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.