In 1986, a few years before I joined the Teachers College Writing Project, Lucy Calkins published The Art of Teaching Writing, which introduced writing workshop to a generation of teachers. Much has changed in the world of writing since then, but perhaps as a sign the world’s changing again, Lucy returned to the opening paragraph of The Art of Teaching Writing during this year’s summer writing institutes to tell a new generation of teachers that “To teach well, we do not need more techniques and strategies as much as we need a vision of what is essential.”
For writing in general, she said what was essential was for both students and teachers alike to write and read massive amounts so as, as one attendee put it, “develop an identify as a writer who can make sense of the world, and even change it, through writing.” This does seem essential, but I think we also need a vision for what’s essential in the genres we teach, which is why, in my last post, I invited readers to read a short piece of realistic fiction to develop a deeper understanding of that genre’s purposes.
As you can see here, their responses were wonderful, with many articulating what you could call an enduring understanding: a big idea that, defined by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design, resides at the heart of a discipline, has enduring value beyond the classroom, and requires the uncovering of abstract or often misunderstood ideas.” Fran McVeigh, for instance, said that, “Good realistic fiction should hit us with an emotional response and make us think/question both what the words say and the underlying implied author’s message.” While Dana Murphy put it this way:
“The deeper purpose of realistic fiction seems to be to invoke an understanding in the reader. I think writers write realistic fiction so that the reader will say, ‘Yes, I’ve felt that,’ or ‘I haven’t ever felt that but I feel it now.’ It’s like the story is just the medium to pass human emotions through.”
Others also used that word human, with Annie Syed writing, “There is so much of human experience we don’t have words for but we try anyway,” and reading and writing helps us with that. And Julieanne Harmatz wrote, “These stories tug at humanity; the human error we all suffer from. Those base instincts we shamefully share and hide.” Steve Peterson didn’t use the word human per se, but he spoke of realistic fiction as “a way to transform the world, or at least A world [such as the reader’s]—to take what is and set it on edge for another perspective,” which seems directly related to Lucy’s essentials.
These are all great examples of enduring understandings, but unfortunately we don’t always frame our instruction around this kind of big idea, teaching students instead that realistic fiction is a made up story comprised of characters, a setting and events that could be real, whose purpose is to entertain. We might settle for this because we don’t think students are mature enough to write stories with such depth or need to learn the basics first. And even if we want to aim for something deeper, we may not be sure how to do that, which is what happened with some third and fourth grade teachers I worked with.
At the time we first met, they’d already launched the unit by having students develop a character with a problem and then use a story mountain worksheet to plan out the plot—and already the teachers were worried. Many of the students’ story ideas seemed far-fetched or clichéd. They knew their characters’ favorite color and food, but not what made them tick, and the plots were too simple or too convoluted, all of which could be seen in the students’ work. So what could they do beyond march through the unit?
To consider that question we looked at two mentor texts, No More Tamales and Ruby the Copycat to study how those writers created more complex characters and plots that didn’t resolve problems too quickly or simply went on and on. And what we realized was that in each story the characters helped cause the problems they faced and had to change to resolve those—and it was precisely through this transformative journey that the authors invoked our feelings and understanding about the human experience.
Recognizing that the instruction they’d offered so far hadn’t reached that depth, the teachers decided to introduce the concept of character flaws through the mentor texts. Additionally, some decided to create a class character with a flaw and invite their class to collaboratively brainstorm what kind of problems that flaw might create or make worse and how that character might have to change. This would involve students with the actual kind of thinking work realistic fiction writers are engrossed in and support another characteristic of enduring understandings: offer potential for engaging students.
In fact, the students were so engaged with the idea of flaws that in one of the classes that was reading Because of Winn-Dixie a student raised an interesting question: Did the main character Opal have a flaw? Rather than answering the question herself, their wonderful teacher Trish Compton suggested they all turn and talk about that. And as the class shared out their ideas, they decided that Opal, whose main problem they thought was loneliness, did have a flaw of sorts: She was so overcome with the loss of her mother, she couldn’t always see that she was making friends, and thus didn’t need to feel lonely. And they were eager to see how that might change.
They also wrote some amazing stories, such as this one by a third grader called “Forgiveness.” I invite you to read it and think about if, in an age-appropriate way, it reflects the kind of enduring understanding vision the teachers articulated above. And as always, feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment here.