During an in-service training about how to help children with their writing, I heard Lucy Calkins tell a story about a writing conference with a boy who wrote about a trip to an amusement park. His story went something like this: Me and my dad went to Great America. I went on a roller coaster. I drank pop.
We teachers simultaneously cringed and chuckled, knowing the work that needed to be done in order to pull out more of the story. I was already in correcting mode, imagining going over the draft with a red pen: “More detail!” I’d command. I was considering stories I could recommend about dads and sons so this boy could get some ideas about how to frame his story.
Lucy did none of those things. Instead she talked to the boy about his story.
“You rode a rollercoaster? Wow! That must’ve been fun!”
“Your dad took you? How nice!”
“You got to drink pop? What a treat!”
Hearing his story enthusiastically told back to him, the boy told Lucy more — it was a fun day; his dad doesn’t come by so much.
“I still have the can,” the boy told Lucy, referring to the can of pop he drank at the amusement park.
I wrote his words on an index card and taped it to my desk. “I still have the can,” was the first thing I looked at every morning, and since it sat in the center of my desk, I saw it frequently. It reminded me that before I get out that red pen, I must first listen.
I don’t know many of us who admit to writing with ease, especially when we come to a point in a story when there’s conflict. Writing about pain or shame or anger is agonizing, and that’s for those of us who’ve been writing for a while and have built up our endurance muscles. How much harder must it be for students who are still learning their letters or sentence structure or any number of literacy skills.
I’m not sure there is an easy way to teach writing, but I think listening is an essential step to building trust with children — no matter their age. And trust leads to better storytelling. Recently, I tried to build trust with a group of kindergarteners and first-graders by reading and then writing about Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day.
Before we read the book, I asked the students what they like to do in the snow. Some of the most popular responses were “make snowmen and snow angels,” “have snowball fights,” “drink hot chocolate,” and “put on snow pants,” and I agreed that those were some of my favorite things, too.
“Plus,” I told them, “I love to sled!”
“Sledding!” they said, some of them throwing their arms in the air and smiling at a memory. “I forgot! Yeah! I like sledding, too!”
It was a casual conversation, but it was important because I established trust, and if I’m going to help these wide-eyed children with their words, I must have their trust. I prepped them to write their own stories, no matter how jagged or rough those stories might be. I wanted them to believe they could do it.
When I’m reading aloud to children, I discuss the story as we go. I think this is important because talking about the story’s arc, characters, and setting provides context, and context allows us to relate. I love Keats’ decision in The Snowy Day to set Peter’s snow adventures in a city, and my favorite part is when Peter asks his friend across the hallway to join him in the snow.
Peter lives in an apartment. It’s a seemingly small detail, but when I was a new mama, living on the third floor of a condo building and my toddler girls had their faces and hands pressed against the windows when the first flakes fell, it was Peter who reminded me that playing in the snow is for everyone. He showed me that it isn’t a matter of whether or not I like snow. The question is, do I have enough imagination to play in it?
And so it goes with stories. Seeing a character try something new, explore her world, or stand up for what he believes allows us to connect and think, I could do that, too. Reading gives us a safe world to try on experiences and even personalities we might not explore otherwise.
“Watch what Peter does throughout the story and see if you do the same things. What are some things you do differently?” I asked the children as I began to read.
And so they told me. Students pointed to the pages and said, “I’ve done that!” or, “That’s happened to me, too!” Some said, “I can’t wait to try that.”
We took our experiences with snow and put ourselves in Peter’s story. Perhaps a good term for this exercise could be “reciprocal storytelling” because listening helps us empathize, and in turn, find ourselves in our own stories.
After we read the book, I passed out a worksheet and asked students to draw a picture of what they liked to do in the snow and write one sentence about their picture. For the first-graders, I typed a handful of snow words they might like to use. For example, instead of “make a snowman,” they could use the word “build.”
For many of the kindergartners, even writing their own name, was overwhelming. But they still had a story to tell — they raised their stories and illustrations to my face and said, “Look! Here I am in the snow!”
I knelt next to the table where they sat, took a pen from my pocket, and said, “Tell me all about it!”
“This is me and my sister throwing snowballs,” one student narrated. She was quiet while I wrote, watching my hand push the pen across the page. I was careful to write slowly and neatly, and I said the words as I wrote them.
“I miss my sister,” she whispered to me.
“I bet,” I whispered back. “It looks like you are having a lot of fun in this story.”
She nodded, and I asked her if she would like me to write that she missed her sister. She nodded again, and so I wrote that down.
I wanted to ask more: Why does she miss her sister? Where is her sister? Is she at college? Dead? I don’t know how much to push. Writing is mysterious. The story that needs to be told doesn’t always reveal itself until further down the road. My hope with this child is that I cemented a memory in her mind of a person who listened attentively so she could keep telling the story when she is ready. When the time is right, I hope she pulls up that memory, trusting herself.
Another boy showed me his picture — a stick figure and a snowman with a pink border. “What’s going on in this story?” I asked.
“Hmph,” he said, crossing his arms and furrowing his brow. He was feeling shy or angry or maybe ashamed. I don’t know, and I’m not sure if he told me I’d know how to convey the emotion. So I looked at his picture again.
“It looks like you’re outside with a snowman,” I said.
“I’m throwing snow,” he said, sharply.
I wrote that down.
He gave me more. “I’m throwing snow and making a snowman.”
“It’s a nice snowman,” I said when I finished writing.
“He is not moving,” the little boy said, uncrossing his arms and stepping closer to me. He took my hand and pushed my pen down so I couldn’t write. He picked up his paper and studied it, his face softer now, his eyes wide and curious.
“We are outside,” he said quietly.
What memory did this child hold? What did he see? I thought of Peter, when he put the snowball in his pocket and brought it inside for safe-keeping, but it melted once he came home. Peter was so sad. Was this boy sad as well, seeing something he thought was gone? I worried that, like the little girl who whispered to me that she missed her sister or the boy who told Lucy he still had the can, if this boy was holding on to this mysterious memory with both hands. Maybe he was doing all he could do for one day.
“Would you like me to write down that you are outside with your snowman?” I asked.
He looked at me, a mixture of surprise and maybe irritation, and I felt bad that I pulled him out of his memory. He handed me the paper and nodded.
“We are outside,” I wrote.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You are welcome,” I said, putting the cap back on my pen.
In The Snowy Day, Peter dreams all the snow melts, but when he wakes up, he sees “his dream is gone,” and he calls to his friend across the hall to come outside with him and play in the new snow.
New adventures to be had. New memories to build. New words to form.
I am here to listen.
Photo by Gabriel Caparó, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post, pictures, and worksheets by Callie Feyen. Reprinted with permission.
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