon Creech takes this concept of "trying to catch fish in the air" and gives it the form of a picture book (her first) in collaboration with the wonderful art of Chris Raschka. Inside the pages of Fishing in the Air, the world of imagination becomes a place where the similes and metaphors of memory are the storytellers of the mind's eye.
Now let's write.
Visit our Pinterest Write it board and scroll through until you find a boy flying through the air on a shimmering orange fish. Start imaging. Where is the boy on the fish headed? What might his "fish in the air be"? What impossibility is he trying to make possible? Now, choose one of your personal "fish in the air" and describe it in a poem or vignette. What would happen if you actually caught one of those "fish in the air and rode" it where you pleased? Write about what would happen if you caught your singular fish in the air? What would happen if you caught five of your fish in the air? What kind of day would that be like?
I usually think of it when I’m in line
usually somewhere in the steaming depths
of an amusement park in the summer,
somewhere in the crush of bodies slippery
with sweat and sunscreen. Or I think
of it somewhere in the musty belly
of the library basement, when I look up
from radio static of black words
on pallid page, into the one dim bulb
flickering like a sleepy eyelid.
When it’s been ten hours driving down
a straight road, and the car’s air
is a soup brought to a slow boil,
I shift in my place between the luggage
and the door, stare out the window
at particularly inviting cloud,
climb its towering pillar as my feet
make deep imprints in its soft stairs,
and perch on the very tip, where birds
pass each other with a faint rustle of wings.
It was time for Section five and the creation of a project inspired by The Mozart Season. Two things struck me as funny.
One. Let's begin by saying that this little book is a sleeper, a quiet little thing. The story is set in real time and place. The protagonist is fictional but preparing for a very real violin competition. And as many times as I have explored it with various circles of readers, during the Section 1 Discussion the consensus is unanimous, ""Not capturing me." Still, it never fails that by the end of the book the readers encounter some very real extraordinary in the seeming mundane ordinary. But what I find most tremendously interesting is the fact that, hands down, the most profound Section 5 projects have sprung from this particular sleeper.
Two. As we continued our explorations of lines in art and the specificity of the master artisan's linework, Lizzy wasn't particulary inspired by the bold lines of Fernand Léger.
And this is where the magic of integrated learning and Discovery always takes my breath away.
"it was Diedre who started the song. She began slowly, BONG bong Bong bong on the three big columns, walking between them. Then she reached up high and down low, faster, and I hit one of the two columns, walking between them."
And so begins this story's music. And so it is that this passage (that continues to develop in the pages of the book) has inspired several of my all-time-favorite Section 5 projects. And Lizzy's is one.
As I watched her begin the process of bringing shape to her idea, I was fascinated that, after a close study of Léger's lines (lines that did not thrill Lizzy in the least), Lizzy began to sculpt those very lines without knowing! I pulled out the original study sheet when I recognized the familiarity and we were both amazed! In art we call this, after Léger.
So I suppose if you were to title this Section 5 project you might call it:
Lizzy's Music Maker, after Léger and The Mozart Season (2014)
Did you know that, when it comes to art, every line has a personality? That the lifework of the master artist has a particular voice?
When it comes to the lines of Matisse, spare, weightless, whimsical, and articulate come to mind.
Line is a foundational element when it comes to the language of art.
For this reason we invited Matisse, virtually of course, into the Guild and invited the master artisan to help our apprentices explore the rich potential of line.
You can too.
I must admit that I am not an animal lover. To all of my friends whose families are complete because of their furry friends - please don’t misunderstand me. While I love our family bunny (sweetly named Comfy Cozy by my youngest son), I believe it is quite a different relationship than is shared by people who are dog-lovers.
In the heartwarming yet complex story of Opal and her dog Winn-Dixie, I was drawn into the relationship between these two characters - a girl and her dog - and their parallel desire to feel loved and needed, in spite of their histories of abandonment and loss, and the surprising opportunities for redemption through such difficult experiences.
Each week, our group of fifth and sixth graders would gather to share their insights into this young girl’s life. I was concerned about some of the life themes that my 11-year-old would be exposed to through this story, but what I realized is this was an opportunity for my daughter to: empathize with others’ pain, find meaning in some of her own painful experiences, and have a safe place to discuss and explore these difficult life circumstances that are sometimes easier to shelter her from.
Because of Winn-Dixie, our cooperative homeschool Guild (comprised of four wonderful families with eleven children between us) decided that we would throw a party - not just any party, but a potluck lunch. And not just any potluck, but an array of food specially chosen to mimic the one specially planned by Opal.
Dump punch, dump cake, and a jar of pickles are only a few of the fancy items we put out for our big event. But we didn’t stop there. The TV room was specially decorated with pink twisted crepe paper in preparation for our great party, and we all watched this movie with grand anticipation. It was the great culminating experience after having walked through the story hand-in-hand together.
I’m still not an animal lover. But this sweet dog helped tell a story of unexpected redemption and hope in a way that speaks to all—children and adults alike.
Now go read this book and have your own celebration - and please don’t forget to share your potluck pictures with us!
“Drawing is based upon perspective, which is nothing else than a thorough knowledge of the function of the eye.” -Leonardo DaVinci
We are designed to see and understand an object based on the relationship between the play of light and dark on its surface. Value is the term used to describe the lightness or darkness of an object. As light is reflected off objects, we interpret its attributes. When we draw a three-dimensional object in two dimensions, we are creating an illusion.
Over the years I’ve encouraged many a child to “look closely” by developing a specific Habit of Being—the Observation Journal.
It is always best to begin observational drawing exercises by encouraging the Observer to see the contours or the “lines” of an object. To capture natural organic lines on the page is a lovely skill.
As soon as this becomes a comfortable task, its time to encourage the Observer to look beyond lines that five the object its flat shape toward a close observation of the light and darks of an object. To accomplish this task, begin with a light contour adding a light value or tone by smudging then adding patches of medium darks and dark darks according to what the seer is seeing. The transformation is simple and stunning!
And it’s never too early or too late to start. A six-year-old executed these drawings of the wonderfully sea-tumbled mollusk. Anyone can add value to an observation.
I have been discouraged when people don’t like my writing—when people don’t like my voice.
I'm sure this is true for all writers.
The truth is, it’s hard to be yourself when people disagree with what you personally find interesting and beautiful.
Authenticity is a lesson that is almost never taught in school but is integral to being an artist. The truth is, sometimes, people won’t like your writing.
Now, sometimes that friction between differing opinions is definitely healthy and necessary. Dozens of blog posts could be written about the value of knowing the rules before you break them, and the importance of having the humility to listen to other artists’ advice.
But, sometimes, when the choice between two kinds of line break or two uses of allusion seem substantially subjective. As writers, we have a choice between doing what people approve of and doing what they find aesthetically satisfying. One lesson that students need to learn is that, throughout their writing careers, they will have a choice between being recognized and having painfully genuine integrity.
And that is the real-life choice between being normal and being divergent, the choice between being a people-pleaser and being a literary mutant.
The good news is that the greats were often literary mutants. Literary mutants who, no doubt, knew the rules and broke them well. Think Walt Whitman, e. e. cummings, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen—all of these people were literary freaks when they first unveiled their writing. Each of these writers faced critics who thought that their writing was careless, boring, or just plain weird. These writers were extremely talented and willing to take risks, but that means that they were also ahead of their time. These writers were the hippies, the revolutionaries, the weirdos, the outliers.
But it’s hard for me to remember that being a hippie is ok when people tear my writing to pieces in the workshop.
So I have a very important question.
To what extent are we willing to let young writers raise their voice?
This is not a typical high school project.
This is a watercolor composition, a gift from a friend.
This is the prized possession that hangs in my kitchen with Mona Lisa's ubiquitous gaze following my paces patiently, "Kim, you can."
Lore has it that Sandra's high school watercolor teacher offered an automatic "A" to anyone in the class who anyone who could paint an egg—a trememdously difficult task to accomplish well.
Now I've never imagined this teacher's comment as a dare, but rather something more like an Eeyore-under-the-breath-utterance that he hoped might someday come to pass. I've never imagined snarky, or cynical, but more someting akin to longing, the longing to motivate.
And I've never imagined Sandra's tackling of this teacher's offering as anything other than a response to the Muse, a delighted response to the spark of imagination. Sandra simply said, "I can."
The sheer whimsy of the composition is my proof. There is not one guile puddle in sight.
Thing is, you might look at this painting and respond, "No, I can't."
But you probably said that about tying your shoe, reading The Cat in the Hat, or adding five apples and three plums. But you can, right?
Not all children will grow up to paint like Sandra. Not all children will grow up to hypothesize like Einstein.
But many children who might have will not because they are not inspired to try. All children have precious potential. And this is why I spend my days encouraging children to press into their important work.
Children who are encouraged to engage in the right kind of practice over time develop Habits of Being and habits of being give us the gumption to say, "Yes! Yes, I can!."
Who would have imagined that, all these years later, a teacher's nudge and Sandra's creative response would continue to resonate, "You can."
I'm so thankful for my dear friend Sandra.
Thanksgiving is a terrific time to connect with friends and family across the miles. But it's also a perfect time to help young writers creatively communicate thankfullness. Visit our Pinterest page and let the writing begin:
Telephones come in all shapes and sizes.
Imagine a telephone.
Now, imagine a telephone made of cardboard.
Imagine someone trying to make a call, but the only telephone is a telephone of cardboard.
Does this person realize that the telephone is made out of cardboard? Does s/he want it to be made out of cardboard, instead of being fully functional? Why? Does the narrator know why this person is using a cardboard phone? Or is s/he just as confused as the reader? Or, what if the character in the story or poem happens upon the phone, picks up the receiver on a whim, and the cardboard telephone actually works? Who is on the other end? Is that person using a cardboard telephone too, or a standard phone?
Imagine the possibilities and then craft your ideas into a story or poem.
The Girl with The Cardboard Phone
There is a girl who talks on a cardboard phone
every day during recess.
Past the thwacking of jump rope
on cement, past the many grabbing hands
at the monkey bars, below the cracked tube
of the playground slide,
you’ll find her clutching the cardboard receiver,
stroking the thin fringe of its ripped edge
with a white finger. We used to wonder
what secret messages were being passed
into the thick brown strip, soggy with dew
and wet leaves, and whether
anyone was replying. We wondered
until one day, we wandered by and caught these words:
“I love you too”— accompanied by a smile
like a warm cup of tea on the greyest day.
Concrete poetry is not child's play but rather the intersection where typography and poetry meet to play. Sir Ken Robinson reminds us that “...imagination is the source of every form of human achievement.” Concrete poetry is an invitation to imagine possibility.
So how do you begin to craft a shape poem? Of course there are many wonderful resources online, but the best place to begin is to remember that what seperates all poetry from prose is, first and formost, its shape. Each and every poem has a very specific arrangement on the page because white space, to the poet, is an extension of punctuation, directing the reader's eye to pause, move, breathe. Concrete poetry takes shape a step further into the realm of representation. For example, if your poem is about a blooming garden, your poem might be flower shaped. If your poem is about sorrow, it might take the shape of a teardrop. What I love about Constance's poem below is that the simple window shape draws me, the reader, to come near, to peer through the panes and contemplate the complexities of thankfulness with each drop drop drop that fabricates the window frame.
Concrete poetry is not child's play.
So here's my idea. This week, when I introduce shape poetry to my young writers, I'm going to begin by exploring Constance's poem with them—a single statement with repeated words to form a shape. I'll invite them to meet me at the intersection where typography and poetry play. And together we'll imagine the shape of thanksgiving. Imagine the possibilites.
Why not join the fun? After all, "...'tis the season to be thankful!" We'd love to hear from you. Feel free to post your poems in the comment section of this post.
The first rain of the year announces its presence by every thick
drop drop drop
drop drop drop
drop drop drop
drop drop drop
drop drop drop
drop drop drop
drop drop drop
drop drop drop
on the glass drum of our kitchen window: a rain that, with kind
drops drops drops
drops drops drops
drops drops drops
drops drops drops
drops drops drops
drops drops drops
drops drops drops
drops drops drops
they say, is mother to the stale cracked skin of godforsaken lands.
-Kim & Constance