Now compare that dry, 7th grade essay to this heartfelt, well-written Sacred Writing Time submission Gerry wrote about five months later. Whether you agree with Gerry's admiration of the Patriots or not, you cannot miss his skill as a writer shining through: .
One student I recently graduated into 9th grade--Gerry--is a great example of how good writers need freedom to show off their best skills. In seventh grade, we write our first literary analysis essay. I know, how very Common Core of me, right? For three weeks, my students analyze Steinbeck novellas for theme, writing style, setting, and dynamic characters, then they plan a formal essay. We pre-write, draft, respond, revise, edit, publish, conference...the whole gosh darn writing process with a state-sponsored standard (or two) as our chief objective. In a perfect world, this writing workshop experience would help all students produce one of their best pieces of writing, right? Hardly. Forced writing formats, purposes, and topics don't always push a kid to discover his best writing skills. This is the essay Gerry published after our three-week writing workshop and in-class analysis of John Steinbeck: .
Extra Credit Topic Tickets: I keep an extra credit basket filled with Dollar Store loot, stickers, and other silly trinkets. For the basket, I have created several special tickets you can earn for classroom privileges, and one of them is that you can tell Mr. Harrison what he has to write about during his next round of Sacred Writing Time. This worked pretty well, but I have to refine the rules of the practice. Some kids gave me topics that would have been impossible to write about in ten minutes, like "Write a detailed account of the end of the world during the zombie apocalypse," and I had to reject those. Others insisted I spend ten minutes writing about how awesome they were as students, and I ran out nice things to say after three minutes, so I told them they could only make me write a fictional scene from a story that included them as characters.
The next summer, we had a wild rabbit infestation in our front yard. I became totally intrigued by the two ingredients listed on the : 89% dried blood and 11% red pepper. I saved the product's bag and showed it to my students on day #2 of school, sharing with them the biggest question the product had prompted in my brain: where does one acquire that much dried blood? I wrote my own horror story based on that question in my writer's notebook, but then I seriously wanted to know, and I actually wrote the company and asked. Every kid was fascinated with the answer I received, so I taped in my notebook. All that school year, I had kids continue to write their own stories about the "dried blood" product I brought with me the first day of class. Here's . Here's . I inspired that with my teacher model.
Each fall semester, I start off the process of sharing writing by having some new summertime entries ready to show my new batch of kiddos, so they can hear how my SWT entries have begun shaping my thinking about topics that I may actually write longer papers and short poems about. I actively seek out unique ideas over the summer to explore through several ten-minute quick-writes, and I make sure to plan my summertime entries so that some time can lapse between my writings, so that my own thinking can develop in between my visits to my writer's notebook. A writer's notebook is for developing ideas, not for publishing polished ideas. A good writer's notebook needs to be messy. Mine is.
I've learned to just smile and nod when my kids think they sound brilliant. I did explain to them how a lot of great writers create characters who are writers, and they write about their writer characters going through the process. How many Stephen King books can you list where the main character is a writer? I gave them the go-ahead to "Inception me."
Concerned teachers during my trainings and workshops ask, "What if they write about a topic that's not okay for the classroom?" At every training, I get asked this--most recently by a third grade teacher, which I found fascinating. Have third graders de-evolved since I last had a classroom full of them? My kids just don't attempt inappropriate topics. Early on, I establish the rule that SWT topics and writings must be 100% classroom appropriate, and that "If it would make my sweet grandmother blush," they don't write it down. Recently, I've begun a home-based writer's notebook that I don't show my students because it has more adult-oriented thoughts, jokes, and word-play (I wrote two very funny pages about , for example). Why did I start that notebook? Because several of my students told me they were keeping their own notebooks at home so they could write using the language of their peers. Krystal, one of these students, assured me, "We're not writing anything mean, Mr. H. We're just expressing ourselves with words we really use." And...I do trust them. These are the kids who've heard me disapprove when they made fun of former Speaker of the House, John Boehner's, last name in their classroom writer's notebook. And I told them they couldn't paste a printed meme with "D'at Ass" written on it next to their writing. They're in eighth grade, and I'm almost fifty, and they have the Internet at their fingertips; if they're keeping a personal writer's notebook at home, I know they're not writing anything too terrible in them. Plus...they're keeping a writer's notebook on their own. Author Ralph Fletcher would be thrilled that they've picked up the practice as a life-skill. Isn't that more important than stressing about their use of PG-13 language? I think so.
Beforeyou start any essay it’s crucial to make a plan first. You may have got yourquestion or title sorted which is great, but where do you go from there? Thinkabout the purpose of the essay and whatit is you want to get across in the conclusion, and then work out how you’re going to get there with someselect points for your main body. Don’t think any of your opinions are tooextreme; as long as you have evidence to back it up, you can say what you want- within reason and context of the essay of course.
No matter how many resources you give them, you'll still have students entering class topic-less a few months into the school year, and you need to front-load for those kids. I used to suggest that students who knew they'd have trouble coming up with a topic every day make some lists early on. The purpose of these lists? To serve as topic banks, to serve as pages the students can consult when they need a ten-minute writing topic fast. "Make a list of ten things you would have no trouble writing about." "Make a list of five people who deserve a good telling-off." "Make a list of your friends you'd put in a fictional story and explain what would their story would be about?" These suggested lists worked; at least, they worked for the kids who took the suggestion to write them down.
Gerry earned an 'A' from me just about every semester. Without SWT, I might not have known what a great writer he actually is. I know you will do well in high school, Gerry. Your sacred writing time entries proved to me you're going to succeed in this world, and your formal essay makes me very much doubt you'll pursue an English Major in college, and that's okay. Not everyone's future is going to be improved by writing a formal, literary analysis essay.
Put simply, I have a handful of students who showcase their best writing skills during Sacred Writing Time. It's not the majority of them, but it's enough of them for me to hang on to Sacred Writing as a daily practice, especially knowing that my three main objectives of SWT help all my students in some way grow as writers. The fact that I have some writers doing their best writing during those ten minutes is an additional perk.