“I miss my house,” she told me. “I came here from Puerto Rico with my family, after the storm.”
I nodded and laid my eyes on her build.
“I never thought my house was that nice,” she said. “I thought it was really ugly. I never thought it was anything I’d miss.”
She’d built herself standing next to her home. She’d built the hurricane, crushing down around her. She’d built her broken heart, her healing family, and the message that she wanted to leave her readers: We don’t really know what ugly is until the ugly things we love are lost forever.
I’m wondering: Do you think that this seven year old English language learner would have written me this story if I put a pencil in her hand instead of a few loose parts?
I don’t. I’m pretty sure that she would have written a different story instead–one defined by her limited print power–if she chose to write at all.
Here’s the most important thing that writers of all ages have taught me: When we reduce writing to print, we silence people who have powerful stories to tell.
In my world, writing is structure first. We deepen meaning next. I find that loose parts enable this work far better than pencils, pens, and keyboards do, too. Let me share an idea with you.
I know this is a different approach, but it isn’t difficult at all. There are three simple steps:
Build it. Better it. Bridge to print.
Build it. Invite the writers you support to build the beginning, middle, and end of the pieces they are working on using whatever loose parts you have at your disposal. Make it quick. Give them constraints: Five parts, five minutes, go! Keep the parts loose and ugly. Don’t create an aesthetic barrier where you once had a print barrier.
Be sure to define the blocks of each form. How? Just analyze the work of another respected writer. What are the parts of the piece you’re examining? What is the author doing inside of each part? Block the form bit by bit, and name each bit as you go. When writers know the parts, they can build each one with ease. When you can quickly assess the coherence of their idea and the form they intend it to take, intervention happens quickly and painlessly. Asking a kid to rebuild a bit is far more inviting than asking them to reprint it, and working with loose parts enables them to rapidly grow, refine, and improve their ideas.
Perhaps you’re writing stories (somebody/wanted/but/so/then).
Maybe you’re writing arguments (claim/evidence/evidence/counterclaim/refutation/call to action).
Teaching texts are better when we build them, too (topic/fact/fact/fact/call to action).
Better it. Once you’re certain that each writer’s complete structure is sound, deepen meaning bit by bit.Look into the beginning they’ve built. Offer criteria-specific feedback. Ask questions that elevate the complexity of their thinking. Inspire them to iterate on the build, after they’ve thought hard about their answers. Questions like these help us coach complexity and deepen meaning by challenging writers to use simile, metaphor, and symbol with intention. Invite them to think on some of these questions. Then, challenge them to improve their builds.
4. Bridge to print. Once the bits they’ve built are as beautiful as they can be, transition writers to print. Invite them to write just that tiny bit of their drafts. One block. One bit. The first part of their build. Challenge them to write a complete and complex passage, using a pencil, pen, or keyboard. If they can’t write the passage independently, share a sentence frame or two that they might replicate. If they can’t use the frame, try a cloze. If they can’t use a cloze, script for them using a highlighter, and invite them to trace over your words, which must be their rich words. And next time, negotiate a greater challenge. Offer the scaffold, but make their lift heavier: You print a bit. They print a bit. You print less. They print more. And remember (this is important): Don’t offer a scaffold that writers don’t need. Challenge all of them to write independently first, and intervene only as needed.
Build it. Better it. Bridge to print.
Such simple shifts in practice. Such profound results in my work with writers on the ground. I hope this might help you,too.
Want to learn more? Take a peek at this series of videos.
Each is just five minutes long.
Each offers a tangible approach that you can lift and drop into your own work, regardless of the program or curriculum you are using.
I’m calling them the #FiveMinuteFix videos, and I’ll be sharing them every weekday morning in my Facebook group, on Twitter, and on Instagram as well. You can also subscribe to my YouTube channel to keep up.
If you like them, I hope you will share them widely. I’d also love to hear from you. Use the #MakeWriting hashtag on social to grab my attention.