A Journey Towards Implementing the Lucy Calkins Writing Project in a Highly Diverse School – Entry #2 by Susan Zimmerman-Orozco
October 14, 2018
“So, Jessica,” I asked my ELL second grader, “Let’s talk about what you’re going to write. I really liked your last story about the time you had to put your cat in the car and moved her to your new house.”
Three-fifteen in the afternoon, last period of the day, and all around us writing partners were sharing their work, and checking their Tiny Moments notebooks for adjectives and details. I was hunched uncomfortably into my tiny primary-grade-sized chair, vaguely wondering how I was going to be able to stand up later. Jessica fiddled listlessly with the edges of a woefully empty-looking writer’s booklet, her long brown hair spilling sideways over the purple too-large glasses perched on the edge of her nose in an attempt to avoid my gaze.
I looked at her new story pages. “Can you read me the first page?”
Jessica stared down at the haphazardly written words on the page and read. “We got a cat. My mom said lets get a cat.”
Another story about a cat, I thought. Hmmmm. “OK, writers sometimes like to make sketches, draw pictures of what they’re writing about. Did you draw pictures on your other pages?” She turned to the next page, but it was empty. “OK, so let’s talk about this.” I tried to sound enthusiastic. “Tell me what happens next so we can draw it.”
Jessica looked at me blankly and replied, “We went to get the cat.”
“OK!,” I responded, feigning excitement, “That’s great! Tell me about that moment. Were you really happy? Did something interesting happen?”
“No,” she said, dully. “We went to this man’s house and we got the cat.”
“Oh OK, well remember that good writers like to talk about special moments in their stories, like when something interesting happened, or maybe you had a strong feeling about it.”
She glared at me, clearly bemused by my sudden fascination with her cat. I soldiered on, “Remember, in your LAST story it was funny when the cat started running around your car meowing really loudly. Did something like THAT happen?”
For most students, taking time to plan what they’re going to write about before they start composing is an integral step in the writing process. Nonetheless, I could tell that Jessica was getting annoyed with my constant insistence that she have a plan. Nevertheless, I was determined, ‘So, maybe the interesting part of your story is later? What happened in the end? Were you really happy? Did the cat do something funny?”
“No,” she said, “I don’t like cats.”
By now Jessica was totally disgusted with my interrogation about a cat she didn’t even like, and I had become a bulldog worrying a bone as I watched our precious conferencing time ticking down to dismissal.
In her supplementary text, Supports for English Language Learners in Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing, Lucy Calkins and her colleagues reinforce the importance of oral practice for English Language Learners and on giving students multiple opportunities to plan and rehearse their stories out loud before they write. I knew that if I couldn’t get Jessica to talk about and plan out her story, it might take too much work to revise it later. I didn’t want her to get discouraged about the whole writing process.
However it was 3:30 at the close of a long rainy day -with no outdoor recess. Only 10 minutes of class remained, and Jessica’s stubborn and seemingly willful refusal to even try to make her story interesting, meaningful, or purposeful had me ready to pull out my hair. I scratched my head, gave her a beseeching look and blurted, “But Jessica, this story isn’t even interesting. And you don’t even like cats! So why do you want to write about it?”
Startled, she stared at me. “Because I wrote about my cat the last time and you liked it.”
This was what I call a “face palm “ moment. I wanted to sink my head into my hands and rock back and forth on my tiny chair in despair. I looked deeply into her little 7-year old’s eyes, which clearly were not seeing what the big deal was all about, and pleaded with her, “Come on, Jessica, isn’t there ANYTHING interesting in your life you could write about?”
“No,” she insisted.
“Really?” I begged. “You can’t think of ANY ONE THING you have done lately that you liked to do, made you happy, or something happened that was different than any other day?” By now I was nearly shrieking in frustration.
“No,” she shrugged, and continued nonchalantly “Unless like, when we went to Creepy Six Flags (a Halloween-themed event at the local amusement park) and these scary clowns came out and we screamed.” Her face lit up as she remembered and the words came gushing out. “And when you go on the merry ground all this smoke comes out and then scary monsters chased us around. It was so much fun!”
Now it was my turn to gush! I almost grabbed and hugged her until she burst. “Oh my GOSH, Jessica! THAT is the best story EVER! And you already told me all these really neat details about what you did, and the scary clowns, and the monsters….and how you felt, and you can write for pages and pages! You are AMAZING!” I practically jumped up and down in my seat, grabbed a pencil and stuck it in her hand. “Start drawing! You have ten minutes!”
Jessica looked at me like I had lost my mind, but she grinned from ear to ear – clearly proud to have come up with such a brilliant narrative – and quickly filled four pages with sketches. With moments to spare before dismissal, I sent her to share her work to the approving “Oohs!” and “Ahhs!” of her classroom teacher. Another successful writer is born!
Yesterday I checked in with Jessica. She eagerly read me her narrative – all about the monsters, the scary clowns and the rides that disappeared into clouds of smoke (or as we decided – fog.)
“You’re becoming such a good writer,” I told her, reinforcing the message of Lesson 8: Revising with Intent, “because good writers include a lot of specific details and feelings like yours that let the readers know why you wanted to write about it, let them know your intent.”
She nodded and looked up at me, “Do you remember how happy you got when I told you my story that day?” She smiled shyly. “That made me really happy, too.”
And just like that, Jessica taught me the REAL message of that lesson, of all of the lessons, actually: the importance of connecting with your audience. Because as a teacher, my students ARE my audience. Maybe I don’t always connect with Jessica with written words and pictures, and maybe the daily mini-lessons carefully scaffolded for language and content are less than memorable to her 7-year old’s list of daily priorities. However, by badgering, cajoling, joking, and sticking with her until her creative light bulb lit up, I did manage to show her the one essential thing that all good writers do: I created a small, precise moment of emotion between us that made us both smile inside and say, “Aha! This is why we do this.”
I hope you will travel with us as we puzzle out the best way to use Lucy to help our ELLs – and all of our students. But even more importantly, I hope you will share your own challenges, your successes, and your suggestions and recommendations for using Lucy to show these, our most fragile, learners that not only can they succeed as writers but also excel!
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