Slice of Life: Writing to Think

We’re dipping into an essay writing unit, “true” essay, based on Katherine Bomer’s beautiful book The Journey is Everything.  We’re trying it. And each day, I try to figure out where my students are in this process. This work is not prescriptive. It is intended to be fluid, thought provoking. My continual question is, is it?

We’re working on gathering ideas. Ideas from what we read, what we notice, what bothers, or frustrates us. Making lists. We’re doing what Bomer calls “try its.”  Short bursts of writing around an idea, a quote, a fact or statistic.

Today I presented my students with a fact I thought would speak to them.

90% of all 4th through 8th graders are victims of bullying.

I heard: “Duh.”

Acceptance.  What disturbed me at first was the reaction to the content. What I realized later was this was a typical reaction towards a fact. Digestion and recapitulation.

I realized that my students need to learn to react.  To think and wonder. Wonder why something exists in the world. Wonder about the implications. That can be scary. So I wonder, are they ready to question the world they’re just beginning to understand? Or, is questioning required to understand?

Presenting a fact and asking students to write meets a limited response. They need to see what I mean by writing about a fact. I shared my notebook.

Then I asked, what did you notice about what and how I wrote?

“You asked lots of questions.”

Exactly. The process of gathering ideas,  a journey of thought, is driven by questions. It requires us to ask, what does this mean and how does it fit into my understanding of the world? Perhaps even, what can we do about it. It’s about being curious. It’s about discovery.

After I had shared my writing about a fact,  I shared this quote:

“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”  –Anne Frank

My students know  Anne Frank’s story. They know what happened. Here was a victim of extreme bullying who saw good in humanity.

I asked my students to talk about this. What did they think, wonder, question?

I heard:

I wonder, how can she feel that way?

Maybe there is good in even the worse kind of people.

Maybe it’s how you see people.

Maybe it’s the kind of person you are.

How can you see good in those who hurt?

Then students wrote. I told them, just try it for five minutes.

They were uncomfortable at first and had what-do-you-want-me-to-write-about moments. Sentence starters like, I wonder…. and maybe… gave students ways to begin

Students considered more quotes and facts and talked.

I don’t want students to become dependent or limited by what I present, so we closed out writer’s workshop and stepped into reader’s workshop with this teaching point: Readers think deeply about news articles by questioning ideas, facts, and quotes. We notice and wonder.

This is a brave new world for my fifth graders. Tomorrow we will try it again. We’ll practice the work of wondering and questioning the facts and our beliefs.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices here.


10 thoughts on “Slice of Life: Writing to Think

  1. “What does this mean and how does it fit into my understanding of the world? Perhaps even, what can we do about it. It’s about being curious.” – The heart of inquiry and action. I believe your students will surprise you and you will have many moments of awe when they show depth of thought.

  2. This is the important take-away for me: “Readers think deeply about news articles by questioning ideas, facts, and quotes. We notice and wonder.”
    It is very important to cultivate a community of questioners who think critically about all that is presented to them. Is it true? On what evidence is the statement based? What is the intention of the information provider? What does the information mean to me? and How can I use it? or What can I do about it? are questions for starters.
    Your statement would have been a good one to commence a discussion about their experiences of bullying – the victim and the perpetrator. Writing would have flowed from an open and accepting discussion in a community built on trust. Talk is important before pens are lifted.

  3. How wonderful to see time spent on learning instead of test prepping!!!!! BRAVO Julianne. I can’t wait to share that book in depth with the group of elementary teachers I’ve been working with.

  4. Sharing your own writing process is a powerful teaching tool. They will soon loosen up and realize that it’s OK for them to say what they want to say on paper.

  5. I just shared your insightful post with the reading and writing teachers in 5th grade at my school. I’m such a big fan of the elaboration prompts you use! They get me to say so much more on a topic! I can’t wait to read more about your students as they learn to be essayists along side you!

  6. The thread I see through all your thinking is the questioning. So often students remain passive, and are not shown that questioning is the heart of any learning. I enjoyed hearing how you approached your “try its”. It also helps those who are quiet and need to put their thoughts on paper rather than share. Great to read, Julieanne!

  7. I second what Linda had to say – our kids need to learn how to be questioning, to take that stance of curiosity and wonder. We’re doing this work, too – so glad to be walking this essay journey alongside you!

  8. I love how you paired to very different ideas — the contrast gets you wondering. There is such a power in sharing that fact and then that quote. They couldn’t help but have a journey of thought. Do you always give them two perspectives on something to respond to? Thanks for sharing.


  9. I’ve almost ordered Katherine’s book a couple times, and I just placed my order. Your post cost me! I’m okay with that because I love reading about getting fifth-graders to question and wonder. Wonder has even been my OLW for 2016–it’s a good one, actually. It amazes me how the ability to ask questions atrophies throughout elementary school. I’m so glad there are educators who are working hard to re-inspire the wondering nature of people. I hope I see you at NCTE!

  10. “It’s about being curious. It’s about discovery.” Yes! I love listening to you think, Julieanne! Thank you for sharing your journey through using Katherine’s book with your students!

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