Materials and Writing

Topic Progress:

During Story Workshop, I want to support children to find ideas they care about. I know that engagement and enjoyment increase when kids are writing about things that matter to them. And a big piece of what I love about Story Workshop is the role of materials and play in supporting children to find and express those ideas that matter most to them. I’ve seen again and again the transformation that takes place when typically hesitant writers become unable to put their pen down because they’ve finally found an idea they can’t wait to write.

I spend a lot of time in the beginning of the year communicating the expectation that Story Workshop will be a place where authors find ideas that they care about and that they will write those ideas down. It’s not uncommon for me to say to a child, “Hmmm, it looks like you’re having a hard time staying focused. I wonder if this is an idea you really care about writing down?” I expect a high level of engagement because the work of an author is engaging and I know children are capable of doing that work.

Another way I support children to know what it feels like to be engaged is by spending time exploring the relationship between play, materials, and writing. Although some children come in right away with an understanding of how the materials might support their work as authors, others find the two completely separate. Although I strongly believe in the role materials play in strengthening the quality of writing, there is often a tension for children between what happens in blocks, paints, or collage and what happens when they go to write all those ideas they’ve discovered down. The intention of Story Workshop is not to become proficient painters or builders, it’s to become proficient writers, so this is a tension that I know must be attended to frequently.

I’ve started feeling that tension as I’ve been working with Mead this year. On the first day of Story Workshop, Mead was eager to find an idea and went to sensory tubs (rice and water with shells, gems, and driftwood) to see what new ideas came up for him. This particular material was set up to possibly bring up memories I expected the children might have had. For Mead, instead of remembering an experience from the beach, he became interested in the properties of the sensory materials. He was curious about what happened when these two materials were mixed together, and he spent that first Story Workshop mixing the rice and the water together, with different ratios of each, in different containers. He asked to save his experiment so he could come back the next day and see if there had been any changes.

The provocation the next day at Story Workshop was to take the idea they had found in materials the day before and capture it through writing. In the past, this invitation has caused frustration from children who have strongly voiced that what they’d rather be doing is playing with materials. I’m always prepared for this response, but it’s not what I heard from Mead. He seemed eager to write and he began capturing his idea by making a list of materials that he thought he might need for other experiments. After that, he attempted to record the results of his original experiment. It was here where I first noticed that Mead’s engagement with his idea seemed to fall short of what I’d seen the day before. Without those materials in his hands, he seemed to lose interest and struggled with finding something he actually wanted to write. He was distracted by everything going on around him and seemed much more interested in what his peers were doing then in his own idea.

At this point, I had some questions in my mind that I wanted to pay attention to as I worked to nudge Mead as a writer. I wondered about the difference in engagement as he left the materials behind and went to writing. As a teacher, I feel like a large part of my role in Story Workshop is to support children to be metacognitive about the way the materials either support or don’t support their work as authors. My hunch, in this case, was that Mead had found something that was really fun to play with, but that when it came to sharing those ideas through writing, he was finding that this wasn’t what he really cared about. At this point, it seemed he wasn’t invested in writing this idea down. I continued to ask him questions about the experiments as a way to set expectations that his work in Story Workshop was to find an idea he wanted to explore through writing. I also wanted to encourage him to raise his own awareness of his process as a writer.

He asked to go back to the materials the next day, but his lack of interest persisted and he didn’t expand his ideas or his use of materials beyond the rice and water he had started with on the first day. I continued to ask him questions about his intentions as a writer and through this dialogue he decided to narrow his focus to a how-to book: he would design experiments about how to survive with no power, inspired by both the materials and an experience he had when the power went off at his Grandma’s house. I was excited to see him working to reflect on his process and make his own decisions and I wondered if narrowing his topic would support his engagement. It didn’t take long for both Mead and I to realize that he didn’t care much about writing down this idea either. He never made it past writing the cover. Mead’s experiments ended up being a really cool idea that he wasn’t actually that interested in taking to writing.

I’m glad that Mead was able to come to this realization, but I also know that this process took quite a bit of time and he still hasn’t done much writing yet. When he articulated during Invitation and Negotiation the next day that his plan for the day was to find a new story in blocks, I consented but reminded him that his work was to find an idea he wanted to write down. He and a friend created a battle scene and Mead was convinced that this was the idea he would write. But as he sat down to try, instead of writing he ended up spending two days playing war on paper through his drawings. Intricate battle scenes kept him interested and he got excited reactions as he shared bits and pieces of what he was drawing with his friends. But when I asked him what was happening, why the two sides were battling, or what the story was, he wasn’t really sure. He still wasn’t writing anything.

I’m struggling to support this tension that Mead is experiencing between his play with materials and the transfer of those ideas he finds to writing. I want Mead to make his own decisions as an author. I want him to know what it feels like to find that idea you care so much about that you can’t wait to write it down. But I also know Mead won’t grow as a writer unless he writes. I won’t give Mead unlimited opportunities to continue using materials to find the thing he cares about without writing. I expect that he’s writing every day. I won’t stop trying to support him to find an idea he cares about, but I also have the responsibility of ensuring he’s practicing the skill of writing while he’s finding it.

Spending days or weeks using the materials to find an idea doesn’t feel like it’s supporting Mead to grow as a writer. And it’s not really the intention of Story Workshop at all. Although at times materials can support children to find ideas, my real intention for them is to support the crafting of those ideas. Language becomes richer, important details are discovered, and sequencing becomes stronger through the use of materials. If those things aren’t happening, then I’ve got to reconsider how or why we’re using materials at all.

Right now it seems to be that Mead is becoming skilled at avoiding writing. I still have a lot of questions about why – but I know this is not the habit I am intending to support. These observations are leading me to reflect on the conditions I’m creating and how I might make changes in those conditions that better match my intentions. Based on what I’ve seen with Mead so far, here are some things I’m considering as we move forward.

  • I will continue to make sure I’m clearly communicating my expectation that everyone writes. I’ll share one of my favorite metaphors for learning to read and write. “It’s just like riding a bike. You can look at the bike and memorize every detail of it. You can feel the bike and walk around the bike. You can watch other people riding the bike, but unless you actually get on the bike and try to ride it, you won’t learn how to do it. The same is true for writing. If you don’t ever try it, you won’t learn how to do it.“
  • My goal is never to teach compliance. In fact, it’s the opposite. I hope children ask questions and push back and engage in dialogue. But I know Mead needs to write. And I’ve seen his work from last year, so I know he is a capable writer. I will make sure that I’m being clear with my expectations and support Mead to know, that not writing during Story Workshop is not an option. I might set an expectation for the amount of writing he gets done before he uses materials or before he has any other free choice time throughout the school day. I might consider sending work home if he doesn’t use class time to write.
  • As a group, we’ll continue to explore the relationship between materials and writing. I’ll offer Provocations through the form of questions such as how do materials support you as a writer? How do you know when they are distracting you?
  • I’ll encourage children to set goals for themselves as writers. Whether it’s the amount of writing they do, or specific attention to spelling, or a specific way to craft their piece, being intentional about what they hope to accomplish each day and reflecting on those intentions will support students to be more metacognitive about their work. For Mead, I’ll encourage him to begin thinking about the amount of writing he gets done during one Story Creation time. I’ll support him to reflect on his goals and continue to set goals for himself and celebrate with him when he meets those goals and highlight to him his growth over time.
  • I’ll make sure that Story Workshop is not the only time of the day that children are being asked to write. Opportunities and the expectation to write will be offered across the day throughout all pieces of our schedule.

When you think about Mead’s experience, what stands out to you?  How does it relate to experiences in your learning community? How are you responding to these experiences? What are you discovering? 

Course Discussion