This story started many weeks ago when a student went to painting one day and, with some input from a friend, ended up with a painting where her characters were up in the sky upside down. Nicole challenged her to have a go at writing the story that went with this painting. For the first time ever really, this child began to write her story on her own, sounding out words, reading, rereading and thinking about what would come next. This beginning writing is incredibly complex work with many concurrent pieces to keep track of in one's mind – the sound of the letters, the shape of the letters, the current word being written and then the bigger picture, too – the sentence and story the word and the sounds are all part of. It is hard, slow and tiring work, but it is also very empowering and exciting. She stuck with it for days.
There was a cat that was friends with a squirrel. There was a volcano and they were in it. It was about to explode. They got out in time.
The cat and the squirrel ran far from the volcano.
Then, after many days of working on and writing her first two pages, I noticed she was sitting with her story but was not doing any writing. I sat down with her. She had already reread her story but she did not know where to go next. I reminded her that her readers still did not know why the squirrel and the cat were upside down and that I thought they would be really curious about that. She said, “I don’t want to write that part.” From across the table a classmate said, “You need to write that part, I want to know.” I asked her if she knew how they got upside down and she proceeded to tell me the intricate story of cat and squirrel and how they got upside down. When she was done she said, “I don’t want to write it because it will take me so long.” She was right, to write all that down would take her many, many days of hard work. I thought to myself that I could write this other part for her, but I was hesitant to suggest that because, well… I’m not totally sure. She was in the midst of being so successful at writing her first story and she was working so hard and her writing was so incredible, it just felt too easy and somehow not respectful of her process and of the early writing process to just write the rest of it down quickly and easily. It was too much of a disconnect from the work and the effort that had gone into it so far. I wasn’t ruling it out, but I needed time to think. I asked her if she would like to bring this problem to the class to see if they had any thoughts about what she could do. Bravely, she said yes.
A little while later we sat in a sharing circle and after a long hesitant pause she told the class what she was struggling with.
CG: The people, the cat and the squirrel are upside down and I have to write the whole thing by myself but it is a really long story how they got upside down, but if I shorten it they won’t…
SP: We won’t know the whole story.
CG: Yeah, and the whole story is important. I don’t want to write all of the story and I don’t want to leave any out.
RS: Maybe you can go back and see what your ideas are.
CG: If I shorten it…
LH: It won’t be your story.
RS: You can work on the story everyday so it won’t take too long.
CG: But then I will be working on it until the last day of school and I want to work on other things also.
CC: You can pretend that there is tape on their legs.
Nicole: Remember, CG knows why they are up there, she just doesn’t know how to get the story down.
LH: You could read us the part you wrote and then you could just tell the rest out loud.
FA: You could not write any words, but do it in pictures.
CG: But I want the story that I know and if I make pictures, then people might make another story when they see it. I need to write the words so that people know my story, but I could read the part I wrote and then tell the rest out loud.
?: You could write for two days and then take two days off.
?: You could just work really hard for one whole day and get it written.
CG: I would have to work the WHOLE day!
AH: I could help you write it. I know how to write and I could help you do it, then it wouldn’t take so long.
CC: I could help too, I know how to write.
Wow. The creativity in their suggestions – serious 'thinking out of the box’, the deep listening – listening to understand, the offers to take on work that was not theirs to help a friend, the understanding of the importance of story and getting the juicy parts told, the sense of the reader’s need and desire for information. It’s all there. Wow.
And no one, not one child suggested she have a teacher write it down. I'm so glad I kept my mouth shut!
Sometimes I think, ‘Well, my image of children is so strong it can’t get any stronger’, but I am always wrong about that. There is so much children are capable of, so much they are willing to take on and to risk. They rise to the challenges set before them.
I have seen 4, 5, and 6 year olds in classroom communities support one another many times before. This happens often when someone gets hurt or is sad, the love and care they get is genuine and heartfelt and it makes a huge difference. I have watched these children support one another through materials – how to draw something, how to sound out a word and what letter to write, or how to set up for painting. There are many ways support has happened in this growing community, but in this instance I watched this class of children truly step outside of themselves to listen to and understand a problem that was not theirs and that they had not experienced before – they had to work hard to understand what CG was experiencing and then think hard about what could be possibile. When they were done, they were tired but satisfied, they knew they had done important work and they felt the power of what that meant for CG, and for all of them too in knowing one more thing that they could accomplish with friends.
Like blowing into an enormous, endless balloon, these children expanded my image of the child; I know it won't be long until it happens again.