#Celebratelu: Celebrating sixth graders and memoir

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

Memoir Pic

I have a confession to make, ever since I first read Katherine Bomer’s brilliant how-to-teach-memoir book Writing a Life , I’ve borrowed her line about why to teach memoir when I introduce the genre to my sixth graders: “…people also write so that they can know what they think and feel about their lives, and that is what I want to teach you how to do in these next few weeks.”  Because, my kids are at that stage when they are beginning to think and feel deeply, they want insight into their world and into themselves, and they absolutely sit up a little straighter at the thought of being able to write about these ideas in a way that honors their memories and the people they see themselves becoming.

We came to the end of our unit on writing memoir on Friday with a writing celebration – four weeks of discovering what memoir sounds like and feels like, and what sifting through memories to find ways to make them sing through our writing can gift us: lovely memoir gems.

My kids wrote about friends lost and found, about their grandparents and what they learned in small moments found in their company on ordinary days, and lessons learned at practice, on the playground, and in the school cafeteria.

I love this unit. I love hearing my students practice the habit and language of reflection, I love the realizations they make along the way about who they are and where they are from and who they want to be.  Reaching for Katherine Bomer’s inimitable words again:

The reasons to read and write memoir are as enormous as the world, as ancient as history, as crucial as human life. And they are also as seemingly small as to give one person, reading one story, the hope to keep living.

I think about this experience as I remember our Friday celebration.  Over the last four weeks, we learned to read and write memoir and I celebrate that.

#Celebratelu: Heart mapping our way to revising essay


Celebrate with Ruth Ayres @ ruth ayres writes  …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

It was a short and rather odd school week.  We had Monday and Tuesday off for February Break, and my kiddos returned to the classroom wearing Spring attire and feeling Spring fever due to weirdly warm temperatures.  I opened all our classroom windows to let in as much fresh air as I could, and we celebrated being able to do that.  Warm breezes and sandals feel odd in February…but we all know that winter is not done quite yet, so we need to enjoy this reprieve while it lasts.

We have been essaying in Room 202, first reading mentor texts, then choosing topics and drafting our own essays, and now beginning to revise and refine our work.  On Friday, we gathered together with our most recent drafts, the ones we were about to finalize for our writing celebration on Monday, to talk each other through how we would peer edit and offer each other constructive criticism.

The nature of essay writing demands that  each writer brings their own individual voice to their journey of thought: there is no prescribed formula, for the very idea of this kind of essay is to allow each writer to forge their own creative path through their thinking in order to arrive at their destination.  Some may meander, and some may be more direct, but each will have the freedom to allow their idiosyncrasies, their peculiar writing tics, to be evident on the page as a stamp of who they are as writers and thinkers.  Indeed, this is what we were most looking forward to as we dove into essay writing.   Over the course of the drafting process, I kept these words from The Journey is Everything – my “Bible of essay writing” – of Katherine Bomer’s:

As teachers of writing, if we do agree to abandon the “thug and bully thesis” (Ballenger 2013), and to forestall the use of clever formulas and predictable structures, then we must internalize and extremely difficult first lesson, one that pertains to all of writing: we must learn to trust.  Trust the process. Trust the words and sentences to lead students to the full flowering of their voices. And, finally, trust that students will be able to look back at their drafts fifty times, alone,  in conference with you, and in collaboration with peers, to revise and shape the material so that it makes sense for readers.  For now, rather than trying  to fit material and ideas into prefabricated pyramids, students can let their material speak to them.  What does it want to do? Where does it want to go? What does it want to say? (p.118)

Learning to trust, and leading students to where their topics can speak to them, were central to my purpose in jumping into essaying with my sixth graders.  First, they had to trust that they could care enough about a topic to venture into a journey of sustained and meaningful thought about it; second, they could find their own structure to best lay out their thinking and take their reader on this journey.

Many of my students discovered what they most wanted to say after much meandering; my greatest challenge during conferences was validate that meandering (they were always worried about getting “off topic”) and teach them how to build on that meandering – that that was the essence of the journey of thought!

On Friday, essays in hand, they were still concerned about how effective they had been in communicating important ideas they had thought about as they wrote.  I had created a very loose peer editing form for my students to use, but I recognized right away that my form was irrelevant to their biggest concern.  What to do?

Well, thank goodness for Georgia Heard and her book, which I am currently reading: Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing.  In it, she argues for an expanded notion of crafting heart maps, and encourages us to use them in more ways than just to collect writing ideas.  What if each of my kids could create maps to answer the question: what is at the heart of my essay?  before they handed over their drafts for peer editing?  Then, a peer editor could read over the essay and respond to this question: what ideas are at the heart of this essay?  Comparing the two, I thought, would be much more beneficial to my writers than the peer editing form I had generated the night before.

My students thought this was a great idea, and jumped into their heart maps with excitement and purpose:

Then, they exchanged essays with their fellow writers and tried to read and identify the heart of these essays.  I asked for one sentence summations, mostly because I wanted these to be as focused as possible to be as helpful as possible.  The results of our peer editing experiment were surprising.  In most cases, there was clear overlap between heart maps and these one sentence summations.  In some cases, there was wide divergence.  So we talked some more.

Because I had conferred through each step of the process and knew what each writer was trying to essay about, I had ceased somewhat to be an effective editor in terms of what was at the heart of each student’s essay – it was clear to me because we had conferred so much! A new set of eyes, however, sometimes revealed a different, less clearly visible, view.  For these students, it was a moment of writing revelation: I need to go back into my piece and figure out how to make my point more clearly!  Writers sat side by side to assist in this figuring out process, and heart maps became a tool for these new conversations.

Moving from group to group, mostly listening in, I celebrated heart mapping our way through revising our essays.  Something new in Room 202!

Essaying forward, part two: wrestling with topic choice

So, here we are in our journey through essay writing, confronting the biggest roadblock in the path ahead: topic choice.  Thus far, we have:

*read through a number of beautiful examples of what essay as a journey of thought can look like and feel like.  With each text, we asked ourselves about the craft moves each writer made, and the “big idea” of the piece: what was the writer thinking through as they wrote this essay?

*talked, and talked, and talked about the topics addressed in each essay – what were our reactions? questions? what moved and surprised us? what can we connect to? does the “big idea” reverberate through our own lives? where did the author begin this journey of thought and where did she/he wind up?

*drafted some quickwrites based on these mentor essays: what kind of writing journey does this essay invite us to plunge into?  can we experiment with our own “writing to think in this way”?

Yesterday, we turned to focus on our own topics – what issues/concerns/wonderings weighed on our minds and begged to be thought and written about?

Here’s where the wrestling comes in…here’s where our journey through essay gets very, very tricky.  And, it really is a problem of our own making; that is, it is we as writing teachers who have made this very natural way of writing so filled with confusion and frustration.  We generally teach in a genre specific way, with minilessons full of strategies and directives: we tell our kids what to write, how to write, and let them know exactly how they will be measured (those check lists and rubrics!).

But, this kind of essaying breaks free of all that.  This kind of essaying is as much a journey for us as teachers, as it is for our kids.  This kind of essay required my re-reading this passage from Katherine Bomer’s book, The Journey is Everything, again and again as an anchor to steady us in uncharted waters:

Surprisingly, against prevailing logic, this freedom to write without forcing ideas into templates can actually produce better writing from students.  It helps young people write flexibly, fluently, and with emboldened voices, qualities they can translate into any assigned writing task in school or in life…I am also arguing for the inherent gifts of this exploratory type of writing to help students find their writing voices for life. Instead of struggling to conform their thoughts into strict, rule-bound structures before they have a chance to write to find out what they think or want to say, young people can put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and follow trails of thinking to surprising places, to stretch an idea out across pages of unbroken prose, to discover hidden irritations unexpected ironies and spots of humor, or bottomless joys and sorrows.  (pg. 25)

If we want our kids to “write to find out what to think”, we must give them the space to struggle through the ideas they are thinking about alread, whether these ideas are clear to them already, or not (yet).  We are, in our sixth grade classroom, mostly in the not (yet) phase.  And so we engaging in the task of reading through old writer’s notebook entries, exploring options presented by Bomer:

img_6927pausing to turn and talk, and writing to follow the trails of our thinking.  This is messy work, with many stops and starts.  Our mentor texts have shown us that there we have a sort of  wonderful freedom in topic choice and structure, and that we are probably not even certain about the direction that our writing will take.  But, with freedom comes taking on the responsibility of sifting through ideas, and making choices about what is important to us.  This is hard work.

Today, we began to discover pathways through our road blocks.  One by one, we began to flex our thinking muscles and look within our hearts? What to essay about?  My kiddos began to write about everything from art, to fear, the point of science, and racism.  Here are a few of their entries (I had to share, I am SO proud of them!):


Where each of the above will wander in their essay journey is anyone’s guess. But each kid is on their way!

Today, after we’d struggled and figured out what we wanted to say and then had a chance to share what we’d written, we seemed to have crossed into new and happier territory.  My kids are beginning to discover Bomer’s promise of “the inherent gifts of this exploratory type of writing” – the gifts of being able to plumb the depths of their own hearts for what they want to say, in the way they want to say it.

Essaying forward, inspired by Katherine Bomer

Every once in a very great while, a book comes along which just blows the doors of my teaching life wide open to let in energy, inspiration, and excitement – all essential to my teaching life, especially now, when I have been at it for a very long time and feel the need for jolts of energy, inspiration, and excitement.  That book is Katherine Bomer’s The Journey is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them.  Ever since I first read it last Spring, I knew that I needed to bring essay (or, rather, Katherine Bomer’s vision of essay) into my sixth grade classroom:

…essays that help them think in reflective,open-minded ways, to stir their emotions, teach them about life, and move them to want to change the world.


We’ve been sowing seeds for future essays ever since school began through our weekly “writing to think” work.  My students have been jotting down ideas about all sorts of issues, from the nature of true friendship to the way racism manifests itself in society.  We’ve shared these quick writes, often journeyed through the difficult discussions they inevitably inspire, and then written some more.   We’ve been preparing for essay, even though my students were not aware that that was the direction in which we were headed, because even the word essay is enough to send them into fits of moaning and groaning.  If there is one thing they hate to write, they informed me on day one of writing workshop, it is essay.

So, imagine their utter dismay when I announced on Monday that we would be beginning essay.  They felt so betrayed, so disappointed, so depressed!

Until I shared Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s lovely “Drop-Off Cats” (part of a fabulous collection of guest essays in The Journey is Everything).  This is essay? they asked.  This kind of essay we would love to write!  This kind of essay might actually be fun!

Let’s just put our past ideas about essay aside for a bit, I suggested, and try our hand at this:


We’re spending a few days reading a variety of essays, appreciating their craft and trying to decipher their meaning: what was this writer’s journey of thought? what issue were they examining? what questions might have served as invitations to their thinking? what ideas did they want to express?



Our discussions lead to deeper thinking in our writer’s notebooks:


Next week, we’ll read through these jottings to explore big ideas we can write about in essays of our own.  We will consider possible structures and craft moves we can experiment with to make our writing rich and clear, and then we will essay forward.  I am so excited about this new writing adventure…and so, it seems, are my students!

Slice of Life Tuesday:Planting the way for essaying

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

Katherine Bomer’s book, The Journey is Everything was one of those transformative professional books that stopped me in my teaching tracks and made me want to do better right away.  All Spring and Summer long, I read and re-read this book, joining in on book groups, Voxer discussions, and Google hangouts in an effort to figure out how I could lead my students towards the beautiful writing that  Katherine envisioned: essays to help them think in reflective, open-minded ways, to stir their emotions, teach them about life, and move them to want to change the world.

We’ve spent our first three weeks of school planting seeds of the stories of our lives in our notebooks, and writing narratives based on these seed ideas.  Now, it was time to look beyond writing about small moments, and think about what Katherine Bomer calls writing to think.  In her fabulous keynote for The EdCollab Gathering last Saturday, Bomer shared a bit of the “how to” of this kind of writing with this slide:


and some generative questions in this slide:


which formed the basis of our writing workshop discussion and charting on Monday:

And then, both my students and I opened our writer’s notebooks and created lists of our own.

Today, we threw ourselves into a “try it” – reaching into our lists, finding an idea, and then writing to discover where our thinking would go.  It took all of us a little time to get going, but when we did, we discovered that the writing came quickly and led us into unexpected places.  Here’s where I went today (first for my morning block and then for my afternoon one):


I sketched some thoughts, then wrote…and in each case, my ideas began small (rude drivers, cut down trees) and journeyed towards something larger (kindness, civic responsibility).  I shared my writing with my kids, showing them that it was messy and rambling in parts, but seemed to get somewhere by the last few sentences.

My kiddos shared that this had been (for the most part) their writing experience,too.  We talked a bit about this journey, and then we tagged our entries with sticky notes with writing plans/thoughts/audiences should we ever want to return and extend our pieces.  It was, we agreed, interesting work – work we will return to this week, and from time to time in the weeks and months to follow.

This evening, as I think about our writing day, I return to this passage in Bomer’s book:

In our classrooms, we can create experiences that enable kids to literally see and touch the process of idea generating as it unfolds before them.  The writer’s notebook works supremely well for this – a tangible version of a mind that contemplates, sparks connections, remembers, and changes course.  (Pg. 65)

It’s exciting to think ahead as we make our own journey towards meaningful essaying with these first steps…