In her third-grade classroom, Debbie Davis-Reid and I were observing the students the first few days of writing workshop. Who starts quickly? Who adds to their authority* list? (from Ralph Fletcher’s book: Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide). Who takes time to get something down? Who says, “I am a writer” and who does not?
One student I’ll call Kaleb, wrote on his authority list after ten minutes: I do not like to write. I like sines. I love sines outside. Sines in nature. Sines by the water.
I bent over and said, “Tell me about this word,” pointing to the word sines, unsure of whether it was signs orscience.
“I love science. Mrs. Davis-Reid is really into science too,” he said.
“I find it interesting that you don’t like to write but you love science, because those two things go together.” He shrugged.
During our debrief, Debbie and I noted five kids that didn’t seem to be generating their own inspired ideas yet.
Signaling Science — An Onion in the Classroom
With those students on my mind the next morning, I spotted a huge dirty onion in our home pantry that smelled like spicy earth. I grabbed it by its greens and headed to Debbie’s school.
Moments before the students came in to start their morning routine, Debbie and I planned to invite Kaleb to explore some science writing with the onion if he seemed interested.
As if on cue, Kaleb walked in and mumbled “good morning.” But he was looking right past me to the table where the monstrous onion was waiting for him.
“What is that?” he said, throwing down his backpack.
I told him that since he was so into science, he might have the onion on his desk during writing workshop and show some of the other students how to make observations in writing as a scientist.
“I could do that,” he said, straightening his shoulders.
Kaleb wrote a few inspired lines that day, and so did the girls sitting next to him. When we shared their observations under the document camera, Debbie ask, “How many of you think you might like to write some observations?” About half the class raised their hands, including the other four that hadn’t been enthusiastic about writing yet.
From Talk to Writing: Sometimes It Takes a Model
The next day I let out a “whoa” when I saw Debbie’s back table covered with fungus growing on bark, ferns, and vines with berries. The kids responded the same way — they couldn’t wait for workshop time.
After a safety talk about never using the sense of taste with scientific observations and always washing hands after handling objects, Debbie placed the backyard forest items around the room. Kids congregated with their notebooks. The first five minutes all students did was talk. “Look at this! It’s shaped like a nose!” and “I poked this berry with my pencil and it looks like it has blood inside,” and “There is a pincher bug!”
Debbie came over and we had a quick conference, “They aren’t writing,” she whispered.
“I know,” I replied, “but their talk is all observation. Let’s give them some more time. Maybe I’ll write under the document camera.”
I placed my notebook under the document camera and started writing about Kaleb’s onion. I peeled off the skin and looked through it. Did you know onion skin resembles college-ruled paper? To this observation I added, I wonder how many layers make up an onion?
Ten minutes in, about half the class had picked up their notebooks to record their observations. The noise and excitement faded to calm focus. Within 15 minutes, Debbie and I beamed at each other. They were writing!
“How can I have this be part of the workshop on a regular basis,” Debbie wondered, “and have it be more manageable?”
We talked about incorporating “pick-up” items on the science table. What if during workshop there were natural items available that a writer could bring back to his/her writing spot? It reminded me of how I have samples of student work, teacher quotes, and post-its of the brilliant things kids say sprinkled all over my workspace. They are the pick-up items that form and inspire my writing.
In addition, I introduced Debbie to My Nature Notebook by Kevin Beals, part of the Seeds of Science, Roots of Reading series which models a student-like observation of the natural world over time and comes with a strategy guide to teach what makes a quality observation. The video below is a two-minute monologue of the author discussing his inspirations as a naturalist writing this book:
In Debbie’s workshop, some kids are writing fantasy stories; some are writing personal narratives inspired by the book Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka by Jon Scieskza; some now have observations adjacent to berry stains.
Often teachers ask me, “How do you know that next thing to hook particular kids?” I suppose in this case Kaleb himself told us what was next; we just read the “sines.”