Small Moment Stories: Documenting the Unexpected

October found me in classrooms in and around New York State, facilitating lesson studies for writing teachers at the elementary and middle levels. This is some of the most rewarding work that I do, because the learning that happens is the result of studying kids and teachers at work together. Everyone is a learner in the context of lesson study, and this makes a difference.

Whenever I lead lesson studies, my intention is to design a professional learning experience that teachers might one day replicate on their own, without someone like me at the front of the process. This is important, because teaching writing is tough stuff. Getting better at it isn’t the work of a single day or week or unit or year.Teaching writing well is the work of an entire career, and we can only get better if our learning never ends.

Creating the space for sustained, teacher-led lesson study is one powerful way to create this reality. To that end, protocols matter much. They ensure that every voice is heard while providing a structured framework that stimulates thoughtful analysis and decision making. Putting solid protocols in place is one way people like me work themselves out of a job, and that’s the ultimate goal of any professional learning facilitator who is worth his or her salt. Some of my current favorites are borrowed from this brand new book, written by David Allen, Tina Blythe, Alan Dichter, and my friend, Terra Lynch. In my next post, I’ll explain how I used some of those protocols to collaboratively plan, execute, and then, debrief the lessons that I taught.

As you will see, I’ve found that documentation is critical to this work, and protocols also support my efforts there well.

My hope is that by making my own work transparent here, other teachers of writing and those who are thinking deeply about documentation themselves might find themselves connecting with me here or elsewhere, so we can continue a wider and richer conversation. I want to spend this year learning all that I can about lesson study, writing instruction, and documentation, even as I am bringing other teachers into professional conversations. My intention isn’t to suggest that mine is the best or right way to do anything. Instead, I hope to share how I did a few things. Then, I hope to learn more as a result of sharing with those who read and take the time to support me in my own learning.

So, here’s the most important thing I’ve learned in the last few years (and the last month of lesson study has provided daily reminders of it): I need to truly connect with the people I serve, and as a teacher and professional learning facilitator, I need to remember that I am a servant.

It doesn’t matter whether I’m trying to help young writers generate small moment stories inside of the personal narrative writing unit teachers have asked me to lead lesson studies around or whether I’m trying to help those teachers study the small moments that matter most to learners inside of their own writing workshops: In order to understand writers and writing and teachers and teaching a little bit better, I need to truly connect with the people I serve, and as a teacher and professional learning facilitator, I need to remember that I am a servant.

My commitment to documentation is teaching me much about why this matters to kids and teachers. When I remember this, it helps me get better at what I do, too.

Here’s an example:

In recent years, I’ve found that writers are able to generate abundant ideas for small moment writing when we gamestorm the process, rather than using traditional brainstorming approaches. I’ve shared these approaches widely in the past. You can learn more about what I mean by diving into this document: Maker Moves in the Writing Workshop. In this particular lesson, I supplied each writer with a pile of sticky notes or index cards and a set of powerful prompts that have proven to inspire rapid ideation:

(Need the PDF? It’s here. )

I don’t print that document or distribute it. I don’t throw all of those prompts at writers at once. Instead, I set them up to free write their responses: one idea per note, as I read each prompt slowly and provide a bit of time between each ask so that writers can get their ideas down. I explain that some writers might respond to all of the prompts while others focus on a handful or just one or two. They don’t have to have ideas for every prompt I pitch, but I always try to notice which prompts that inspire the best ideas.

Usually, most writers generate a whole bunch of workable ideas during this experience. Quantity matters, of course. Quality matters more, though.

I want to know: Of all of the ideas that young writers generate, which will inspire the most meaningful small moment story, and how will they learn how to pick that idea out of the collection?

Each time I do this, I ask writers to savor each idea on every single sticky note slowly.

“Pay attention to how your heart feels when you consider each idea,” I tell them. “Pay attention to how your stomach feels as well.”

I often invite them to mix and remix their ideas. New ones emerge as a result.

Then, I ask them to place hearts or stars on the ideas that produce the strongest feelings–good or bad.

“These are ideas worth writing about,” I tell them. I want them to learn this strategy and use it in the future.

Sometimes, we gamestorm a tiny bit more, using a matrix like this one:

“Which of your small moments helped you learn something that is still relevant to you today?” I ask, and they move their sticky notes accordingly. “Which of those small moment lessons might be relevant to someone else? Which remain relevant to you and to others as well?”

This is how we begin thinking about our audiences and choosing writing topics that might matter to them.

Something unexpected happened with two different students in one of the classrooms where I lead these lesson studies last week.

The first student struggled to generate even a single idea.

I wondered if my prompts were too challenging for him. So, I placed the orange sticky note in the second photo below on his desk. It read: What are your happiest memories? This prompt is one that most writers respond to easily, and I expected him to dive in. He looked at me, and I could tell that he was thinking hard and eager to please me, but still….nothing.

Then, I asked if he would rather draw his ideas instead. He nodded quickly and got to work. He generated fewer notes than most, but when I studied them, I noticed that the level of detail was far greater than what his peers were putting down with print.

And when I shared this observation with him? He made solid eye contact, smiled a bit, and added another idea to his collection. By the end of our three day lesson study, this writer was producing and sharing the strongest work in the class.

This leaves me wondering about how I might invite all writers into this task in the future. Print allowed many of them to put down abundant ideas, and I find that this matters at the start of a small moment writing unit. It’s hard to find a just-right topic. When writers have a wide range of ideas to choose from, gamestorming almost always helps them choose a solid one. When writers don’t generate numerous ideas, they typically struggle to find a single one to hold on to.

Noticing the detail in this writer’s drawing really has me thinking about changing things up, though. I might invite all writers to draw the next time I test this lesson. I know that drawing will likely result in fewer ideas, but will the level of detail make for better ones, ultimately?

I want to find out.

I could also structure the lesson to produce a far more detailed drawing that encompasses a wide range of ideas. I need to think about this more.

Something else unexpected happened, too: Another writer in the room generated quite a few ideas using print, but when it came time to choose one and begin crafting a hook, he became visibly upset. His anxiety skyrocketed. There were tears.

“I can’t write narratives,” he told me, slamming his pencil down and pushing himself away from his desk, which was filled with sticky notes. He had a bunch of solid ideas.

I was perplexed. I’ve taught this lesson quite a few times now, and this has never happened before.

I took a knee beside him and gave him a minute to process his overwhelm.

Then, I asked, very softly, “Can you tell me the story you want to write?”

And he did.

Then, he drew it, too.

A quick bit of prompting inspired him to add thought and speech bubbles to his drawing, and suddenly, he was telling a wild story about his cousin who poured gasoline on a bonfire they built over the summer. The story had a powerful hook, precise vocabulary, and important lesson for readers to learn. It also had strong voice.

Once again, the writer who seemed most resistant from the start produced some of the best work in the class. And once again, the writers who challenged me most taught me the most as well.

This is why I find it important to document the unexpected, rather than attending to my intended focal point alone. I always discover something that helps me understand writers and writing and my own work as a teacher much better.

Did I also document each writer’s progress toward the learning targets that I set that day? I did, and I will share that work soon, too.

But I continue to be far more empowered by everything I’m learning about grounded theory and my willingness to be surprised by the learners I serve.

Which inspires me to share this last invitation with you: If you are someone who is wondering what is worthy of documentation inside of your own writing workshop, revisit those prompts that I shared at the top of the page. I find that they help writers of all ages choose small moment stories to write and share. I use them for my own purposes too–because they also help me choose which small moments are worth documenting and reflecting on as a teacher.

Maybe they can help you, too.

What would you add?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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