What a Poet Carries: Observations on Working with Elementary School Writers

by CX Dillhunt

This discussion is based on a presentation of a Fireweed Press poets (Robin Chapman, as moderator with Sandy Stark, CX Dillhunt, Richard Swanson, and Wendy Vardaman as the panel) at the 2011 Wisconsin Book Festival. The event was titled “Elbows and Onions: Making Wisconsin Voices Heard.” The author was asked to speak on “engaging children in poetry.”

I believe there is a certain way to teach children, one that they have taught me. It is more certain than anything I have ever known as a writer, as a poet, as a teacher.  They have taught me not to trust metaphor, but rather to know the words—what is, they wonder, the difference between the thing itself and the word itself? And even to say, let alone suggest, metaphor is to overstate.  They know no difference—the word, the thing named are a perfect balance.  What they know is remarkable.

I am in my eighth year of teaching K-5 writers.  Or, I should say “coaching,” as Michele Monahan calls it.  This is my fourth year in her fourth grade class as a coach.  As my name tag says, “Mr. Dillhunt, Volunteer Writing Coach.”  And that is what I am.  Together with Mrs. Monahan and other writing workshop teachers and coaches, I have learned my role. I am a coach—I am a writer who loves being with others who love to write. I have learned to listen to students, I am learning to work with them as fellow writers. Like any coach, any team, we’re in it together.

At some point as coaches and teachers, we grew tired of hearing and saying words like “Good!” and “Nice job!” or even saying things like: “Yes, that’s what I wanted,” and “Yes, you did what we asked for.” And even a “Way to go!” with an approving smile seemed somehow hollow. We knew, the students knew, something was missing.

So, that’s where we started. We wondered what would happen if we learned a way to really listen to students, to treat them as fellow writers.  The first thing we worked on was a new set of questions and observations. Instead of saying, “That’s good” or “Yes, you did the assignment,” we started with questions for the writer.  New questions even we’d not heard before, questions like:

 •  This is you, isn’t it?
 •  What did you learn from writing this?
 •  What does this say to you?
 •  What did this writing time teach you?

I think it took me the greater part of a year to rid myself of the old observations and questioning. One trick I learned was to write these or other questions on a Post-it note and tell the student, I’ve got some questions to ask you as a writer, glancing and choosing what to say, what to ask.  Referring to the students as writers when the assignment is given, and again when conferencing with them, is part and parcel of changing the questions or observation.

Eventually, the new form of inquiry and honesty (recognizing that they are fellow writers, regardless of age or grade level) will quite naturally lead you as a coach to more critical questions.  What I call writer-to-writer questions.  These have more to do with getting the student to understand process, their own process. We found ourselves asking:

 •  What is this?
 •  How did you do this?
 •  Where are you at this point?
 •  Where are you going with this?
 •  How’d you decide on that?

My favorite, which seems to lead to the most observations about self and the writing process itself, is the simple question of asking any writer at any age how it was done: “How did you do this?”  And perhaps more important for the developing writer:  “How did you know how to do this?"  Ask, they will tell. They will tell because they know. Writers think about such things. It’s just that we’ve forgotten to ask.  These are questions that are difficult to ask or to understand as an instructor, even if you are a writer.

Children understand writing and they understand themselves as writers. Our goal is to get them to talk about it.  As an instructor, as a writing coach, as a fellow writer, it’s all about how you behave—how you take the time to listen and ask specific questions.

If you write every day, or often, you get it. If you belong to a writing group, you not only get it, but you have a good working model of what we’re trying to do in a writers workshop or in any writing group, in writing sessions in the elementary school.

You need to do the assignments yourself. If you are a writer, think of the daily writing as a prompt, something to encourage you to write, to somehow find what to write about. Regardless of your background or interest in writing, to work with children, to have a sense of what they are up against and what they are learning, you too must write.

You need to know, first, how you write, how you as a teacher think and process information, how you argue, how you tell your world to others.  You must remember, you are having a conversation. You are sharing: writer to writer, learner to learner, curious among the curious. You are part of this workshop, a member of a group of fellow writers, a writing group.

When I ask, “How did you do that?” I hear the 4th grader who says, “I’m not sure, but when I’m writing it’s like putting my fingers in my brain.”  Or the 3rd grader working on his own form for a poem who says, “I can feel it and the pencil won’t stop.”  And another 4th grader sitting not writing when I asked her if she needed help getting ideas, said, “No, I’m still listening to myself.’’

When asked, students will also be very specific about their editing process; the other day a student explained, “I go back and do all the paragraphs and stuff later. I have to keep writing as fast as I can.” As a fellow writer you can ask, “Where are you with this piece, in the process, what are you thinking right now?”  When they are given the time, all students will write.  Especially if they are asked how they get their writing done.  And yes, it’s contagious.

What children need is time to write, everyday. Sometimes the prompt or assignment can be as simple as write from where you left off last time, reread it aloud and start writing. What they also need is a community of fellow writers and time to discuss their writing. Again, referring to them directly as writers, as poets, doesn’t shock them at all. Questions one-on-one or in a group should always begin with, something like “As a writer, how do you…”   or  “You’re the poet here, what do you see…”  Also, referring to their piece of writing as a breathing, living thing, doesn’t surprise them either. Don’t hesitate to ask something like, “What does this poem want to do next?” or “Listen, what do you hear?” or “Is this doing what you wanted it to?”  And my favorite: “What does this character want to do next?”

Oh, and what does a poet carry?  Well, I often start with what this poet carries. I reach into my pocket, pull out two pens, and ask, “As a poet, why do I carry two pens?” As an adult, of course, the answer is obvious, something about running out of ink. But that’s not the first answer I hear from children. Usually I hear something about “lending” or “giving” or “for a friend.”  They also guess that they might be favorite pens.

I also pull out a pack of Post-it notes and then show them my two writing notebooks.  I ask them if they keep a notebook, a journal, a diary, anything at home that’s not for school. I show them my notebooks, flip through pages, pass them around—the little one I say is for my daily haiku, the larger one for notes and drafts and anything written. Yes, they notice it’s full of Post-it notes and taped-in pieces of paper.  I don’t have to say much to explain my approach, but I do explain, this is how this writer writes.

Here are some basics for coaches and teachers interacting with writers:

• Don’t assume that a writer needs help.
• Ask if you can have a conference or if the writer is busy.
• Start with a question or by asking if you (or the writer) can read the piece aloud.
• Have a conversation no longer than five minutes.
• Thank the writer for sharing and feel free to repeat an insight from the student.

I believe everyone is a writer and needs time to write.  I believe that writing sharpens our wits, makes us better thinkers, better at interacting with others. I believe that writing is a conversation between the creator of the work and the listener of that work and that the first listener should always be the writer.

We must learn to listen to ourselves; we must learn at an early age that just as we each speak and interact with others in our own way, we also write in our own way.  Children must be given the time to practice and to learn the process of their own way of writing.

Here are some final observations and reminders about writers:

•  Writers, especially children, know how they do what they do; ask them.
•  No need to define poetry to children, though they love to learn new forms.
•  Children, like all writers, need fellow writers; be sure to share your work, too.
•  All writers want to share their writing; set up poetry readings in grade school.
•  Some children also like to see things published: hung up, in a booklet, typed.

When I asked a 4th grade haiku writer how he did what he did he explained: “I can smell it and hear it at the same time in my head.  But some times I can’t get it out so I just keep writing until I find it again.”

Writers workshops and writing groups may or may not produce art, but that is not the goal. It’s a practice that improves our sense of self-worth and humanity. If you can write and know how you write and know what steps you go through, you can become the writer you want to be—in business, in science, in medicine, as a poet, as a journalist, or any combination.  It’s a process that begins in elementary school.

Let’s give our children time to write and time to share their writing and their personal strategies for getting there. Let’s listen. It’ll make all the difference.

February & May 2012
Surprise AZ & Madison Wi