Does Talk Lead to Clarity of Thought?

The other day I was talking to a friend about a big business decision he’d recently made.  He told me he had gone back and forth a hundred times, and he was starting to spin out mentally.  Finally, he talked to his wife about the issue and guess what?  (His wife had the answer, is what I want to say, but no, that wasn’t it…) He said, “As soon as I heard myself talk it through, I knew what I had to do.  My wife didn’t have to say anything.  The decision became crystal clear once I heard myself talk.”

That same thing happens to me all the time!  Once I was thinking that a neighbor had wronged me and I had it all worked out in my mind that she was turning against me.  And as soon as I started talking to somebody about it, I realized, that’s not real.  That’s kinda ridiculous, in fact.  But I had to hear myself say the words before the truth became clear.

That’s how I like to teach kids about their thoughts.  I like to teach them that sometimes, when it’s all in the head, it’s jumbled.  It doesn’t make sense.  It doesn’t have a real shape yet.  But once we share our thoughts, and we hear them spoken, there’s often a new clarity.  Once we get clear we can write our thoughts down.  And the writing often leads to further clarity.  We can do this when we’re thinking about the books we’re reading, or about something we’re writing or about a plan we have.

Sometimes kids are amazed when their talk leads to new ideas or better decisions.  I guess, in a way, listening closely and watching thoughts take shape really is an amazing process.

The Mom Jar

Ten years ago, my mother lay in a hospital bed uncertain of her future.  She had contracted a serious staph infection during back surgery and her kidneys were failing.  She was taking mega doses of steroids that made her feel crazy.  She could hardly move, her thoughts were all over the place and she didn’t seem to be recovering.  We were worried.  She was newly widowed, and I’m sure there were days she just didn’t want to go on.  Was there anything my siblings and I could do to cheer her up?  Anything we could give her that would make her feel loved?  Anything at all to get her out of that hospital bed and home?

We hit upon the idea of The Mom Jar.  Each of us wrote down memories of our mom.  We wrote about the small ways she had helped us over the years.  And we wrote about the big ways she’d influenced us.  We reminded her of moments she had probably forgotten, but lived on in our hearts.  Each memory went on a little slip of paper that we rolled up and put into a jar.  We gave it to her on Mother’s Day and she kept it by her hospital bed, reading the little slips over and over.

Slowly, very slowly, she got better.  She went home and after awhile she started walking again.  Ten years have passed.  She’s now a vibrant, healthy person.  She spends every other weekend with my family and me, loving us, caring for us, and making us laugh.

And every day she gives us more memories for the Mom Jar.

Poetry Anthologies

Some kids read and write poetry all year.  Jordana Greenberg, then a 5th grader at Manhattan New School, created a poetry anthology as part of a year long project.  Starting in September, her teacher, Doreen Esposito, asked students to gather poetry books and spend some time reading and enjoying poems.  Students would put post-it notes on the poems they liked.  By the middle of the month, students would find one poem they really loved.  They would copy the poem, then illustrate it.  Next students would look through their notebooks to find entries that would go next to the published poem.  Students could create their own poems based on the published poem.  Or rework the notebook entry to sound more poetic.  Or keep the entry as is.  Students then illustrated their own piece of work and added it to the anthology.  They turned the anthologies in at the end of the month and had a chance to share their work with others.  At the end of the school year, students had a beautiful collection.  The poem above is one entry in such an anthology. All I can say is…wow.

(For more on how to create these anthologies see The No-Nonsense Guide to Teaching Writing by Judy Davis and Sharon Hill.)

Sight Word Notebooks

Kindergarten is not the place it used to be–kids are doing a lot more and why not?  They want to and they’re capable.  One of the ways that we’ve stepped it up for K kids is to have them learn lots of sight words.  Not just in reading, but in writing as well.  One of the best tools for this is the sight word notebook.  Some teachers start it early in the year, some wait until January.  I suggest starting it when most kids know most of their letters.

You can use any kind of notebook, a composition book works well.  Start out having kids write their first names in the notebook.  They take the notebook home and write their name five times.  Make sure their names are posted and visible in the classroom in at least one place.  Once the name is mastered, start with easy words that they need to use a lot (I, my, me, etc.)  Write the word and have them copy it into the notebook, then write it five times for homework.

When you introduce a new word, immerse your students in the word.  Use it during interactive writing, have them hunt for it when they read independently, point it out during read aloud or shared reading time.  Use it when you model your own writing.  Teach a few words a week.  Check in to make sure students are retaining the words.  Go back to words that need more work.

My son’s K teacher, Brianne Falisi, used the sight word notebook last year.  He learned how to write 80 words by the end of June.

Never underestimate what little kids can do with a little bit of instruction!

Complain, complain, complain

Did you ever notice that fourth graders like to complain?  Nine and ten year olds have major ish with life!  Pollution, Smoking, Bullies, War.  Even green vegetables get to these kids.  So Danny Valles, a really cool teacher at New Egypt Elementary School in NJ, decided to let his fourth graders make their gripes public.  He created a Graffiti Complaint Wall.  Students named their complaints, then they wrote about their issues in detailed personal essays.

Two really great things happened.  One, the kids had lots to say so their writing had voice and passion. Two, their teacher listened.  The kids had some major groaning to do about homework.  So Dannie stopped to think about the amount and type of homework he was assigning.  Then he had a serious sit-down with his students.  And guess what?  They loved feeling heard.  They felt understood.  And they were able to make changes in the classroom. Isn’t that what writing is all about?  Making your voice heard in the world?

(For more on Personal Essay check out my website.  Click the Tools button.)