The following is a written account of an actual event that occurred in Scott Jones’s fifth grade classroom in October 2016. Mr. Jones acknowledges that this was not his finest teaching moment. He will also not be making any further comments about this event. Yet, he believes it’s important to share his experience so others can learn from his mistakes…
I burped in class today. For real.
Our minilesson got underway as twenty-five eager faces stared at me from the carpet after a very active lunch and recess. Today’s writing learning target was “ Writers learn how to add dialogue to their narrative to move the story forward and to reveal character.” We were revising our personal narratives, and many students needed help on how to use dialogue properly. I had the perfect mentor text ready to go. I had a nice, organized anchor chart to capture the highlights of this minilesson. I was on a roll.
It was one of those moments that classroom communities have when the stars are aligned and everything is working. Everyone was focused and alert. There was an energy in the class that was palpable. There was no doodling on journal covers, no picking at eraser tops, no playing with shoelaces. I had their full attention. They looked at me. I looked back at them. Our eyes locked with anticipation of the next insightful statement that would float from my mouth and land onto the pages of their writing journals.
As I opened my mouth to share my next pearl of wisdom, it happened. What my students heard next was no pearl of wisdom. More like a nugget of smelly air. It crept up my throat like a foghorn in the dense, morning fog. I was not prepared for this. This had never, ever happened to me before. This burp was supposed to be a private little moment, but it had now been exposed to the world. Writing coach and author, Ruth Ayres, uses the phrase “going public” when describing how writers publish their work. Surely, she did not mean this.
The five seconds of silence that followed felt like an eternity. They were all looking at me with their heads cocked to the side like a dogs. The expressions on their face asked, Did that just happen? It did happen. All I could do was own it and share that this had never happened before. The laughter that followed spread around the classroom until it eventually hit me. There was nothing I could do but laugh. I had literally just burped, and burped loudly, in front of my class.
The next day’s learning target: Sometimes writing is like a giant burp. You never know when you’ll be inspired to do it. Ideas, like a burp, can creep into your mind when you least expect it.
With eight weeks complete in this school year, I can officially declare writing workshop as the favorite time of the day for most of the students. Lately, it seems like this chunk of time is when our class bonds the most. I’m blessed to have a class of passionate and creative writers this year.
For many of us, the best moment of writing workshop is when it ends. In other words, the last few minutes of workshop time when my students and I gather on the carpet for what we call “workshop debriefing.” This 5-10 minute conversation between writers is a quick way to build relationships as a writing community. I try to keep this debriefing focused on the writing product as well as the writing process. I usually facilitate our debriefing with three questions:
- What went well today?
- What are you heading as a writer next?
- What did you work on today that we can learn from?
I view this as an opportunity to teach and to assess. I always look forward to this discussion because it provides me with teaching points for the coming days. Plus, the students and I get to hear what everyone is working on. I am noticing that my students are starting to become very helpful to one another as they are always willing to offer feedback.
This past Wednesday was like any other day. It was the end of writing workshop, and my stomach was growling as lunchtime was just a few moments away. I started out the debriefing session by asking each writer to share where they are in their writing process. As they made their way around the circle, I noticed that I had stopped writing down teaching points and “next steps” on my Status Of The Class page. Instead, I was amazed at how these 10 and 11-year old students were speaking to one another. They were talking like…writers.
I quickly started jotting down what these young authors were saying. Here is a sample of what I observed:
- Josh shared that he was planning out a story with lots of suspense. He had a basic idea for a plot, but he needed to fill in some plot holes. Nathaniel, who is Josh’s peer editor, suggested looking at Jon Scieszka’s Guys Read: Thriller anthology. Another boy ran over to his desk and pulled out Ralph Fletcher’s Guy Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs To Know and gave it to Josh.
- Abby shared that she was working on some poetry as she held up a few mentor texts I had suggested including poems by Robert Frost and Langston Hughes.
- Chris announced that he had started writing the third episode of “Monkey Attack.” This announcement was met with a few fist pumps and shouts of “Finally!” from about half of the class. “Looks like you have some fans, Chris,” I said as he shyly chuckled.
- Hannah shared that she started writing workshop with nothing to write about, so she used Rory’s Story Cubes for some inspiration. Three other students asked if they could borrow those tomorrow.
- Ella mentioned how she was mulling over the idea of starting a graphic novel about ferrets. I steered her towards a book in our classroom library that was about how to design comics, paying particular attention to the pages about when to use wide-angles and close ups.
- Ahmed, a very reluctant writer, explained how he was writing a script for a book trailer he was going to make for a story he was creating. A few students offered him help for writing the draft, as they had just finished creating a book trailer themselves.
- Donya announced that she had finished typing up her biography of Margaret Peterson Haddix, and was starting a poem inspired by the book RUMP: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff.
All this occurred in about seven minutes. What I had just witnessed was a community of writers helping each other, offering feedback, giving advice, sharing their failures, planning out their writing and asking questions. For a few moments in the day, these young writers were cherishing this time to share, comment and connect. Even some of my most reluctant writers had found a topic, audience or genre to pursue. These seven minutes were special to me because I saw the power of our writing culture. The writing customs, routines and behaviors we’d worked so hard to develop were on full display. This group of writers had connected around an appreciation for the writing process. Yet, none of these young writers had noticed recess had started 4 minutes ago.