Quick Tip Tuesday: Living Books

March 31st, 2009

If you are tired of hearing, “I don’t know what to write!” in your writing workshop, then this week’s Quick Tip is for you. Bruce Morgan, author of Writing Through the Tween Years introduced Living Books to his writing class. Students record their observations about a pretty sunset, the first snow of the season, or whatever else happens in their lives in their Living Books. “The Living Books store our observations of and responses to life,” writes Bruce.

Introducing Living Books

I recommend taking some time to introduce Living Books to the class. I show the kids examples of the type of empty journal they should get. Hindley (1996) emphasizes that the books should be very special so the writing is housed in something that signifies its importance. Beautiful blank books can be found at Wal-Mart, at grocery stores, and at bookstores. I set a deadline a couple of weeks away and write a letter about bringing in their blank books and send it home.

Many kids cannot afford a fancy writers’ notebook so I purchase a lot of large composition notebooks. So the books will be special, the students create covers to reflect their personalities. Clear packing tape secures the covers to the composition notebooks and protects them from being torn.

When I introduce Living Books, the kids are not allowed to write in their books right away. Each day for two weeks, I model what entries should look like. To keep them from thinking these are diaries, I keep making mention of that fact. This writing will be vital, and it is to be cherished. These books will be much more than diaries; they will be life logs.

Before the kids begin their Living Books, I want them to see as many different people modeling writing as possible. For example, my model writing topics include the first days of the new year, the heat that wouldn’t let go of Colorado, wildflowers, and the sunsets smeared with orange and red as a result of forest fires. To show the kids a different model, Dawn and I have traded classes. Dawn verbally processes as she writes, talking about the purpose and the motivation behind her writing. Dawn wrote about baseball, her passion, and about the exploits of her two sons as they pursued college baseball. Our principal came in to write with us. She wrote about her parents’ upcoming fiftieth wedding anniversary, about her son’s going to college, and about her daughter’s being part of the Castle Rock Police Department junior officers division.

The kids are soon itching to write in their Living Books, but I’ll have none of that. I use reverse psychology, knowing that if they don’t get to begin right away, they will be overjoyed about writing when they do get the chance. After a couple of weeks of building suspense, they can begin to write entries, but on notebook paper, not in their Living Books. These entries I collect because I want to gradually release control to the kids by providing examples of what I am looking for from the kids, in addition to the examples they saw written by adults.

Following the gradual release of responsibility model, I begin turning over the sharing to selected kids based on the entries that have been collected the previous day. I choose selections that illustrate observations about life, that show incredible detail, that note something important—not entries that sound like a diary. I am sure to choose a lot of entries from reluctant writers because, honestly, they have some of the best reflections.

Sometimes from these writers come simple, unexpected, profound thoughts. There is a conscious effort to make sure it isn’t only the “good writers” who are asked to share. Finally, the class has permission to write in the Living Books. It is incredible. The tone is reverent. The classroom is silent as we write, then when kids are directed to take a minute to jot down any other ideas they don’t want to forget, the classroom bursts into noise. I encourage them to capture the moment before it is lost. They have a brief chance to get the essence of their experience on paper. Many kids return to an entry made the previous the day because it is an important idea that needs exploration.

Living Books Day by Day

When the hubbub of gathering and trivial tasks is behind us, we meet in the Oval Office, our Living Books in hand, and sit in a circle. I open by framing our learning and purpose for the day, then give a gentle reminder of the purpose of our Living Books: “Good morning. I’m so glad you’re here. We have a very busy day. Today as you begin to write in your Living Books, let me remind you of their importance. This is a place for your life observations, a place to store the parts of you that make you you. This is not a place for random doodling unless there is a purpose to those illustrations. I want you to be able to revisit your life as an adult and see what you thought about as a ten-year-old. This is to be a reminder of who you are, who you were. This is important. It’s our place to plant seeds and grow new topics, and I want you to take this seriously.

I don’t know about you, but today I will have to spend at least some of my time writing about our Valentine’s Day party on Friday. I want to remember the look on Jazmin’s face when she had the icing on her nose, and I don’t want to forget how cool Nick’s box was that looked like Sponge Bob because Sponge Bob is so popular right now, but won’t be later. It’ll be something you will remember from your childhood. I also want to write about the snow this weekend, how absolutely soft and beautiful it was. It was something I don’t want to forget, so I need to get it down before I lose it.”

The comments about what the teacher might write about usually gets the wheels turning in the kids’ heads for their writing. The Living Books are for their eyes only. I never collect these books, never assess them, never evaluate them. This is their free writing time, their time to experiment in a nonthreatening way. This is the place for incomplete thoughts and sentences, for illustrations of the sunset and of the snow on our first field trip, for sketches of their Halloween costumes.

Sometimes it’s necessary to intervene and redirect the kids. A couple of months ago, I noticed many of the kids doodling in their books, those weird line doodles all kids do. I reinforced for a week that the illustrations in their books should support the text, and that illustrations need text to explain the significance of the piece and the event that precipitated the need to illustrate something. I review the purpose of the Living Book and why we’re spending the time on them.

On crazy days like Valentine’s Day or before special events, on those days when the kids are distracted and off task, I circulate and give feedback. The kids sometimes need a reminder that we take this seriously, that it is not an option to write nothing. If they have nothing to write about, they write about having nothing to write about. Sometimes I have to jog their memories, to remind them of the countless stories they tell as they enter the classroom in the morning.

Each day we write from ten to twenty minutes. Then we share. It’s a consistent procedure in the room. Sometimes I ask for volunteers to share their writing. Other days I ask to hear from people who haven’t shared for a while. Sometimes we do a Whip Around: students select one line from anywhere in their own Living Books to share, and we whip around the circle, each student quickly sharing one line.

Other days, we look for trends. Students reread their recent entries or read their entire Living Books to see if there are trends, if there are recurrent themes that could be explored. I realized through my own book that many of my passages were about stress. It was shocking to see how much of my writing was about the stress I’d been feeling while trying to keep up, trying to get paperwork finished and grading done. It was a wake-up call to see that I was wasting so much of my professional life being stressed.

Trends in third and fourth graders’ writing are:
* Cartoons
* Sleepovers
* Birthday presents
* Classroom events
* Family events, vacations
* Brothers and sisters
Trends in sixth graders’ writing are:
* Conflicts with friends
* Issues of fitting in, not knowing their place in life
* Girls and boys
* Dating
* Friends at the Rec Center
* Fears and anxiety about going middle school

The amount of poetry written in Living Books might be surprising. It shouldn’t be shocking, though, because they are a safe place to write.

Bruce later discusses how to use Living Books for coming up with new writing topics. Find out more about his book, Writing Through the Tween Years, and preview the first chapter online.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Writing

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