Jen Rugani was a member of our first cohort of TLaC Fellows this past year. She sent us this reflection on the challenges of making writing something students thought of as an art (or at least a craft) and some ideas she’d taken from watching video of colleague (and fellow Fellow) Kirby Jarrell’s class. We think it’s an ideal beginning of the year post as the core idea is to build a culture that valorizes writing and then leverage it all year long. On other words, it’s something you’ll want to start building right away.
After I attended a Reading Reconsidered workshop with the TLaC team, the technique I was most excited to try out in my own second-grade classroom was Art of the Sentence. I spent the weekend brainstorming rigorous prompts and sophisticated sentence starters, and on Monday morning I gave students three-and-a-half minutes to craft one artful sentence, eager to see the product of their hard work, care, and attention.
Barely 45 seconds had passed before I heard a chorus of “I’m done!” Few students had bothered to reread their work; most had simply jotted down the first idea that came to mind, slapped a punctuation mark on the end, and set their pencil down. One boy looked at me and said, “I don’t get why we’re doing this, Ms. Rugani! I can write a lot more than one sentence.”
I realized that if I was going to ask students to write with diligence and care, to write in a way that reflected the importance of every single word, and to write in a way that valued quality over quantity, I had to give them something to invest in. I couldn’t just tell them that their sentences were art; I had to make them believe it. But I had no idea how – until I saw this clip of Kirby Jarrell’s sixth-grade writing class.
Throughout the clip, Kirby exudes reverence for students’ work. Consider her very first sentences framing the day’s task (0:00-0:12): “We’ve been working on beautiful sentences, and you can see our beautiful sentences on the back wall is growing every day. We’re going to be focusing on writing more beautiful sentences today.” It’s not just one sentence; it’s one beautiful sentence. Kirby reminds the students every day that, through their writing, they are creators of beauty. What a powerful message to send before asking students to engage in the task of writing. In creating a beautiful sentences wall, Kirby acts as a museum curator; she collects students’ written works of art and puts them on display in the classroom. These sentences are artifacts that students can not only refer to during their own work, but also feel proud of.
As she circulates while students are working (0:55-1:22), Kirby’s interruptions are minimal and entirely positive – a genuine smile here, a nod there, an amused raise of her shoulder and a quick, “Awesome! That’s great.” Certainly there are lessons during which Kirby gives more instructional feedback while students work, but as they craft their beautiful sentences, she simply encourages them and allows them to write. This non-intrusive circulation shows her utmost respect for her students’ creative process; she says implicitly, “I understand that I’ve asked you to create a work of art, and I’m going to give you time and space to do so.”
Kirby makes two more subtle but important moves before she asks students to share their work (1:44-1:58). She names the two students who will read their sentences (giving those students some time to mentally prepare to share), then says to the class, “Try to analyze their sentences like you would an author.” Suddenly, these two lucky writers are on par with Harper Lee and Roald Dahl; their work will receive the same level of analysis as that of a literary giant. Then, she asks a student to turn off the air conditioner while her classmates read. It’s such a small but powerful moment. With the care of a preservationist putting on white gloves before handling a priceless museum piece, Kirby curates the environment of her classroom to show maximum respect for the art about to be shared.
Finally, Kirby is a model of support and encouragement while students share. (2:04-2:24) Even though the first student is clearly nervous to read her sentence, speaking at a low volume and with her head in her hands, Kirby doesn’t read it for her. Instead, she shifts her tone up and says gently, “With voice.” It’s a minimally invasive move that communicates Kirby’s pride in the work and confidence in the student. By having her read her own work aloud, Kirby gently pushes even the most reticent student to own the beauty of her writing. After the spotlight shifts to the next reader, Kirby reinforces the nervous student again with a private, whispered, “Great job.” (3:08-3:09)
I took from Kirby’s teaching a renewed energy to invest my own students in their beautiful sentences. I modified my language to reflect the creativity of the task, I circulated less intrusively, I created space to display their work, and I tried to more carefully craft my classroom environment to highlight and revere student writing. Over time, I began to notice a change in the way students approached the task of sentence writing. I saw more erasing as they reconsidered language, more thoughtful brainstorming as they searched for that just-right word, and far more stamina as they sought to fill every second of time with careful work. Kirby and her sixth-graders taught me that when I think like a curator, students write like artists.
As this new school year begins, I have the precious opportunity to build a culture of artistic authorship among my students from day one. Here are some ideas, inspired by Kirby and her students, that I plan to incorporate right from the start to celebrate beauty and craftsmanship in writing:
- Have students create and keep “beautiful sentences” journals. Whenever students come across a beautiful sentence, whether in a published novel or in their own work, they can log it and keep it as a resource.
- Post a “sentence of the day” to read and celebrate before students dismiss at the end of the day. This can come from any piece of student writing from any content block, so students can invest in the quality of their writing in math as much as they do in literacy.
- Dedicate more time, every day and especially in the first weeks of school, for students to read their own work out loud. It will be especially important for me to prepare and practice with my students who might be more reticent or shy to share. If I can highlight just three sentences each day, then each of my 30 students will be celebrated as an artist within the first two weeks of school.