Say what you want to say, and let the words fall out.
—Sara Bareilles, “Brave”
Usually, when we look at the on-demand writing prompts that we give our fourth graders as a pre-assessment at the start of the school year, a few types of writing are common. There are usually several bed-to-bed stories—the stories where the students write everything that happened from the time they woke up till the time they fell asleep. These often leave us scratching our heads and wondering what is important, since every part of the day is given equal weight. We also get at least one paper handed back with no writing at all. These writers are so sure that what they have to say isn’t important that they don’t write anything at all.
Although these writers require different support, we find that they have something in common: They’re not sharing the heart, or important part, of their stories.
We think that part of the reason for this is something that’s true for our students and all other writers: Whatever it is that we are writing about, we need to be brave enough to show what is important, and that can be hard.
It’s hard when you’re an adult to share something you’ve written with others, so why wouldn’t we expect this to be hard for kids? We’re asking them to share not only their writing, but a little piece of themselves. We acknowledge this directly to students—we’re asking them to be vulnerable, and that’s hard work.
In recent years, we’ve been launching our writing workshop by listening to and watching the video for the song “Brave” by Sarah Bareilles.
This song relays the message that we’re hoping to send to all our writers: Don’t hold back because you’re afraid of what others will think or that they’ll judge you. Be brave by sharing the significance of the moments in your life. Share the details. We’re not just trying to fill up space with words; we’re filling up space with words that share important feelings and thoughts.
Although simply inviting writers to be brave in this way (and modeling our own brave writing in front of students) is enough for some of our writers to begin gathering and trying story ideas that take bravery to share, we often pair this with a more concrete strategy for those students who think, at first, that they don’t have anything that takes bravery to write about. One strategy that supports these students is to think of strong emotions and then list moments in their life that they’ve felt those strong emotions.
We might start by making a quick list of strong emotions—worry, hope, fear, embarrassment—and push our students to use stronger words when the feelings that come to mind are happy and sad. This can help lead us to vocabulary work as well.
Next, we’ll model a quick list of small moments within those strong moments. For example, if we’re thinking about times we felt embarrassed, we might list incidents like these:
The time when I threw up on an airplane and it went in the backpack of the passenger in front of me.
The time when we were practicing speeches and I cried in front of my class when it was my turn to give my speech.
The time when I forgot to close the gate at my uncle’s farm and all the cows escaped.
We next invite our students to choose a strong emotion (one of the ones we’ve listed as a class or their own) and think about small moments in that emotion or list their own small moments that came to mind when hearing ours.
This is an example of what we would model when teaching this strategy. The left side is a chart with strong emotions and some moments that go with each emotion. The right side is a modeled notebook entry writing off a strong emotion.
The “Brave” video provides us with an engaging launchpad from which to introduce the kind of writing we hope our writers embrace during the school year, but we want to be clear that it’s essential that teachers do the next step—the modeling of brave writing in front of their students. The more students see us being vulnerable, the more likely they are to feel safe enough (and brave enough!) to take on that type of writing themselves.