National Writing Project

Writing with William

By: Margaret Simon
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1
Date: 2005

Summary: Simon describes tutoring a fifth–grader in writing, introducing him to techniques such as sentence variety. His writing remains lusterless. Then he chooses a topic he's passionate about and finds his writing voice.

 

When William's mom called to ask me to tutor him in writing, my first thought was, "Yuck, mechanics." So I asked her, "How are his grades in English?"

"Oh, he makes A's," she said, and then added hesitantly. "But when he writes . . . well, it's just not very good."

"So you just want me to make him a better writer?"

"Yes, that's it. Do you think you can do it?"

Inspiring a child to be a better writer; "Is that something I could do?" I wondered. My most recent experience had been with third-graders. William was a fifth-grader. I enjoy teaching writing but had never thought of myself as a writing teacher. I am a third grade teacher. I had not taught William in third grade, but I supposed I had a reputation that would lead this parent my way. Would my actual teaching live up to my reputation?

"Why me?" I thought aloud.

"I know you are a supporter of good writing by the work you do on the writing contest," Mrs. Gibson said. "I think you could show William some ways to make his writing more interesting."

Such confidence she had in me. I was unsure of her expectations, and I was intimidated by my own insecurities.

Nonetheless William and I began meeting on Wednesday afternoons for an hour after school. Before our first meeting, I ran to a colleague's classroom. "I'm going to be tutoring William in writing," I said. "Where should I start?"

My colleague had been tutoring another fifth-grader all year long, so she gave me a book of various writing activities that she used. One of the activities was designed to help develop more descriptive sentences. I also had a book of writing prompts. So I was ready with my ditto sheets and my enthusiasm.

At our first meeting, I showed William the worksheet on descriptive sentences. Picking the sentence "The kitten is lost," William and I discussed what made a sentence more interesting. "Look into your mind's eye," I suggested. "Imagine the scene. When did this happen? Why is the kitten lost? Where is it? Who finds the kitten? How did the kitten feel?"

As we moved forward, "The kitten was lost" became "Yesterday, in a long gloomy alley, a kitten, scared and helpless, wrapped around an intruder's leg." William and I were having fun with this project.

"Let's do another one," he pleaded. This time, choosing the sentence "We made a mess," I suggested William use his own experience. "When have you made a mess of your room?" I prompted him.

Soon "We made a mess" became "While we were looking for my socks, we destroyed my [room]." And "Dad bought a new car" became "My dad unexpectedly purchased a shiny, red Chevrolet at Lincoln Ford."

William and I began talking about his writing. "What do you have problems with?" I asked.

He answered, "I don't have trouble coming up with ideas. I just get stuck after a while. I don't know what else to write."

The next week, in response to an assignment I had given him, William came in with a letter he had written to the President. The letter addressed the current issue of war in Iraq. I asked William if the assignment had raised any issues for him or given him ideas about something he might like to work on.

"I don't know when to use different types of sentences," he answered immediately. "I know what they are, but when should I use a question or an exclamation?" His question highlighted an issue that I had never realized could be a problem for students. My job as a teacher was to teach students about different types of sentences. Did I also need to teach them when to use each type? Well, of course, I realized then.

In answer to William's question, we looked at his letter. After reading it together, we added an exclamation to the first paragraph and a question later in the piece. We reread the revision (seen below) to hear how the two new sentences added interest.

Dear Mr. President,

What a mess we have made in Iraq! I think you should start Iraq with the building and let Iraq finish it. It is already taking a lot of money and effort. If you don't want to do that you at least need to send new troops and equipment to let the soldiers who have been there have a break.

I think you should let the Iraqi people decide about Saddam's sentence. What do you think they would do? I think that Saddam should have a life sentence in prison. Good luck with deciding.

William

From our work, I could see that William needed to play with types of sentences, so I gave him this homework assignment.

If you could visit any country in the world, where would you go? Remember to:

  • Ask questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why?
  • Show passion, interest, and conviction. Remember, if you are not interested, neither will your reader be.
  • Use a variety of sentence types but limit your uses to only one or two questions and exclamations.

We worked together with his resulting piece to include a variety of sentences. He saw how they worked to create interest.

If I could visit any country, I would visit China. I would like to see the Great Wall of China. What a great experience that would be! I might be the first kid from our school to see it. I would like to learn about their heritage. I want to know about their history and language. I think it will be awesome. How will I get there? I think I'll go on a hot air balloon. What a great adventure it will be!

This writing was a good completion of the assignment, but again, I felt that my prompt had not found the writer within William. Where could I find that spark, the individual voice that was William's alone? How could I lead William to discover for himself the writer within?

I asked him to try something different for his homework. "Write for twenty minutes straight," I suggested and gave him the simple prompt of "If you were on television," followed by a list of questions to get his thoughts going. The next week he brought me his results.

If I was on television, I would like to perform for a hilarious cartoon commercial. I want to be on that television show because when I was a little boy, I wanted to be on a funny commercial. I would never be late or miss rehearsal. I would wear the Bugs Bunny costume or any other crackpot costume. Today, I decided that I wouldn't like to be famous. I don't want to have to sit down and sign boring autographs and fan mail. I wish I still could have a lot of time with the awesome family of mine. 7 minutes left. I'm stuck.

I could see the assignment had been difficult. When I asked why this had been so hard, he told me that after a while he just ran out of ideas. Once he had answered all the questions, he simply felt stuck. His writing had been confined by the questions and the limited space on the worksheet. I pointed out to him that his piece had taken on a new direction when he decided that being famous would not be all that great. He said, "I really want to be a banker like my dad. I like math, and I am good at it."

William's words caught my attention. Perhaps, it occurred to me, a given prompt can close the door on a student's thinking and writing rather than opening it. I could see that William was used to responding to teacher-given writing prompts, but if I wanted him to find his own voice, I needed him to write about what he loved. Perhaps, like William, many students discover that what they want to write about is not part of the "assignment," so their thoughts are stifled rather than inspired.

"William, you need to write about what you are passionate about," I said. "Tell me about a recent journal prompt that you liked."

He told me about a story he had written when given the prompt "What bird would you like to be?" His mom said he should write about being an eagle and soaring high in the clouds. "But I wanted to be a penguin. I like to imagine what it would be like to be in a penguin family." William needed to know that writing about a penguin family was a good idea, so I asked him to bring his story to our next session. When I read the story, I could see that he hadn't really written a story about what it would be like to be in a penguin family. In essence the story was William's own story about his family moving to a new place; it revolved around his worries about fitting in and making new friends. I suggested keeping the framework of the story but adding in details that would make it about a penguin and not about a boy. He caught on quickly, suggesting he could work in "a sleigh taxi, an igloo home."

I laughed with him at his suggestions, "Yes, that's the idea. Your details will make your readers more interested in your penguin character." I encouraged him to work on the story.

At our next meeting, I needed no dittos. I was ready to give William tools to get him "unstuck," so my plan was to introduce William to word webbing, a concept that I have found works well for generating ideas for writing. As I began to explain the idea to him, William interrupted me.

"I already have an idea," he said. "Can I just write?"

"Sure," I answered a little surprised. "Go ahead."

When I was a little boy living with my Pa and Ma in the Virginia territory, there was no electricity. We had to make a fire to cook our food. And for us kids, we didn't have those TV's or electronic games.

It was a start. William was writing using what he had learned in social studies class, but he also was using voice. "William, do you hear the voice in this beginning? You are using what you know and creating a character who speaks to his audience." He was pleased. Maybe he was a writer after all, and perhaps I was a writing teacher.

In The Muses Among Us, Kim Stafford compares teaching to the act of discovery in writing:

Maybe it's the same with teaching. Some days when I tell my wife I'm not ready for class, she tells me I should not have more answers than my students have questions. I should be alert to meet them in the presence of their own writing. We will negotiate a learning sequence around a set of experiences we share and a common thread we discover." (2003, 81)

Should it be any different for a teacher and a fifth-grader than it is for a professor and his college students? As Stafford's words suggested, William and I were discovering what we needed as writers. Like Stafford, I was not going into each tutoring session with an agenda. This was due partly to the time factor—I was busy with the plans for my own classroom—but I also had decided that I would see what William needed and go on from there.

William and I were becoming more comfortable with each other. We were talking more freely about writing as something with which we both struggled. I decided it was time to stop using teacher-created prompts altogether and just write together. In my third grade classroom, we had been discussing the use of metaphor and simile in writing. I had given the students a simple exercise to describe their favorite color with similes using all the senses. Blue smells like, tastes like, looks like, and so on. Knowing that figurative language can add interest to a piece of writing, I asked William to give this exercise a try.

"William, do you know what a simile is?" I asked. He did. "Okay. Then think of something you are passionate about."

"Ice hockey," he responded without hesitation. So while I began a piece about art, William wrote,

Skating as swift as a bird,
Zigzagging in and out,
Passing the last defender at the speed of light,
Legs are pounding like my heart.
Lungs are straining
Shooting with my last strength,
The puck is going up and down like the bobbing of a cork in water.
Goalie raising his glove like the sun overhead.
Clock is counting down 3, 2, 1 as fast as you can say Goal!
Buzzers ringing as loud as a church bell,
Teammates pile on top of me,
Flattening me into a pancake,
Time for a sundae with a bright red cherry as shiny as Rudolf's nose!

He had done it! I was so excited about his poem that I gushed for a while. "William, this is great! You have really drawn me a picture here. I can see it, hear it, and even taste it! See what can happen when you write about something you love?"

Choosing his own topic had freed William to find his writing voice. Using metaphor was a means to writing about his ideas. The tool led him to his own prompt: ice hockey. All along, as I had begun to suspect, my well-meaning prompts had been closing the door for William to write about his own ideas. But this time I had given him the freedom to write about his passion and shown him that his voice was important.

William and I continued to discover our writing lives, our similarities, and our differences. I have always enjoyed poetry partly because of its brevity—quick and to the point. I had attended a workshop, led by Sandford Lyne of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on writing poetry using word groups. Lyne says that catching poems is like fishing and sometimes all you need is the right bait. The word groups he uses consist of four words; three have something in common, and the fourth is a word that gives the other three a little twist. The results have fascinated me as a writer and are fun to use with my writing students. I introduced the bait to William. First, we wrote a poem together using the words dance, girls, restless, and plain. We wrote,

I dance at the rodeo.
Girls oohing.
Boys awing.
Crowds restless like the grassy plains of Texas.

Then William and I each picked our own word group from which to write. I chose open, window, camellias, and peace. William chose footprints, grasshopper, circles, and path. I created this poem:

I dream of a place among the branches of camellias
Opening their blossoms to the morning sun.
Peace resides here and draws me in
Beckoning like a window to the light.
Come sit here a while with me.

When I read my poem aloud to William, he said, "You like to write about sentimental things, like flowers and peace. I don't write like that. I write differently." William's poem:

We're lost, we're lost;
We wander off the path
Look for footprints everyone.
I found one.
It's a bear's footprint.
Chirp! Chirp!
Ah! Run! Run as fast as you can.
Can't catch me,
I'm the running human.
Splash!
Help! I'm drowning. I'm drowning!
Swaying in circles.
Down,
Down
I go.

Not only was William discovering his unique voice, but he was also having a good time choosing his own topics. He was developing a sense of play with language. I was delighted.

Our time came to an end rather abruptly as various activities got in the way of our continued meetings. At his mother's suggestion, I started an after-school writing class. At her first suggestion, I mused, "But I just do what I do with my class."

"Not all teachers do what you do," was her response. "Others will benefit as well from some creative writing practice."

She was right: I had thirteen students sign up for the first five-week session. It was fun for me to teach without any worry over grading. Our goal was to write and have fun. That we did.

At some point in the experience of writing with William, I found The New Yorker waiting for me on my kitchen table one evening. My husband said I just had to read the article "Last of the Metrozoids" by Adam Gopnik (2004). "It's about teaching and coaching. I think it will speak to you," he said. In this article Gopnik writes a beautiful story of art historian Kirk Varnedoe coaching his son's flag football team. Kirk was the kind of coach that "did not make him think it was easy. He did not make him think he had done it if he hadn't. He made him think that he could do it if he chose" (90). That's what I wanted to be as a writing teacher: a coach.

Gopnik continues, "The real teachers and coaches may offer a charismatic model—they probably have to—but then they insist that all the magic they have to offer is a commitment to repetition and perseverance. The great oracle may enthrall, but the really great teachers demystify. . . . A teacher gives us his subject, and then ourselves." (90)

The ice hockey poem had opened the door for William to see the value of his own ideas while using the tools I had offered him. I realized my writing prompts were not what he needed. He had ideas; he needed a coach on the sidelines cheering him on.

At the final meeting of the after-school writing class, William surprised me by bringing his penguin story for Author's Chair. I had not seen anything of the story beyond his first draft some twelve weeks before—during the five weeks of our after-school writing workshop, William had written other things. I was further surprised to learn that he had been working on the story at home, away from his writing peers and me, and all on his own. He eagerly volunteered to read and walked with confidence to the chair set in front of his family, his writing peers, and the other guests. He read the piece expressively. The story had new life with the addition of penguin characteristics, and his title captured our interest: "The Year of Surprises." His character's home was an igloo on a glacier, his breakfast was a Popsicle, and his friends had become other penguin chicks. William had used figurative language. He read, "As the day broke, I had so many ice cubes in my stomach." The audience laughed and cheered.

William was a writer, I thought, cheering proudly for him from the side.

And I was a writing coach.

References

Gopnik, A. 2004. "Last of the Metrozoids," The New Yorker, May 10, 82–91.

Lyne, S. 1997. "Writing Poetry: Every Student Can." John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Stafford, K. 2003. The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

About the Author Margaret Simon is a teacher-consultant with the National Writing Project of Acadiana, Louisiana. She teaches third grade at Ascension Day School in Lafayette, Louisiana.

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