“I don’t know what to write about” is something teachers are used to hearing from students. The blank page can be an intimidating sight for writers of all ages and skill-levels. We see students make up elaborate stories and games with their friends at recess, but it doesn’t always translate to the paper.
We decided to start the year by collecting “writing territories”. We asked the elementary students: What are the most important people, places, and things in your life? Why are they special? What do you remember most about them? Mr. Lamear showed the students a map of the mountains outside his hometown of Tucson, Arizona. He described what he remembered about many of the landmarks on the map and special memories he has from his camping and hiking adventures. When it was the students’ turn, quantity was the goal. We hoped this would give our writers an abundance of topics to write about throughout the year, and a possible focus for our first genre study.
Our students listed parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, pets, teachers, hobbies, memorable vacations, stuffed animals, toys, and summer adventures. We will encourage them to add to their writing territories throughout the year. The next step was to choose one thing from this list and dig deeper. We hoped to help them uncover important memories. What is special about going to Grandma’s? What happened on the vacation you took to Colorado this summer?
Mrs. Parks’ literacy group also created their own heart maps. This is another way to list writing territories. In this approach, the writing territories are identified as contents of the heart. Georgia Heard, author of Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School, uses heart mapping as a way for students to map out their lives in a concrete and visual way. Each section can be a different category. For example, people, places, things, and memories. This helped some of our young writers understand that a memoir comes from the heart.
“No, they come from your brain because they’re memories,” was a response from a second grader. True. They live in our brains but are alive in our hearts.
Next week we will continue to challenge our students to unpack these memories. They will also continue to be immersed in published memoirs by authors such as Donald Crews, Cynthia Rylant and Patricia Polacco. We love to learn about our students through their writing. Our goal is always for them to see themselves as writers and that beginning from the heart will take them there.