“You have all the tools you need to plan minilessons in the students before you. The secret is to be willing to flail around together through the murky mystery of how to get to the heart of story.” -Penny Kittle, Write Beside Them, 2008
A few weeks ago, in preparation for a unit on personal narrative, I was rereading (for at least the 4th time) a chapter from Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them. Upon rereading these words, I immediately thought of my student Dani. Just yesterday she’d stayed after class to revise a piece of writing. The assignment, to write a snapshot moment, was the first formal writing piece of the semester (an idea I also gleaned from Kittle), and she was determined to get it just right.
Dani was writing about a semi-traumatic, semi-humorous event from a few months prior when, rushing to leave school, she rear ended a school bus. Dani was struggling with her beginning.
“What comes to mind first when you think of that day?” I’d ask a few days earlier.
“All I could see was yellow.”
“That’s perfect!” I was excited for her to begin this piece and just wanted her to get words on the page. “Start there, and then go back in time to show us the events leading up to hitting the bus.”
But today, after rewriting and reworking and just re-everything, we both realized the beginning wasn’t working.
“Okay,” I told her, “so scratch that first sentence and let’s find a new way to begin this.” I thought she’d be hesitant to delete something she spent a lot of time thinking about; many of my students are and I understand. Sometimes it takes days of my gentle prodding for them to get words on a page. And after so much work, they certainly cannot imagine deleting those precious words. But Dani loved it, and felt relief from deleting something that clearly wasn’t working. We spent another hour on the piece. I continued to make suggestions about totally deleting sections or being more specific with the details of the actual event, reminding her she was writing a snapshot, not an entire narrative.
“I’m worried there will be nothing left.”
I assured her that by keeping only the most important details, the ones that evoked the senses and allowed the reader to feel the intensity of the moment, she’d have a stronger piece than if she included every minute detail leading up to the actual event. And then she went back to work, eagerly adjusting and rewriting.
The type of revision Dani was engaged in felt authentic; she could see the piece improving in front of her and I could see she was pleased with the results. I wanted to infuse this into my other twenty-two students, so I asked if she’d walk the class through her revision process.
The next day Dani used the “See Revision History” tool in Google Docs to show the class how she revised her snapshot moment.
It wasn’t easy for her to talk through the process, though, and I was surprised at how often I had to remind her what decisions she’d made while revising. I asked her to tell the class why she’d deleted a section or rewrote another, and this proved to be a challenge. Dani is a very outspoken student, so I thought it would be easy for her. Then I recalled Kittle’s words: flail, murky, mystery. Right. It wasn’t easy for Dani to describe the process because she was just learning it and it’s not a simple process with easy to follow steps.
And isn’t that the lesson of revision? It’s murky and mysterious and you’re going to spend A LOT of time flailing around, as Dani had done. I’m hoping that’s what my students realized as Dani showed the evolution (again, the Google Docs Revision History tool was so helpful in this lesson) of her piece.
From these drafts we see so much about the revision process.
We see that sentences must be deleted or rewritten.
We see that sometimes you have to rewrite the beginning many, many times.
We see that you have to rearrange paragraphs. Or delete paragraphs. Or save paragraphs at the bottom, in case you want them later.
We see that you have to do a lot of thinking.
And then we see a final snapshot that gives us all the details and emotions of the event, and leaves us wanting to know the rest of the story. Dani may continue this story and develop it into a longer narrative in our next unit, or she may start with a new topic and leave this be. Either way, Dani, and hopefully the class, learned what it truly means to revise, and I learned the power of using my students as mentors in the writing workshop.
Colleen Kiley teaches high school English in Bristol, Vermont, a rural town nestled in the foothills of the Green Mountains. She is passionate about connecting each student to the right book and was a 2015 Book Love Foundation grant winner. Inspired by the wonderful teachers at Three Teachers Talk and Moving Writers, she is continually trying to improve her approach to the writer’s workshop. You can reach her on Twitter at @ckiley4.
Tagged: Mini-lesson: Writing