Just over a week ago, I got to do a different kind of classroom visit.
Instead of going to a school to talk to a classroom or auditorium full of kids about reading, books or writing, I went to a university campus in Springfield, Missouri. Through the Ozark Writing Program, middle school students (5th to 8th grade) get to come take three different classes and work on their writing. I was one of a large number of instructors (maybe 30?) who were there for the day.
My topic was Telling True Stories and I showed my students how to find character, dialogue, setting and story/plot in a variety of nonfiction scenes. The scenes came from Bomb by Steve Sheinkin (Flashpoint, 2012) and Cave Detectives: Unraveling the Mystery of an Ice Age Cave by David Harrison (Chronicle Books, 2007). I chose the first book for the teachers since it is a recent award winner. I chose the second for the students and BINGO at least one of them had read it and met David.
Then I gave them a chance to do some writing. Some students used facts that I gave them to write a scene. I had pulled the facts from four different books:
- A Day that Changed America: Earthquake! by Shelley Tanaka (Hyperion, 2004)
- In Disguise: Stories of Real Women Spies by Ryan Ann Hunter (Beyond Words Publishing, 2003)
- Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin by Susanna Reich (Clarion Books, 2008)
- The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands by Sneed B. Collard III (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005)
The vast majority of the students had troubles getting going on this assignment. Translating the facts on a sheet of paper into a scene seemed to befuddle them. A few kids chose the earthquake scene but the vast majority chose the scene about the woman spy.
For the second writing assignment, I asked the kids to write a scene of their own choosing. What a huge variety!
- A girl wrote about dance competition.
- Another wrote an “as told to me” piece about military service in Afghanistan.
- A third girl wrote about a local civil war battle.
- Another, who is allergic to bees, wrote about getting stung while taking nature photos.
- A fifth girl wrote about guinea pigs.
- One boy wrote about playing paint ball.
- Another wrote about playing baseball and waking up with an IV in his arm.
What did I learn doing this? One thing that I asked them was which assignment they preferred. The baseball player simply prefers writing fiction, which he does a lot of on his own. He and I debated which is more fun — fiction vs nonfiction. I was really surprised that a number of the kids, often the one who had the most trouble getting started, said that they like writing from my fact sheets better because they had a ready made topic. Still, if I do this topic again, I’ll put more emphasis on writing their own scenes and take my examples of true stories from biography, autobiography and memoir.
If you get the chance, get into the classroom. I learned quite a bit from my readers.