Not too long ago, I had to write a script for our holiday program at school.
“Me?” I asked. “You want ME to direct the Christmas play?”
Yes, they said. Because we don’t want to anymore.
Hee-hee. That’s how we get suckered, right?
Anyway, the point is that, before I wrote my play, I took a look at a few others. I asked the person who wrote last year’s play if I could take a look at it and make sure I was on the right track. I thought about how the play had worked before, what went well, and how I could ensure that would happen again.
Basically, I looked to the experts.
That’s what we want our kids to do when they write, too. We want them to look to the experts to figure out what they did and how they did it, so they can use that inspiration in their own writing. It’s called “Reading like a writer” and it’s an important focus of our campus writing approach.
It starts with getting your mindset ready to read like a writer. We built this little anchor chart with kids – what do you think about when you’re reading like a reader, and what do you think about when you’re reading like a writer?
This requires a lot of modeling at first. Kids really need to think carefully about this mind shift! It’s tricky to move from simply understanding and connecting to analyzing and thinking about, “What did the author do here? Why did they do it? How did they do it?”
We used this approach recently as we helped kids understand how authors begin their narratives. Starting with a few experts (Kevin Henkes, Jane Yolen, and Patricia Polacco), we analyzed the beginnings of their stories.
Using this chart, we looked for the kind of beginning (Character description, setting description, and dialogue), what kind of details the author included in the beginning (usually who, when, where, and sometimes what is happening), and we critically analyzed to figure out why the author used that type of beginning.
This is the most difficulty part – understanding why an author would choose to write in the way he or she did. What is the impact on the reader? What are they trying to help us feel or see?
In their notebooks, kids had a typed-up copy of the beginning so they could annotate it as well and color-code it for “who”, “when”, “where”, and sometimes “what”.
And then we tried it! We decided to try out a setting description and brainstormed the kinds of details we could use our five senses to discover on a soccer field. We spent some time generating the language so we could use it to collaboratively write our beginning.
And then we tried it out! Not my best work, honestly, (I mean, who likes to start with “one summer evening?!”) but, as I always tell the kids, I can go back and revise when I’ve had some time to think of a more interesting idea. We start by getting it on paper, and we can – and should – always improve it.