It’s Tuesday afternoon and time for writers’ workshop. This is the writers’ workshop that my kids have come to call, “Free writing time,” a day I’d reserved for more joyful, less academic writing. I’m still looking for other names that don’t sound quite so lax: “Open choice,” “Greenbelt,” “Joy Writing.” None has either the right ring or meaning. I vow to continue my search.
Meanwhile, in an effort to maintain some semblance of order, I’ve taken to sharing a poem at the opening or “invitations” (read: suggestions) to get things started. Today, I decide to begin with a routine I used to follow in the early days of writers’ workshop, a Nancie Atwell ritual that she called, “Status of the Class.” It was a routine I liked a lot. Why did I stop? I would read off the names of my students, asking each one to give a quick update on what he or she intended to work on during the session.
Brief detour: I can never forget the time in my second year of teaching, when I called out Randy’s name. “Shut up,” he blurted.
Silence. I don’t think they had invented the expression “awkward silence” in 1987, but without a doubt, an awkward silence fell over the classroom. “Excuse me?” I asked, in that voice that we use when we want someone else to give a really good excuse for why they just did or said something outrageous.
“Shut up,” he repeated.
“Randy, I just called your name to ask what you were working on today. Why would you say, ‘Shut up’?”
“Because, Mr. v.” he replied, “that’s the name of my story. It’s about a kid whose sister talks too much, so I’m calling it, ‘Shut up.’” I detected a slight twinkle in Randy’s eye. He knew he had shocked the class…and his teacher. Comedy writing is all about surprise, he taught me.
That wasn’t the reason I stopped the “Status of the Class” routine. In fact, I rather liked calling Randy’s name each day for the next several sessions.
Or the day after that. “Randy? Oh yeah right, I know, ‘Shut up.’”
I felt I had a right to turn it back on him.
No, the reason I stopped was probably because it could eat up a lot of time. I liked the fact that everyone heard what the other writers planned to do that day. Sometimes ideas spread that way. I also liked that everyone needed to have a goal for the day’s session and that I knew everyone’s status. That’s not as tricky anymore, now that we’re all usually working on a common unit. And we’re pressed for time.
But back to Tuesday. I start down the list. It isn’t a familiar routine, so we have to do a bit of waiting, as well as a few repeats of the directions. “When I call your name, give me a few words explaining what you plan to work on today, okay?”
“I’m calling your name for Status of the Class.”
Sigh. “It’s when I call your name and you give me a few words explaining what you plan to work on today, okay?”
“Can you come back to me?”
“I’m continuing my grim story.”
“Right.” Mack is a reader and a thinker. He also has a gloomy side. In this piece he seems intent on bringing his readers as low as possible. “First the mom leaves,” he informs me. “Then the dad says he can’t stand seeing his kids because they remind him of their mother, so he sends them to an orphanage.”
“Sounds like fun, Mack.” To balance this picture of Mack, I should add that on the first day of school he refused to give me a Hi Five at the end of the day. “I have to tell you, Mr. v. I’m not really into Hi Fives. I’m a hugger.” He proceeded to wrap his arms around my waist as I stood with my right arm still waving in the air. Fifth graders are complicated. But back to the Status.
“I’m working on the story with Sam, about Kracken, this kid who is the son of Zeus.”
“Right, the one you shared last week.”
“I’m working with Sam and Nick on the story about Kracken…”
“I’m working with Nick and Sam and Josh on the story about Kracken…”
“I’m working with Nick and Sam and Josh and Max on the story about Kracken…”
At this point, I’m dying for someone to just say, “Shut up.” It would break the pattern.
“Well…me and Nick…”
“Oh yeah, right, and Josh and Max and Adam.”
At this point, I have to stop. This is not seeming like a workable plan. I make a brief speech about how you can’t find a single book on our shelf that’s written by six authors. Writing just doesn’t work that way.
“Umm. How ‘bout that Guys Read book that you just showed us?” says Michael, sensing an argument, and suddenly paying attention. “That has like 50 authors.” He doesn’t mind challenging a teacher.
“Umm, that’s a collection of separate stories, each written by a different author. That would be a great thing for us to imitate,” I say, thinking this just might end up working out. I suggest that maybe that’s the way we should proceed. We can work on a theme, as the Guys Read collections often do, but we could work independently. To my surprise, the Gang of Six actually likes this idea. They agree to work independently.
I’m despairing a bit, though, about the similarity of the choices. There’s the grim tale, the comic books, the Percy Jackson knock-offs, and the Warriors knock-offs. I push on.
“I’m writing a story about my family decorating our tree last weekend?”
“Did your brother find out that he was actually a son of Zeus?”
“Is anyone getting sent to an orphanage?”
“Um, no. It’s just about us decorating the tree.”
“Oh. Well, good. I’m looking forward to reading it.”
She proceeds to write the Slice of Life that I can never seem to write: A small moment that captures her family in 500 words. In this case it’s a moment that shows what it’s like to be the youngest kid struggling to hold onto traditions, while her teenage siblings lose interest. I’m including the ending of Katherine’s slice here.
We were almost done with decorating the tree, but there was still one more very important thing to do. Which was to put the star on top of the tree. My dad would usually stand on a stool and pick me up. Since he is too short to just stand on a stool and put the star on, he had picked me up and I put the star on the tree. We hadn’t done this in two years, since my dad was away on a business trip the last two times we had decorated the tree.
My dad holds me under my arms, and it’s kind of an uncomfortable position, but that’s okay. I hold the star tight, then let it go on the last stem. Perfect, I think to myself. The magic touch of the star seems to bring all of us closer together.
Thank you, Katherine. I feel much better. And next week I’m definitely taking “Status of the Class” again. You never know what people will say.