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Writing Collaborative Nonfiction Books

My district has had the good fortune to be able to teach in person this year. In so many ways, this is a blessing – and yet it is still hard. Social distancing means no group work or games and lots of reminders to “stay six-feet apart.” In my room, where we’ve taped boxes on the floor, I am constantly reminding my students to Stay in your island! Students miss playing games, working in groups, huddling up on the rug to share a story. The work they are able to do can feel lonely, isolating, and lacking color compared to the richness of a normal classroom year.

All of this just plain wears us all down. You can see the heads droop, the bodies slacking in their chairs, the eyes arching towards the window. Last month, I began to see this hit us hard in writing workshop. While I have many avid writers in my class and the group as a whole loves writing, their stamina here had dwindled with the winter daylight. We needed a way to spice things up.

Like most second-graders, our cohort plays games at recess with mixed-success. Organized play can look quite chaotic: three kids start a game of tag and another runs to join with the soccer ball. Most of our disagreements at recess are about the rules of whatever game is being played. Some games are common, like soccer, but others are games they’ve made up under the strange restraints of Covid. “Tornado Bubbles” is a chasing game where kids try to create a whirlpool around the bubble machine. Another favorite, “Corona Tag,” is when you have to avoid bubbles (the coronavirus) and if you get tagged you have to lay down until someone comes with a vaccine shot. Kids truly do work out their real-world fears through play!

After one recess filled with heated arguments and hurt feelings, we came inside to debrief. I offered an observation: It seems to me that our disagreements often happen when we don’t all know the rules to the games we’ve invented. When someone wants to join, but they don’t know the rules, it can be frustrating for the kids already playing. How can we solve this?

What commenced was a spirited discussion resulting in the decision that we needed to write books explaining the rules of our recess games. We made a list of our most hotly-contested games and students got in groups to write nonfiction books explaining them. I helped them think about audience. What if we get a new student? What if remote students come back and don’t know any of our new games? You two made that game up last week, but no one else knows how to play yet – how can you teach them?

I then allowed them to meet in socially-distanced spots around the room to divvy up the work.  The group talked out the necessary chapters and wrote them down. Each member was responsible for writing a chapter and bringing it back to the group. A designated editor helped keep all the pages in order and reminded the group of their tasks. I’m waiting on your Materials chapter! Who has chapter 4?

At first, I thought this was just an easy way to jump the hurdle of topic generation, which is always a challenge for some kids. But I was surprised by how it transformed the energy during writing workshop. There was a sense of urgency and importance – like I was looking out over reporters in a busy newsroom. Very serious, intense discussions were happening about where ideas belonged, how to explain details, the order of chapters. Warnings and tips were debated, illustrations talked through. Don’t forget to tell them they have to all run in the same direction, or they’ll run into each other! You better tell them how the bubble machine turns on – draw the button on the back!

I see now that this small shift in writing purpose had two benefits. Of course, it helped them get over the winter blahs and gave us fresh topics to write about. But I also think it filled a deeper need – interaction with their peers. They crave talk!  Their eyes light up, their bodies get animated – you can see so much engagement around their little masks. In our socially-distanced, isolated islands, this collaboration gave them the chance to connect over something they really care about and hash out all the details with lots and lots of conversation. While I of course want their stamina to grow so that they can each write their own multi-chapter, nonfiction books with ease, this reprieve from having to do it all alone was just what we needed.

So if your writing workshop is feeling dull or momentum has stalled, see if group books might provide the shot of energy to get your class back on track. And if at all possible, try to find a safe way to let them talk to their heart’s content about them. You might find it makes your isolated classroom come alive. Next week is our second week back at school and I’m thinking it’s time to break out the collaborative bookmaking opportunities again!

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