Do you remember the Magic Eight Ball toy? I think those are still around. You ask the ball a question and then shake it–shake, shake, shake. An answer appears in a tiny triangular window. I remember asking the Eight Ball if it was going to snow when I was twelve years old; I had a big math test and a snow day would have been more than serendipitous. I shook it over and over and got a variety of answers:
My reply is no.
The outlook is not good.
But I kept shaking and I shook it until I got the answer I wanted:
It did NOT snow and I was not spared the humiliation of a test I was not ready for.
Although I learned then not to rely on a Magic Eight Ball for information, I sometimes think I sound like one in the classroom. In Writers Workshop, children raise their hands knowing that I will have a word or a strategy to get them started… something just for them. It might be a quick phrase that sums up what we’ve learned in a lesson together. By now I know them as writers and we have discussed many, many strategies that writers use.
“Try a time line,” I whisper to one girl.
“Stick a star next to the event that has the most energy for you. And that’s what you should write about,” I explain to another.
“What do you mean all you did was jump on a trampoline? I would love to do that. Make me feel like I was there– show don’t tell. Write what you were thinking while you were climbing on that trampoline.”
“You saw Dave Matthews??? Make a movie in your mind of that– slow it down. Now try writing about it.”
I move to another raised hand. “Stuck, James?” I nod sympathetically. “That happens to every writer. Try making a list. Maybe you can even use the list in your writing. Remember how Ann Cameron did that in The Stories Juian Tells. She did that with the vegetables.” I do a quick list lesson for the class with Ann Cameron’s novel in my hand. Ravenel adds that she has done that with her father when they have written poetry. All of the sudden we are rearranging words according to sound and syllable.
Later in the morning, James’ hand is in air. I look at his first sentence: “Hershey Bars, Crunch Bars, Reeses, and Twix–I ate a lot of candy.” With James’ permission, I read it to the class. James gives me a winning smile as I show him that with a few well-chosen words he has written a poem and a lead sentence, all in one.
A strategy shorthand emerges over time. This shorthand is made of tips that could fit tightly in a tiny triangular window, but this Eight Ball sized advice is generated child by child, not randomly. Good writing is not left to chance. We’ve just finished the first nine weeks. Children know how to tap into the story in and around them. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Will they continue to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers?