A Beautiful Voyage: Winter Ventures in Writing Workshop

by Elizabeth Oosterheert, Contributing Writer

Construction begins on the Hispaniola.

This month, I’ve been thinking about how much writing has in common with building…

So much must be built for authentic writing to occur. Writing workshop teachers must be facilitators of choice, demonstrators of what risk looks like, and intentional collaborators who conference with students and illustrate the definition of community.  

Winter is bittersweet. The flavor of goodbye begins to linger on my tongue as in my school, I  only have one trimester left with students I love; yet at the same time I feel unspeakable joy as I consider all of the ways students have grown during the past months.

In addition to teaching readers’ and writers’ workshops, I direct our 8th Grade Theatre Troupe, and this winter, three of my students approached me with an idea that had never been proposed at our school before. They wanted to build the Hispaniola for our winter production of Treasure Island, and they assured me that they had the blueprint, the tools, and the experience to build a seaworthy vessel. Their only request? Could they bring their tools to school? I told them I would ask our principal and get back to them.

With his consent, the boys began their construction project. They were committed to working on their shipbuilding during any spare moment that arose during the school day, from study hall to staying after school with me for as long as I was willing to linger in the building.

As I watched the ship take shape,  I considered how much writing and construction have in common. 

  1. Both require the right tools–and what are the best “tools” that we can give our student writers? Excellent mentor texts, choice about how to approach their writing and sometimes what writing mode or discipline they are going to employ, AND the gifts of time in writing conferences and space for listening to them–in their conversations with us and with one another as they craft writing that is nothing short of extraordinary.
  2. Precision is important. For the Hispaniola to be seaworthy, its designers had to have the correct measurements so that every piece of lumber fit together like part of a puzzle. In the same way, good writers are exacting. They consider each word and how well it “fits” with its fellows. They wonder about the impact of elements such as point of view. Writers must revise, and the same can be true of builders to ensure that the final product is all that they dream that it can be.
  3. Both writing and building are, as Shakespeare famously said, the stuff that dreams are made of. In construction with lumber OR construction with words, the craftsman imagines what is possible, and dreams of what might be. This leads to beautiful homes, and breathtaking word pictures.
  4. Humility is a hero. Humility isn’t weak. Humility sees that there is always room for growth, and celebrates not only his accomplishments, but all of the ways that he can make the process better or more impactful next time. Humility is a lifelong learner, whether he’s building a staircase or a sentence.

So what were my student writers been building in workshop this winter as the Hispaniola prepared to set sail on stage? 

Message in a Bottle Narratives : Thanks to Xochitl Bentley and Ruta Sepetys for the idea of keeping our stories alive by choosing tiny but important moments to share with others. As mentor texts for this, I used excerpts from Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Students chose snapshots from their lives that they wanted to capture in writing (their messages in a bottle) and also engaged in word studies for their pieces by creating Google slides sharing five words that were important to their topics. I chose Peter Pan as my topic. My slides are linked here. 

Podcast Scripts: Ever since I experienced isolation from my students when our school was closed due to the pandemic, I’ve been grateful for the connection that arises from inviting students to shelter in podcasts. We begin our study of podcasts by listening to excerpts from professional podcasts on a variety of topics and we agree on elements that are non-negotiable such as  having an engaging introduction, including authentic body details, and designing an exit “strategy” for the podcast that works. I give students several choices for directions they can go with their podcasts, and invite them to record using Anchor.fm. The result? Student podcasts about everything from football to PBS Kids series. Podcast scripts provide students with a cool new mode of writing to experiment with, AND Anchor gives them the space to add “extras” like music and images for their podcasts in addition to selecting fitting titles and writing descriptions for each podcast episode. Our podcast notes template is linked here.

What happened with the construction of the Hispaniola? I assisted my boys with painting the ship once construction was complete, and the result was a proud and beautiful ship that we used for our annual theater trip to area schools AND that we will reuse as we have our Winter Showcase coming up in just a few days. It’s difficult to count all of the ways that I loved this project, but what I loved best was that an idea that was entirely conceived by students came to life, and that students were invited to use skills that aren’t typically connected with the traditional definition of school to create something that blessed and will continue to bless their classmates and our larger school community.

The Proud and Beautiful Hispaniola, with the PC Winter Theatre Troupe

What are you building in your workshops this winter? How are you sheltering in words with your students, and creating extraordinary things?

Share your thoughts in the comments, or send me an email at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theater arts teacher in central Iowa. She enjoys writing poetry and plays with her students, and recently completed a script for a November 2021 production of Arabian Nights.

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