I’ve just finished a lesson in writing workshop, and it’s time for students to begin their own writing. Everyone is moving around the room getting paper, taking out writing folders, and finding a space to sit and write. As the buzz quiets, I notice Michael (usually an eager writer) sitting with a blank piece of paper and an equally blank stare. I pull up my stool and ask Michael, "What are you thinking about?"
He answers with the dreaded, "I don’t know what to write about."
At first I think, "Oh, no—we could be here for a while." But then my mind races to recent events and I say, "Michael, didn‘t your mom have a baby yesterday?"
He looks at me with wide eyes. "Oh yeah!" he responds excitedly, and off he starts writing, needing no more help from me.
Learning to Choose Topics That "Fit"
I would like to say it is always so easy: I nonchalantly make suggestions to a stumped writer and all of a sudden he or she is off and running. But that’s not always the case. Take Tyler, for instance, a boy I worked with a few years ago. Tyler was smart. He loved to read. Despite that, he came into my third-Grade classroom with an IEP for reading and writing. Tyler could read above his grade level with deep understanding of text. What he could not do was write about it. We quickly dismissed his reading IEP, but he still had a valid IEP for written language. Tyler hated writing about anything. He could write if he set his mind to it, but he struggled. Tyler was a great thinker, but getting him to put even one idea on paper was a battle. When Tyler said, "I don’t know what to write about," he meant it, and all of the brainstorming I might do with him over a 30-minute period would still result in a boy without an idea, with a blank sheet of paper.
Then there's the child who is willing to write, but just can’t think of topics. He is always the one at the beginning of writing workshop, looking around the room with unsure eyes. He has that half-frown, doubting that he has any idea interesting enough to keep him, the writer, focused, and us, the readers, interested. He wants to write, but depends on the help of the teacher to choose his topic.
How do we help children like these discover topics? How do we help them see that there is an abundance of rich ideas around them?
CONNECTING TO TEXT: Thinking About Topics to Write About
One of my favorite books for helping students find topics is You Have to Write by Janet Wong. It is a wonderful text for exemplifying that a student’s own life is a great place to begin when searching for ideas. Wong urges the reader to write. She suggests that it is in our nature to write, that we must tell our stories and the stories of our mothers, father, grandparents, and so on. She says we want readers to laugh or cry at our words. Wong seems to go inside the head of the reluctant writer who wants to be a writer, but just can’t seem to believe she can come up with that topic that will wow everyone.
The illustrator of Wong’s book, Teresa Flavin, created little snapshot of everyday activities: a birthday party, a walk in the rain, cookie-baking with Dad. On the same page Wong asks the reader, "Who else can say what you have seen? Who else can tell your stories?" Immediately, the reader sees that writing can be telling stories about her life and the lives of those around her. Most young students are interested in themselves, so getting them to write about their lives usually takes only a slight nudge.
I read this book to students and we talk about the everyday topics that might inspire us. We make a chart of ideas, and I encourage students to think of the ordinary, and the not-so-ordinary, things in their own lives that will make good stories.
MINI-LESSON: Finding a Topic Using Literature as a Model
Wong’s message resonates with many students. They want to write about their lives. Some students, however, are still not sure. This is when I introduce Flip's Fantastic Journal by Angelo DeCesare. In this book, a dog is asked to write in his journal about his life. He begins to write, but reluctantly, because he finds his life to be quite boring and unlucky. It is clear that Flip does not like to write. He says so. But he does his homework, dutifully. He writes, but what he writes is quite dull. Then flip has an idea. He remembers his teacher saying he doesn't have to write about his read day, and inviting him to make things up. All of a sudden, Flip twists his real events into more exciting happenings, and these new and exciting happenings are now illustrated in color. What used to be Flip hitting himself in the head with the soccer ball turns into Flip kicking the soccer ball to the moon. What used to be a cereal box with no toy inside becomes a cereal box filled with toys. This is Flip's life, exaggerated toward the positive. After reading the book, I ask students, "So what do you think?"
Tyler says, "I like how the book went from black-and-white to color."
"Yes. That was pretty neat. Why did the author/illustrator do this?" I ask.
Jessica answers, "Because he wanted you to notice the second half of the story is much more interesting."
I ask, "In what way?"
Tatum begins, "In the beginning, Flip just listed the things he did. It wasn’t very interesting. Then, in the middle of the book, when he started over, Flip made up things, like instead of his cereal box not having a toy, it was full of toys."
Michael adds, "Yeah, and when his sister woke him up early in the morning in the first half, you could tell he didn’t like that. Then in the second half he says his sister tried to wake him up, but he told his pet dinosaur to get her instead."
I agree, "I get what you’re saying. He made up his story in the second half and it was more interesting?"
Miya says, "Yes. But he used things from his life and then made them seem bigger and better."
I ask, "Do you think this is a good technique when you write a story? Can you use things from your own life and exaggerate them to make your story more interesting? Do you think authors of fiction use things from their own lives in their stories?"
Students nod their heads and a few shout out, "Yes!"
Memoirs in Literature
I tell students, "You know, one of the masters at taking moments from her life and stretching them into stories, and perhaps filling in the gaps with fictional ideas, is Patricia Polacco. Many of her stories are about things she experienced at some time in her life, a lot of them when she was a child."
At this time, I introduce the book, Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco. I read the story and as I do, students are outraged by how the main character is treated. She cannot read and the boys tease her. But her teacher never gives up. He believes in her, and listeners are swept into the story, really caring about whether this child learns to read. At the end, of course, we all get a surprise. We find out who this little girl is: no other than the author of the book, Patricia Polacco.
As I close the book, I ask students to look at this story through writers’ eyes. "What do you think? What did you think of her topic?"
"I think it was a good topic because it was about her," says Tayler.
"Yes, that was a surprise at the end to find out Patricia Polacco had a hard time learning to read and now she is a wonderful author!"
"So this story is about her life?" asks Johnny.
"Yes. She might have been like Flip, adding things to make this story, but she got the idea from her own life."
"Patricia Polacco has written a memoir. A memoir is when an author writes about a specific memory or time in his or her life.
Jolie says, "So, we can write memoirs too?"
"Yes, you might when you write about your life," I answer.
I ask students to consider using their own lives as springboards for writing topics. Think about the "moments" of time. Maybe it is a day, or a week, or just a few minutes of time. Perhaps you found a hermit crab under a beach rock, or were caught in a bed rainstorm. Maybe your dog finally learned the new trick you were teaching him. Remember these moments and write about them. They will make great topics!