Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Big 5: Helping Kids See Craft

When I'm not writing about giants and robots and giant robots and robots who fall in love with giants, I teach English.  And there's this funny thing about both reading and writing.  It's kind of like a magic trick. See, the best way for a kid to become a really great writer is to be a reader.  And, go figure, the best way to become a really great reader is to be a writer.

One of the best ways to help kids gain strength in both is to make it really clear to them that the best stories share a whole heck of a lot in common.  It doesn't matter if the story is about kissing or surviving an alien invasion or surviving high school (which can kind of feel like an alien invasion with kissing), the best stories are built from some of the same bedrock.  When I teach my students about that bedrock, I tell them about The Big 5 - great settings, great characters, great plots, a unique point of view, and a great sense of tone.

When I'm talking with my students about the Big 5 I usually draw a picture on my board of a giant cooking pot and then I ask them what some of their favorite foods are.  Once I get past all the chicken nuggets and mac and cheese answers, I usually get a few kids who will drop a cupcake or a slice of pie into my lap.  And this opens the door, because writing is a lot like baking.  At least it is when you get down to the basics and when you're talking about getting kids into reading and writing we're talking about the basics.  See, baking is so dependent on having the right ingredients in the right amounts and that's what makes it different from other forms of cooking.  Too much or too little of any one thing and the recipe is ruined.  Leave one thing out and watch even the most cookie-crazy kid in the world turn their nose up at what you're offering.

So, I ask kids - what would those cupcakes be like if I left out the sugar?  How would that pie taste if I didn't put any butter in the crust?  How can you have a chocolate chip cookie without the chocolate chips?  The same thing applies to kids and their own writing (and in their own ability to understand what an author is doing in the books that kids are reading).  So, up on the board goes a picture of a giant pot.

Like any good chef, I'm going to fill that pot with the best ingredients that I can find.  And where do I find those great ingredients?  Well, if you're like me, you spend a lot of time at your Farmer's Market.  And, for readers and writers, our Farmer's Market is a bookstore or a library. The next time you take a trip into a bookstore or library, treat the books there like produce.  Pick up the book, smell it, flip through the pages and imagine what that book will cook up in your head.  But you should also go deeper and read the first few pages just like knocking on a watermelon.  You need to see what's inside and not just be bedazzled by the beautiful exterior.

For kids, have them become aware of how the words work.  What is it exactly that this author does well to blend setting, character, plot, point of view, and tone all into something that works?  How does one book approach it versus another?  Are you as a reader drawn to descriptions of setting that leave room for your own imagination to fill in the blanks or do you want to be immersed in details? What separates a great character from a not-so-great one?  What is it about the tone of the first few pages that lets you anticipate whether or not you should continue reading?  What is unique about this author's point-of-view?  Go all Socrates on that book and pound it with questions.  Yes, books are about enjoyment and about getting lost but - as kids become more skilled readers and students - there's going to be a need for these kinds of skills.  I see both positives and negatives in the Common Core which is being implemented in most schools across the country but, as an English teacher, I can tell you that students are being asked more and more often to be far more analytic in their approach to reading.  It isn't just the content that they're being asked to interact with...it's the process.

Expose your kids to the Big 5.  If you are reading with them, stop when you hit a particularly effective piece of writing and comment on how impressed your are with the choices that author made.  Dig deeper into the text with them.  Don't worry.  They'll still enjoy the story but you'll also be helping them to understand that stories don't spring up out of nowhere.  The author has had as much (if not more so) intent than a famous chef toiling over a slowly simmering broth.

-Paul (my little sig has gone missing...doh!)




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