Slice of Life: Writing with my Students

(This is part of the Slice of Life project)

I love to write with my students. I love that all of us are there, in the moment, together, as writers. Yesterday was one of those days as all of my classes spent almost an hour straight in short story writing, using Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick illustrations as launching points for stories. When I mentioned how much uninterrupted time we would have to write in one class, one girl let out a cheerful and infectious “whoop” of delight. Is there a better sound than someone that excited about writing?

I, of course, gave them some directions: pay attention to establishing a good setting, make sure you are developing believable characters with depth, and effectively use dialogue. Other than that, though, they were free to write.

I gave them the option of either writing stories in their writing notebooks or on the laptops, and close to 90 percent of them chose the computers. I was not surprised, but still … it is interesting. In surveys with my students, many will say that they believe they can writer “better” on the computer. I am not sure that is actually the case, but it certainly is the perception.

So, my young writers were spread out around the room like bohemians in a coffee shop, composing away, and I was right there with them. I chose an illustration from Harris Burdick entitled “The Seven Chairs” which shows a nun in a hovering chair as two priests look on. The caption reads: The fifth one ended up in France. I decided that I would tell the back-story of the chairs and so (making some changes, such as it being six chairs and not seven) I began:

The Woodworker lived for the isolation. He had long ago found that people in general were far more trouble than they were worth. They asked questions. They needed information. They could not think for themselves. It was enough to drive anyone mad. The Woodworker, in particular, could not abide other people who were not smart enough to see this world as he saw it – as something magical that could be carved, created and brought to life with their own hands.

Ten years before, he finally given up on people and went off on a journey to find a space where he could work alone. It was there, in the cave up high in the Andes Mountains, that he could finally do what he always wanted to do: create the Magical Chairs. This had been his vision for as long as he remembered, and he had spent the 10 years before gathering the perfect wood, foraging for the perfect pieces of fallen trees in the rain forests of the Amazon, the dense forests of the Redwood Forest, the oasis areas of the Sahara and so on. The perfect piece of wood was crucial for his work and The Woodworker spared no expense.

Now, with wood in hand and isolation guaranteed, he spent the next 10 years of his life creating the chairs, wonderfully ornate chairs that held unlimited possibilities. His plan all along had been to create 10 chairs – items that would change the course of history forever. He never got that far. At four, he felt the illness coming on – the slight sounds of Death approaching. He vowed to continue and rushed to finish the fifth chair even as the night approached in his sleep, beckoning him to come closer and find peace. The Woodworker resisted and worked on the sixth through the long winter months, with the cold snapping at his body like a ravenous dragon.

The pieces of the seventh chair lay scattered on the floor of his cavern when The Woodworker finally collapsed and this is how he was found three years later when an Expedition into the Andes Mountains in search of an elusive Lost City came into the cave to escape a torrential downpour.  Led by a man who had eerie sense of peace about himself, unsettling really, the expedition had turned up nothing of value after three months of searching. No hints at all of an ancient civilization that came to power with magic, only to lose it all to magic. The lost city that the Leader of the Expedition had promised them was elusive. The crew itself was ready to abandon the wild goose chase and go home. But not the Leader. He was nowhere ready to give up on the things he intended to find.

(you can read the rest of what I have written so far here)

Do you write with your students?

Peace (in the classroom),

PS — Not sure what Harris Burdick is all about? Here is a podcast I once did for Just One Book on The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

  1. Kevin,
    My class participated in collaboration project using Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Students were put into groups with writing partners in Georgia. I had 14 groups, one for each illustration. Using Skype the groups planned their story, (they had to include the line that went with the illustration somewhere in the story) characters, setting, plot, etc, and then we used Google Docs to jointly write their stories. Excellent project and very authentic.

  2. Hi Kevin,
    More power to you for writing with and for your students. I particularly enjoyed the reaction of your students rejoicing about having addtional writing time. That says a lot about the environment that has been created in your classroom. I am currently writing a manuscript about the importance of teachers being writers themselves, so I am with you all the way.
    Great stuff- and like you I love The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

    Alan Wright

    • Alan
      Your manuscript sounds fascinating.
      Do many teachers write with their students? Mine are often surprised at the start of the year, when I sit down in their midst, write and share.

  3. Hi, Kevin–
    I love writing with my students, and I think they like seeing me sit down and pull out a pen alongside them. I also read what I’ve written most times, too. Sharing in that way helps solidify our group. This book sounds fascinating!

  4. That’s great! I love that book so much. It is so cool. I am doing a VanAllsburg unit in 2 weeks. 🙂 I was writing with my students today and it really does matter to them. They love it!

  5. Kevin —
    Your post brought a smile to my face & numerous memories to mind. First, I love the description of your class in the opening of your SOLS. What a cool girl for being totally unabashed in her love for writing. What a cool teacher for instilling that in her.

    Ahhh, Harris Burdick. Love that book. Love the stories that always come from it. Thanks for sharing yours. Now, perhaps I should go find my copy of the book & take your suggestions . . . “pay attention to establishing a good setting, make sure you are developing believable characters with depth, and effectively use dialogue.”

    Thanks for sharing,

    • It’s interesting how useful the book is for writing and how completely entranced and intrigued the kids get — they REALLY want to know if the Harris Burdick story is real. I dance around the issue always.

  6. What a writing explosion Kevin. Loved it! All 6 chairs!!!! I loved writing with my kids and I continue to write with my older ones and fellow teachers every chance I get. But with kids, that’s the best. I’m jealous!

  7. I love that book so much!!!! My parents gave it to me to inspire writing when I was about 10 and I keep it in the classroom to share with kids. And I love writing (and reading silently, too!) with my kids, although I don’t feel like I very often can. They love it too – the other day I mentioned something about “my” research topic (we’re researching Egyptian topics) and a girl actually squealed “So you’re doing this project with us?!?!”

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