Making 1 from 20
This year, the Dogwood Community was invited to write the story for a school-wide community celebration, the Lantern Walk. The Lantern Walk is held each year when the days grow shorter as winter sets in. The message below, sent to families each year, captures the intentions of this tradition.
The idea behind the Lantern Walk is that the darkness of winter offers a gift by enabling us to better see our own inner light. As we journey into the darkest time of the year, it is increasingly important for each of us to kindle warmth and light in our hearts. This inner light is symbolized by the lanterns we carry. Together, our lanterns demonstrate how when we each share our individual “light” with our community, the combined light can brighten even the darkest of times.
With this intention in mind, the first- and second-grade children in the Dogwood community set out to craft a story that would take care of their entire community through the dark winter months. At the same time, I was holding the intentions we set at the beginning of the school year with this particular community in mind. I wondered how this invitation to write a collaborative story for our school community might support us in thinking about and living this question:
What does it mean to belong to a community that recognizes and values differences?
I wondered how working together on a story for a specific purpose, and sharing that story with an authentic audience, would influence our understanding of what it means to be an individual within a community. I also wondered what it would look like for 20 individuals to collaborate together to write one story that would honor the intention of this community celebration.
We started by reading stories about darkness and light, sharing what we noticed other authors doing to keep their readers interested and engaged, and building theories on why so many people had chosen to write about this topic. We turned to a familiar strategy—playing with a variety of materials—as we began to find inspiration and ideas for this Lantern Walk story.
We made a list of what emotions we hoped our readers would get while reading our story to use as a guide and checkpoint to see if the story we were crafting was impacting readers in the way we hoped it would.
As you can imagine, having 20 authors working on the same story creates both moments of inspiration and moments of challenge. This kind of collaboration has the potential to lead to ample sharing of ideas, experiences with building onto and growing ideas, and opportunities to hear possibilities that hadn’t been considered before. But it can also be incredibly slow and tricky to navigate all those ideas from all those authors who are all invested in the story. It’s tricky because it means having 20 different ideas and 20 different opinions on which choice we should make next and why, every step of the way.
The intention of this experience wasn’t to craft a story where 20 different children each added their own individual piece to make up one story. While that kind of group writing can be a valuable experience, I was hoping to create conditions for the children to experience something different. I hoped each individual would get to experience what it feels like to put an idea out there to the group, for group ownership—meaning that once those individual ideas were shared, they then belonged to the group. Decisions could be made to grow, change, edit, revise, add-on, take pieces out, or even abandon ideas completely in order to craft a story that matched the intention of the Lantern Walk—without evaluation or judgment toward any person sharing.
I hoped to create conditions where every single individual felt ownership of the story, where everyone was invited and expected to come up with ideas, even if it wasn’t their idea that ended up being written down. I hoped a sense of ownership would come, not from having ownership over an individual idea, but from ownership of the idea we created together, with a realization that no single person could have created it on their own.
As we began writing, there was palpable excitement and engagement. As our first day of playing and writing together came to an end, there were moans and exclamations of “We don’t want to stop!” and “Can we just spend our outdoor break writing?” As we kept going back to the story, this feeling of enthusiasm wasn’t the only one we experienced as a group. It wasn’t always easy or fun. There were times when we got really stuck like all writers do. A voiced what we were all feeling when she said, “I don’t know what should come next. This is hard!” But we kept working, playing, and sharing, turning to the materials and to one another when we weren’t sure where we would go next or how we might craft what we wanted our readers to feel.
The trickiest moment came when we were trying to help our reader understand the main problem in our story: why the sun and the moon had gotten captured. K suggested that we add a line about a trail of bones and moon dust. Everyone was excited by this idea but immediately we began having difficulties connecting this idea to the rest of the story we had crafted so far. Just like for every other piece of our story, we considered together whether or not this line matched our intentions and would make sense to our readers. Eventually, we decided as a group to take this line out of the story.
On the last day of Story Workshop before we were going to share our story at the Lantern Walk, I asked the children to reflect on the experience of writing a story together. K said, “It can feel disappointing when your line in the story doesn’t get included.” After a pause, he added, “But I think it’s ok because I might be able to put it in another story.”
We finished our story and shared it with our school community and the authors are very proud of their work (you can read it here: Finding the Light ). And when we came back to school to consider together what it felt like to have that large audience hear our story, K said, “It was amazing. It made everyone feel so warm. It also caused my brain to get more ideas for more stories!”
This shared writing experience was an opportunity to bring 20 individual ideas together: not to form one large idea made up of 20 small ones, but to create one idea that belonged to all 20 authors; to take these ideas from being “mine” to “ours” and realizing that none of us could have created this on our own.
K’s experience highlights what I hope each individual will get to experience through collaboration—that sometimes collaboration means giving something up in order to move forward, giving something up not because it doesn’t have value, but because by giving it up, the entire community benefits. By making that choice, you might even end up with more than you started with.