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It Seems So Simple

August 22, 2011

One week from tonight, I begin a new venture: teaching a graduate school class on the teaching of writing in the elementary classroom.

>short interlude for jumping up and down with maximal happiness<

In preparation, I just read a chapter from Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli’s Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, K–6. The authors make a strong case for the use of mentor texts in the classroom; mentor texts are exemplars for students to deconstruct, use as guides to define good writing, then attempt to emulate. A great picture book, like Stellaluna for example, can help students learn that not every story has to start with the start of the day, that irrelevant events can be skipped whereas important events can be extended, that the most effective beginnings are usually the tastiest, the most enticing. Adult writers put all the same ideas into practice.

From Dorfman and Cappelli:

“When we talk to students about how the authors of our mentor texts have told their stories, we can help them better understand where to begin their stories and how to make good decisions about what to include and what to leave out. A good beginning leads to a more satisfying ending, and ultimately to a better story. … With lots of modeling, guided conversations, and supported peer talk we can help young writers envision a structure to their life stories. We can help them see that the stories they share have a beginning, middle, and end, just like the stories they hear in the classroom.”

A good story is a good story. Is it a life story? A made-up story? Somewhere in between? If we’re talking about good writing, who cares! A good story is a good story. When we work with the youngest writers, some of whom haven’t yet learned to write anything by hand and are just mimicking picture books as they speak aloud their stories, we don’t note a difference in quality between nonfiction and fiction. We don’t note a difference between nonfiction and fiction in how hard writers try to excel at conventions, voice, ideas, organization, style. The content may be different, but that’s neither here nor there when we talk about what makes good writing.

I’ll never quite understand the various statements floating in the literary community that nonfiction can signal cowardice on the part of the author, fear of entering the imaginative playground. When students present their teachers with life stories or made-up stories or some combination of the two (and believe me, most young writers blend the two without blinking), their teachers look for voice, conventions, style, etc.. They do not respond to the life stories by saying, “This lacks imagination because it’s a life story.” If they do, they’re bad teachers.

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  1. It’s one of the best, for sure. Campus Care entered my mind recently … I was thinking of CPEP, one of the summer jobs I held that kept me on campus, and of all the others who stayed. Summer on campus was excellent!


  2. congrats- that’s awesome about teaching the class! and, very interesting post. I know nothing about teaching people to write (well, unless they’re in college and need to learn to write like scientists- that I can do), but I just have to say in a totally unrelated note that the picture of Stellaluna made me sigh and think nostalgically of my days at Campus Care, what a lovely book that is :).


  3. You are an amazing teacher!! I love that you use picture books. I wonder how many high school teachers do. It’s such a great idea! I thought about them in terms of elementary and middle school, but there’s no age limit really. And like you said, high schoolers could use a good dose of picture book fun.

    If I had to do a second lecture, I would love to do it on this. Maybe we can co-guest-lecture one residency. Wouldn’t that be fun! 🙂


  4. Yay, Suzanne! Congrats on the teaching gig. 🙂 I use children’s books with my high school creative writing students in this exact way; it’s wonderful to see them approach literature–stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, yes!–with the same excitement they had for it when they were small, when they hadn’t yet learned that they were or were not good at reading it/talking about it/deconstructing it/etc. Please let us know how the class goes. If your lecture was any indication, your students will love your apt insights and sweet self.


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