Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

When Teachers Write: Strategies to Build Better Characters + 2 Free Resources!

I'm a HUGE Robin Williams fan. His rapid-fire comedy fascinates me, and I can't help but think that perhaps his synapses fired a little faster than the rest of ours. His visit to the Actor's Studio is one of my favorite recordings to revisit.  He takes a woman's scarf and riffs over 20 characterizations with it, like a scatting jazz artist. Every time I watch it, I can't help but wonder what kind of characters he would've created had he turned his attention to writing. 

Creating characters with students is so much fun.  The possibilities are endless. However, if we want our students to "go deep" with their characters, we need them to write with intention.  How do we get our writers to engage in that kind of thinking in writer's workshop?

Believe it or not, it happens in reader's workshop! As teachers of reading, we are so adept at talking about characters.  We compare and contrast them and make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections.  We pay attention to their actions and personalities to predict their next moves. We use their inner worlds to make inferences about their problems.  We often miss out on transformational discussions if we go no further than that. 

Think about reader's and writer's workshops as two hemispheres of the language arts brain.  The two hemispheres are connected by a corpus callosum. There must be talk that bridges the two workshops in order for students take their learning about characters into their writing.  The particular type of talk and thinking you do with your students about the author's writing acts as the corpus callosum between the two workshop hemispheres.  

For example, my students and I were reading Bridge to Terabithia by Katharine Paterson.  We were discussing the Jesse character.  As readers, my kids were drawing parallels between Jesse and Hollis Woods in Pictures of Hollis Woods. They noticed that both characters used their art as a way of connecting with others. Both characters were emotionally isolated.  Both characters transformed because of their artwork. This was good stuff. This was deep stuff. But, I wanted to go farther. I wanted them to think like writers. So I asked, "Why do you think Katharine Paterson and Patricia Reilly Giff give their characters their art props...their art habits? Why did they make those decisions?"

This type of questioning opened up our dialogue about author's craft.  Students began and then continued to notice the intentional decisions our authors were making.  This helped them make better reading predictions because they realized that there are no accidental happenings in stories.  "Katharine Paterson didn't just wake up one day and say, 'Hmmmm. I think I'll make Jesse an artist instead of a jock.'" I told them. 

When this type of  talk and thinking go on over the course of an entire school year, writer's workshop comes alive. The questioning you do in reader's workshop is like a massage for the language arts corpus callosum! One of the side effects of thinking like a writer in reader's workshop is that students will begin to apply that thinking to their own characters.  

You can see it when you hold writing conferences with your students.  Recently, I was conferring with a student about a fiction story he was writing.  He had created a "Captain Underpants" kind of character. Inwardly, I cringed a little.  It wasn't the depth of character I was hoping to encounter in my students' writing. But I kept an open mind. 

Me: So tell me about the thinking you're doing today as a writer.

Student: Well, I'm creating this superhero character. He's going to be a character who defends older brothers and sisters against their little brothers and sisters.  

Me: Tell me more.

Student:  In the scene I'm working on, the big brother and little brother are at the water park.  The little brother keeps giving the big brother wedgies in front of his friends.  

Me: So what does the superhero character do?

Student: He's going to swoop down and teach the little brother a lesson. 

Me: Like tell the parents?

Student: No. My superhero character wouldn't do that. 

Me: What do you mean? Why not?

Student: Superheroes are supposed to give out their own justice. They don't call the cops. 

Me (working hard to suppress a giggle): Ohhhh. I see what you mean. So what powers does your superhero have? How will he enact justice?

The writing conference continued.  When I look back on this, I notice something important. My student was being intentional. He was thinking about who his character was going to be and what actions made sense based on those rules. Even more impressive, he felt empowered to defend his writing decisions.

Check out some questions that can massage your students' corpus callosums below. If you click on the graphic, you'll find a downloadable version.

Teaching writing is not an easy task, especially when you don't view yourself as a writer.  But in order for your students to think like writers, there has to be a connection between the reading and writing workshops. The corpus callosum must be massaged...frequently!  Higher level questioning is just one way to help your students develop their characters. 

I've included a writer's notebook page for your students to use when writing and crafting new characters.  You can find a downloadable version by clicking on the chart below.

Next Wednesday, we'll be exploring setting and descriptive writing, as well as a new product that will help your writing conferences pop with power! Until then, write on!

If you missed last week's post, the start of this writing series, click here!


When Teachers Write: 7 Strategies for You and Your Students When Getting Started is Tough

I do not sit down at my desk to put to verse something that is already clear in my mind. If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it. We do not write in order to be understood. We write in order to understand.
                                                                                                     ---C.S. Lewis

The  end-of-the-school-year build up felt particularly hard this year---like a climb uphill carrying a 100 pound pack while wearing too tight hiking boots with cotton socks. My brain felt blistered.  I'm a believer that one can not deny her true self forever. Trying to do so leads to unhappiness, and I find that what I'm trying to deny or restrain ends up oozing out of my pores eventually.  

I've been a writer since elementary school. While other kids rolled their eyes and groaned at the newest writing assignment, I relished them and often did more just for "extra credit." When I entered the teaching field in 1991, I felt I was relinquishing my writing dreams.  But starting this blog and my TpT journey has helped me reclaim those dreams. 

I recently dusted off manuscripts, complete and incomplete, from years ago.  And I have a new one in the works.  And it won't go away.  It's oozing out of my pores and comes into my mind at the oddest of times.  And so, this is my summer of writing. I don't mean dabbling. I mean writing 4 hours every day. Every day. Because I have to. School let out on June 16th for me. That's last Friday. I've already begun to write. 

But because I am a writer who also teaches, I'm very interested in learning lessons from my own writing processes that I can pass on to my students.  We know that learners and teachers learn from doing.  Every Wednesday until school begins (the last week in August), I will be writing on this blog about my own writing process and offering tips and lessons for your writers in your classroom. My lessons have already begun. They began on Saturday morning, June 17th. Here is what I've learned about writing, so far:

As I began writing my manuscript the day after school let out, I was struck by a tsunami of anxiety.  It was almost overwhelming.  Thoughts like, "This idea sucks." and "Who do you think you are?" hovered over my head as I put pencil to paper.  I pushed through, however and was able to begin. HOW I was able to do that made me think about my own students who struggle to begin.  What could I share with them? Here's what I discovered about beginning...

  1. Start by sketching.  Words weren't coming to me at first, even though they had been for weeks before I sat down with my writer's notebook.  So I sketched at first.  This helped my brain relax.
  2. Use a pen, especially if you are a perfectionist. Using a pen is messy. It allows for all of your ideas to to be seen...even the ones you think are crappy.  Later on, when you've had some distance between you and the page, you might not think they aren't so crappy. If you erase them, you're missing out on opportunities to rediscover and remember. Students are famous for wearing down their erasers instead of their pencil leads.
  3. Talk to the voice in your head. That's write. Talk to the voice that is telling you that your idea(s) or story is worthless. Tell it to shut up. Or, tell it that if you don't believe in yourself, no one else will either.
4. Write this: I don't know what to write...I don't know what to write...I don't know what to right. Sounds weird, I know.  But the simple act of getting your pen or pencil on the paper will start the process. Eventually, the words will come.

5. Write out of sequence. Sometimes, beginnings are the hardest for me.  I've learned to skip them if I'm really hung up. I will start writing a scene that my mind can't seem to stop seeing, instead.

6. Phone a friend. One thing I have discovered both as a teacher AND as a writer, is that I need to orally rehearse.  That's right. I'm almost 50 years old, and I need to tell my stories to trusted friends. Doing so makes me a much better writer. My fifth graders need to do this, too. Sometimes, I tell my stories to them.  They HELP ME when I'm stuck. I've learned to build this practice into my classroom writer's workshop, as well as my personal writing process.

7. Research if you can't write. Sometimes, I just can't begin writing the story in my head. So, I research details I know I'll need to tell my story.  My last few sessions, I've been researching trees and how they communicate with each other.  Researching keeps me moving in the right direction when my writing anxiety feels overwhelming.  Wouldn't this work for my students, too?

I'm really looking forward to pushing myself as a writer this summer.  Even if my manuscripts are never published, I will be able to say I've finished something. I've tried. I've grown from the effort, both as a teacher and writer.  

Be sure to stop by every Wednesday to hear more about "When Teachers Write..." And, feel free to tell me about your own writing journey by commenting on this post!

I've put together these seven strategies into a little interactive notebook page for you to use with your students. You can download it by clicking the picture below. Enjoy and please leave some feedback love if you're appreciative.

You might also be interested in this!


See you on Sunday, for my regularly scheduled post! Come back to read about an different kind of book tasting event. Until next time...