The best thing I’ve discovered about pushing into classrooms this year for writing help has been seeing the progressions of lessons in Lucy Calkins Writing Units of Study. Every student in the school is working on small moments, using the same kind of vocabulary, and building up their writing in similar ways. Even though I’m not in their classrooms everyday, I have a big picture of the kind of stuff each student is working on and working towards.
One problem we’ve noticed is that the WUOS assumes that students have had this curriculum for all the years leading up to this one. Unfortunately, that means our fifth graders are really learning how to be authors the same way the first graders are. A big part of my job as I go from room to room seems to be therapeutic! I’m talking to teachers about the good work they’re doing, assuring them that the problems they see aren’t unique to their classroom, helping them make sense of the big BIG picture of what this will look like in a few years when the first graders I’m working with are in their fifth grade classrooms.
A few weeks ago when we got started, I had multiple conversations with teachers about students finding it difficult to write a SMALL moment. A lot of them were trying to write about a whole day, or a vacation they took, or even the first YEAR they were at this school. It’s an especially difficult concept to understand in fifth grade when the majority of the things you read are novels which tell many small moments to make a whole book.
Lucy Calkins uses the metaphor of a watermelon to explain that a vacation is a watermelon, one adventure on the vacation is a slice of watermelon, and waiting in line for a ride at the adventure is your SEED (or small moment)... And that first year story? That’s a watermelon patch. The image is helpful for students, but the fifth graders were still struggling to pare down their stories. They resisted editing it down. Maybe that’s a good thing because they had so much to tell, but sadly it made their writing vague and uninteresting.
My first lesson was on getting down to a small moment. I came prepared with my own examples and lots of energy (maybe a little TOO MUCH energy for one class…). I told students I had been walking around in lots of different classrooms and I kept noticing that our small moment stories were getting bigger and bigger and bigger until we had watermelon stories (or even watermelon patch stories!). Then I did a Think Aloud about how I came up with my own small moment story. It’s the same small moment story I have been using in each of my push in classes showing how I’m revising, adding more, and bringing it to life.
“When I was listening to Mr. Johnson talk last week about how to get ideas for stories, he mentioned writing about the first time you did something, the last time you did something, or a time you learned an important lesson, and it hit me! I could write about my last time going to the beach. I love going to the beach so it’s something I remember very well. But then I started to think about all the things that happened that day that I would have to include and I realized, this isn’t a small moment story. My “Going to the Beach” story is a slice story with a lot of small seed stories in it!”
At this point, I pulled up the anchor chart I made (without post its) and asked a student to read the text. I pulled out the post it note that said “my last trip to the beach” and placed it under the picture of the watermelon slice.
“I remember that day that my friend found a secret spot for us and it was so quiet and peaceful there. I was so glad we had some privacy that day. That’s one small moment from my slice story.”
I placed a sticky note that said “Secret spot” under the seeds. I also drew a sketch of a voice bubble saying “Shhhhh!” as a reminder for myself.
“I drew a quick picture on the post it note to help remind myself what I was thinking. I like pictures because they help my brain keep things straight. You can do that too. My next small moment was sharing snacks with my friend. I remember we were eating the yogurt covered pretzels and they started to melt and get all over our hands! That maybe wasn’t the best snack to bring to the beach on a hot day…”
I placed a sticky note that said “Sharing snacks” with a sketch of a pretzel under the seeds.
“Then I thought about how when I was walking to our spot, I took off my flip flops to walk in the sand, but the sand was so hot I burned my toes and got blisters on them right away!”
I placed a sticky note that said “Burned my feet” with a sketch of a foot under the seeds.
“And finally I remember how a dead fish washed up on the shore and it was so smelly I couldn’t stand it! There were people by the fish and they buried it and performed a funeral! It was so funny and the fish smell went away so I was thankful!”
I placed a sticky note that said “Dead fish” with a sketch of a dead fish under the seeds.
“So, writers, I can write each one of these small moments if I want and now that they’re on sticky notes, I have reminders of all the things I wanted to include in these stories. But right now I want to focus in on ONE of those stories so that I can tell all the little details about what happened. The one that sticks out to me the most right now is the one about my feet burning. I remember how painful it was and how surprised and upset I was see blisters on my toes!”
“Now I want you to look at the story you’re working on and decide if it’s really a small moment story or if you might have a couple of small moments like I did when I wanted to write about going to the beach. If you have lots of small moments, turn and tell a partner each of your small moments and decide which one you want to focus on right now. That doesn’t mean you can’t write the other ones later!”
Student turned and talked and I asked a few students to share.
“Now when you go back to your writing spots, I want you to focus in on one seed moment and then we can add them all together later if you want!”
The students went off and wrote and every single one of them wrote perfect tiny little small moments full of detail and feeling.
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Just kidding.
They did start realizing when they were working on a big idea and in conferences we talked about each of the small moments they had and I helped them pick one on which to focus. And the next week when I came back I noticed that Mr. Johnson had given students sticky notes on which to record some ideas for their small moments (with a sketch!) in their notebooks for later. Since then, we’ve done a lot of work to refine those moments and make them interesting and rich. I’m seeing some good changes and I hope to share some student work with you later. For now, you’ll have to enjoy my lovely story about my blister feet.