This unit will concentrate on writing activities with children, using exercises that focus on autobiographical thinking and writing. I hope to encourage my students to write. This is, of course, an aim or goal of most teachers, especially teachers of English and literature, but this goal is not so easily attained. How do you as a teacher “get” students to write? How do you encourage them to keep on writing? How can you hope students will enjoy writing and want to share what they have written? How do you as a teacher help students improve, correct and edit, fostering real revision and rewriting, without discouraging creative and enthusiastic impulses? How do you find a way to handle writing assignments in a departmentalized program a situation where as a teacher you may teach over one hundred students? How do you as a teacher keep from getting buried in an avalanche of paperwork? I don’t have any answers to these questions; I have possible solutions that I would like to try with my students.
Finding a writing topic often causes problems for students. A teacher can, of course, assign a topic. I have used a variety of creative topics with varying degrees of success. Students many times love to be given a “story starter”—perhaps a strange situation or a role reversal - something that will ignite the creative spark or at least interest, if not the enthusiasm, for writing. The frustrating part of this kind of assigned writing topic is, however, that it is fragmented, in isolation, and not connected to the class work or reading. What do you assign next? Sometimes one story can lead to another, but often each assignment is separate. Probably the most successful writing assignments, however, come from class reading and discussions.
I think usually it is easiest for students to write about what they know best their lives, their families, their adventures and their memories. However, although students may know about themselves, personal writing is not so easy to begin. I will try to work with personal writing in two ways journal writing and personal fiction based on student reading. Although this may be autobiographical in nature, I do not plan on using the term itself until my students have become comfortable with their writing.
One way students can begin to write is with journal keeping. A journal is very personal as personal as a diary and should be regarded as such. The journal is the student’s own property, inaccessible to anyone else beside the teacher.
Journals can become very important to students, so it is crucial to allow, indeed to enforce, the time for students to write in them on a daily basis. In a departmentalized situation, (i.e., daily class periods of forty minutes or less) where every minute counts and interruptions are frequent, this is very difficult. English teachers are responsible for introducing and reviewing rules of grammar as well as spelling. However I think to be successful with the journal keeping and with writing on a continual basis, daily writing is very necessary. I plan to try to use the first ten to fifteen minutes of every class period for journal writing on a regular basis.
Since it would be impossible for me to read the complete journals of all the students I have, I will establish a few guidelines for all the students to follow. Generally students like routine and parameters. They like to know what to expect and then can prepare accordingly. Every day at journal time I will expect the students to write at least half a page. At some point during the week, the students will indicate the passage or journal entry that he or she wishes me to read and to comment on, although I will check to make sure that each student is making daily entries. Also I will expect the students to find a passage that they are willing to share with the class or even a small group on a weekly or even biweekly basis. These sharing sessions can be held a few at a time right after the journal writing. It is important for students to feel that their writing has an audience, an audience of their peers and not merely their teacher.
How do you start journals? How do you start any writing? Lucy Calkins, in her book
The Art of Teaching Writing
, suggests a writing workshop approach. (page 24) The teacher talks to the student about the topic. Every writer must think about what he or she is going to write. Many times children think only big things are important-stories must be about something major. The teacher tries to show children that little, everyday topics are worth writing about by relating events out of her own life that she could write about. Several examples should be given to show the kind of brainstorming that could develop a range of options to children. The children could be asked to think of things that really happened to them, things they do and things they know about and to tell them to the person next to them. After a few minutes students can be asked to share what they have come up with. Ideas and topics to write on should come into focus and children may be ready to begin to write about themselves.
Throughout the year mini-lessons on topic selections can be developed as the need surfaces. Children can come to realize that issues written about once can be reworked and retold. Lists of potential topics can be kept in folders. One lesson suggested is a discussion of un-topics. These are such little things that you can’t imagine writing about them and yet they make wonderful topics. Ideas such as how you can tell by your mother’s face that she is mad at you, and, how I shut myself in my closet and play, were suggested by students in a class. (Calkins, p. 181)
The important part of the journal is that it is the student’s own writing and view of the world. The student brings his own feelings, thoughts and memories to his journal.
The literature that students read in class can also trigger personal memories and events in a
Ramona Quimby, Age Eight
by Beverly Cleary. The children love this story about a third grade girl who has all sorts of ordinary and familiar adventures at school and with her family. I think “ordinary” and “familiar” are the key words. The children identify with Ramona, not because they have had her adventures, not because they understand suburban life in a small town in the state of Washington, but because they understand her feelings. They too have shared her humiliation as she throws up in school in front of everyone, they too have followed a fad and looked foolish as does Ramona as she cracks an egg on her head only to find that it was not hard-boiled. My students have felt her anger and her exasperation and felt her coziness and security when all is well in Ramona’s world. The book is a rich source of topic ideas for personal memories.
Beverly Cleary has written other books about Ramona and her family and friends, and has published
The Deezus and Ramona Diary
, a commercial diary that uses quotes from many of her books. These quotes are followed by starter lines such as “A time when a friend of mine was very sensitive to my feelings was when _____” or “It made me feel good when a friend helped me in this way”: These can be used to help a student get that start that he needs. I think that the student again also sees that small events, real feelings, special memories are important and can and should be written about.
Another book the students love to read is On the
Banks of Plum Creek
by Laura Ingalls Wilder. This is a very unique book because it really is autobiography written as fiction. Written in the third person, this novel is a fictionalized account of three years of Laura Ingalls’ childhood. Most children are familiar with the television series and enjoy reading the book. They are really fascinated to learn that the story is real, that Laura was a real person and that her adventures were her selective memories of her childhood. Laura’s “adventures” are for the most part very simple an encounter with a badger when she was being disobedient, watching Pa play his fiddle and sing, walking barefoot to school, arguing With the despised Nellie Oleson; making a button bracelet for baby Carrie these are not the stuff of great events. However they are real life and real feelings and real life more meaningful than “great events.”
One episode that particularly interests the students and causes great discussion is when Laura is disobedient and sets off on a path to a pond where she is forbidden to go alone. She is stopped by an encounter with a badger and returns home with no one aware of her actions. Only she knows what she has done. She knows if she tells that she will be punished and Ma and Pa will be very unhappy with her. Why does she tell on herself? Would you have done that? Have you done that? Have you ever told on yourself and put yourself in trouble? This one simple episode can lead to many written words and heated debates.
Students are also fascinated by Laura’s memory. How could she remember all that she did? How did she remember the parts when she was a baby? They realize that she had to rely on the stories Charles and Caroline Ingalls told her about their life when she was too little to remember. Can students do this? Can they ask their parents for a story about themselves and write about themselves, perhaps even in the third person as Laura did? What are their earliest memories? What details do they remember? Students are impressed by Laura’s sensory recall her visual memory, her description of sounds and smells, her vivid and mouth-watering descriptions of foods. Ideas for writing seem to come from the students themselves—most vivid picture memory, word portrait of a favorite relative, favorite memory. Looking at pictures of Laura and her family can inspire children to look for early photos of themselves and the memories that go with them.
Autobiography as a term can be introduced at this point. Why did Laura choose to write her story as fiction? What is autobiography? Who writes autobiography? Since by now the students have been writing autobiographically, they should realize that autobiography is not just written by the rich and the famous.
On the Banks of Plum Creek
, I will use a variety of other autobiographical materials, selecting chapters from longer works. Chapters from books such as
Cheaper by the Dozen
by Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and the chapter titled “How I Learned to Speak” from the autobiography of Helen Keller are two possibilities since they are very different memories of childhood. Certainly Helen Keller’s memory of a momentous occasion is important. The humor in
Cheaper by the
Dozen and also Russell Baker’s
adds another dimension to reading and understanding oneself. Sometimes events which are not funny at the time become humorous as time goes on. Are the students old enough to appreciate that? Has that ever happened to them?
The Diary of Anne Frank
The Annex: Anne Frank Remembered
would be very interesting for the students. The autobiographical journal of the young, intense fourteen year-old Anne Frank and the autobiography of Miep Gies look at the horrors of life under the Nazi regime, but from two different vantage points. We can look at the same event such as the evening that Miep and Jan visited the Franks and stayed overnight at the Annex-a big occasion, especially for the young Anne, starved for news of the outside world. Although Miep knew it was important for the Franks, the event is treated differently in her bittersweet memoir.
How students write is, of course, important. How does a teacher correct, edit or help to revise without destroying the flow of writing? Sometimes a change in approach will help and certainly will be more interesting. Can the student rewrite the passage using the third person instead of the first? Can he make a real event sound more like fiction? A story can be redone as a monologue, or as play dialogue (even acted out), or as a conversation or as a poem. I think changing the technique makes the writing more interesting and more fun, without changing the idea. The students are still writing about themselves and learning about themselves. They are learning that they have more options about expressing themselves.