writer’s workshop is going to kill me

Okay, slight exaggeration.  But last year writer’s workshop was such a success, and the kids were so delightful, and this year….I’m snapping at them, “I can only talk to one person at a time!” and they are really struggling to tell stories.  Well, a few of them can do it.  Some of them are really struggling, and some of them aren’t even trying at all.

Today the mini-lesson was about the illustration that goes with your story, and how to think about all the details you can put in it.  I showed some pictures from various books, and discussed the illustrations and what the artists must have been thinking about.  Then I asked them to think about something that happened to them, and illustrate (and write) a story about it.

For some, that was no problem.  One girl, whom I will call Wren, wrote about giving valentines:  AVDIGVPVN.  Can’t read that?  Must not be an early childhood teacher!  No problem, I’ll translate.  A (at) V (valentines) D (day) I GV (gave) P (people) VN (Valentines).  She drew a picture of two little people, clearly with one arm each outstretched to the other, with a valentine card in both their hands.  After she showed it to me, I asked her to think back, and remember what our room looked like when we were giving each other so many valentines.  Her finished product had added to it a series of small squares, stacked in 4 rows of 5, with circles in some of the squares.  The mailboxes, some with letters curled up inside!  It was beautiful.

Meanwhile, I was over at Roo’s table.  He had a great day today, other than the time when he called our Reading Corps volunteer “stupid” and went over to another table to call a boy “ugly” for no reason.  And also other than the times when he said the S word (shut up) twice in blocks, horrifying Wren in the process.  (“Mrs. X!  Roo said a bad word!  He said the S word!!”)

“So, Roo, what story would you like to write about?”

“I don’t know!”

“Well, can you think of something that you did, maybe with your mom?”

He thought.  “We watched a movie.”

“Great, where did you watch the movie?  At home on tv, or in a movie theatre?”

“In a movie theatre!  No, wait.  At home!”

It took more questioning before I learned that his tv is in his room, and he and his mom were on his bed watching a movie.  I never did get to find out what movie they watched, because I had to do the same thing over again with seven other kids, but at the end, he did have a picture that did resemble a bed, two people, and a tv.

The thing is, I think that Roo (and a bunch of the others) are thinking of general things, not specific stories or events.  Yes, I’m sure that he has sat on his bed and watched tv with his mom.  But what did he watch?  How did it make him feel?  What was special about one of the times he did it?

One girl drew a snowman and wrote in pretend writing, “I made a snowman.”  And maybe she did.  But lots of kids have written that exact same story, so I think she was just copying them, rather than think about something that she really did, something that happened to her.  I nearly pulled my hair out trying to get  Sheep to write a story.  He had a picture of his house with some people outside of it, but no story to tell to go with the picture.  Then he drew an arm on his house.

“Look!  I drew an arm on my house!  That’s so funny,” he told me.

“Is there really an arm on your house?  Is that something that really happened to you?”  When he said, “no,” I told him that I would really like to read a story about something that happened to him.  After ages of me trying to prompt him, he came up with a story:  “I play video games.”  Again, it was a general thing, not a specific event; he probably plays video games every day.  And then I asked him where he plays video games, and what does it look like there, and he Could Not Do It.  He seems like such a bright little boy, but he has a really hard time listening and thinking.  I asked him if he plays video games on a tv, and he said yes.  But later he said he plays them on a computer.  When I asked him why he said yes to the question about the tv, he didn’t know.  I think he doesn’t really listen to questions, he just answers yes.  AUGH.  At the end of writer’s workshop he had almost nothing on his paper.

CLEARLY I am doing something wrong.  Once I unkink my neck and recover from my headache, I’ll try to figure it out.

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7 thoughts on “writer’s workshop is going to kill me

  1. Back when I taught kinder in a lower-income/high immigrant/high ELL school, I had the same problem. I think it was because the kids didn’t have as many memorable experiences to draw on as children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds sometimes do. Really, I think for ANY younger writers this is a challenge – getting to the SPECIFICS. Wren was able to connect her writing to the very specific and unique experience of exchanging Valentine cards in the classroom, with all of the attendant memories that go with that event. As you mentioned, the snowman and movie-watching stories seemed to be more general, not actual specific, unique events.

    It might help to do some more modeled and especially shared writing about shared classroom experiences, especially anything out of the ordinary/unusual/super-memorable, like a field trip. With that scaffolding the kids could then do a specific individual writing. You might develop a class list of shared events/memories that you think are distinctive for the kids to draw from for ideas.

    You’re probably already doing all this, so I’ll just leave you to it and wish you luck!

    • That’s brilliant, and definitely the next step. I will be carefully looking out for shared experiences in class for us to remember, discuss, and write about. (Like, remember yesterday when someone took the baby doll Deer wanted, so she slapped the face of the other doll offered to her, then sank to the ground screaming and sobbing and Mrs. X. had to pick her up and take her out of the room so Deer could sit on her lap and sob on her shoulder? No, maybe not that one!)

  2. It sounds to me (not that I’m an expert by any means) that your kids are pretty similar to many their age. At my school, a Title I school, we don’t really start getting stories until first grade. Our kids are writing in kindergarten and head start, but not really stories. I think it often stems from their lack of experience with hearing stories. By first grade our kids have had at least one year at school hearing lots of great stories. Without having heard enough we can’t really expect kids to write them.

    Good luck with this! I know how frustrating it can be but how worthwhile it is in the end.

  3. I would like to build on Jenny’s comment. This has been a huge part of my professional development the past few years, how to bring knowledge of personal narrative to very young children. We probably spend half a year just developing knowledge about the special characters in their lives – themselves, their families, pets, friends. I find that come January, I can really begin to focus on next steps – details and significant events. The stories I’m getting now, even from my very youngest students are amazing. We don’t focus on any writing until they’ve gotten these parts down. Some of them begin to include writing on their own but the main focus is on these more important central themes. We are a Title 1 school, these are Head Start children, yet all but my most impacted ELL students have almost achieved first quarter kindergarten benchmarks by the time they start kindergarten.

    • That’s awesome. I learn something new every year (and sometimes every day!). Clearly I need to be working on this sort of personal narrative earlier on in the year. That’s the good thing about teaching; there’s always next year. In the meantime, I will do what I can.

  4. Absolutely, I so appreciate teachers who are learners – this is a big discussion in our school this spring! I get so discouraged when I’m with colleagues who feel like they have it all figured out – (so it must be a student problem!) ugh. I’m definitely ready for spring break!

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