This morning’s Bellwork, like Frankenstein’s monster, took over the class this morning. It started out simply enough (a little brain here, a little kidney there — just kidding) with this prompt: “Make a list of as many ideas as you can about autumn in your Bellwork Journals.” The students had done this before with their information on Alexander the Great. You see, I’m trying to create prompts that require students to brainstorm ideas. (Wow. It is “a little brain here.”) Idea and Content is one of the Traits of the 6+1 Writing Traits that I so adore. And although I have always used the suggestions that Education Northwest gave me for bridging between brainstorming and Idea and Content, I’ve never been really pleased with the results. I want students to use their research or what is in their heads as a resource. I want them to take the time to really dig into their prior knowledge, to do more than just skim off the tops of their heads — I want the whole brain! I want them to dig, I want them to think. I want them to understand that what they have in their heads is useful.
Writing that sounds ridiculous. Could it be so obvious? Even as I sit here shaking my head at what I wrote, I know that students totally discount anything in their binders, notebooks, or between their ears as useful sources of information. (That is, unless it is somehow connected to getting donuts.) It’s as if, when asked to come up with ideas, students scan their short term memory and call it good. 98% of the good stuff is outside of short term memory, if they will only reach for it. In order to get them to reach for it, there needs to be success associated with the reach. (Oo, donuts…)
So, I tried something new with the Bellwork a while ago. I grabbed big sheets of butcher paper and put them on either side of the classroom. When the students came in, they independently listed everything they knew about Alexander of Macedon, writing this down in their Bellwork journals. Students were given only about 3 minutes to make the list. (Long enough to make them reach for ideas.) Then I put them in groups and told them to write all of their ideas on their group’s butcher paper, with these caveats: there must be no sentences, only words and phrases, and they must not repeat. After about 5 minutes, I stopped them. They counted up all of their words, crossing off any repeats, and reported to the class how many ideas they had generated.
I liked this, and I could see that students were delving deeper, but it was lacking the motivating success factor for the group that came up with fewer words. For some of the more competitive students, this will do, but I don’t like to use a negative as a motivator. Too many students will just give up.
This time, I added a wrinkle. I put the papers up for the other group to see. Then I gave the other group a chance to challenge any of the ideas that they believed did not relate to autumn. There were some good challenges. One student had written down her ideas as her brain jumped from thought to thought, jumping completely off topic. She was able to reconnect some of her recorded ideas to the concept of autumn on the fly when challenged, but not all of them, and so these were marked off, just as off-topic details in a story or an essay are cut out.
When a new total was counted, and the students were confident with their idea bank, I asked them to write a poem using only the words on the two sheets. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I allowed them the use of one article, one preposition, and one conjunction. I wasn’t planning on that, but it did give me a chance to review what these grammatical terms mean. Students also wanted license to change the form of the word, as in from “falling” to “falls.” This, I thought, was great. I also told them to use alternate meanings of words. As in a “Snickers” bar as Halloween candy, or the wind “snickers” at trick or treaters. One of my writers asked if he could mine words for their letters to make new words. Although I praised his thinking out of box, the answer was no.
Here are some of their offerings:
Death masked before sunset.
(This is just the first sentence of the poem, at the student’s request. I ask permission from my students before including any of their writing in this blog.)
Maple trees die
Scary monsters kidnap bursting children
Wind snickers over angry black birds
Flickering torches in pumpkins
Spiders mask a haunted house.
Skeletons and mummies divorce tombs.
Chilly leaves within the night.
Crisp air rakes death.
Hidden creepy crawlies ghost trees.
Midnight moons howl.
Student C) wrote a type of sonnet. We studied iambic pentameter last year and she was trying her hand. She decided not to try for 5 feet as there simply weren’t enough words to mimic a sentence. So she went for four (sometimes three). Listen for the rhythm.
Orange, yellow, red, black.
Windy, rainy, monster costumes
Flickering torches, Dracula haunts
Houses, bats, creepy crawlies
Halloween monsters haunt Death.
Visions, thunder, lightening, Blackness
Ghosts, chapel tombs haunt.
Flickering masks, crows snickering
Zombies creep, families die
Autumn haunts Halloween, Death
Death haunts haunted houses.
Lightening, red, black Ghouls
Bursting Thunder, Tears falling.
Yes, Autumn is here!
Students who finished early were allowed to write again. This time they were allowed prose, and all the grammatical conditions that go with a paragraph, or more poetry with words not on the brainstorm list.
October, coming with autumn to haunt you. They hide, the Boogeymen, when they put on their masks. We take them as children. How would we know? Those with the best costumes could be their costume. A person-zombie could be a zombie! Highly unlikely though. Lights flicker when they are near. Soon Halloween is over and they hide in their dark caves.
In the starry night, I hear howls. Hidden in the gloom, I see a flicker. The trees are dark, but leave their mark.
(In this case a flicker is a beautiful bird found locally in the Puget Sound. It is a type of woodpecker. The student here is playing with the dual meaning of the word, “flicker,” implying both or either a flickering light, or a flicker bird.)
I have to admit, I did not expect this lesson to take over the period, but it did, and I’m glad. Cobbling together ideas to make a brainstorm which was then used immediately to create a piece of writing did seem to give students a sense of success — they were able to recombine those ideas and throw the switch to bring them to life. There was definitely a mad-scientist kind of feel in the room when the students were in charge of their universe. I don’t know if they have had the lightening strike connecting brainstorming and Idea and Content yet, but, fortunately, I see the monster looming.
Any good Igor knows what the good Doctor wants. But those parts don’t come easy — you have to dig for them. And when you put them all together in just the right way, you get a monster that stands the test of time, and won’t be put back under with just any old mob with pitchforks and sixth graders.