Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Magic Binoculars

In my first year of teaching, I went to hear Barry Lane speak about teaching writing. In every year since then, the language of After the End and the Reviser's Toolbox have been a part of my classroom. Snapshots, thoughtshots, scenes, magic binoculars...across grade levels, schools, and state lines, I've used them every year.

Today, as we worked on the Ideas Trait, I introduced my students to the magic binoculars. Using the focus adjustment on the LCD projector, I showed them that bland writing is fuzzy writing, just as blurry as the image they saw. If I just wrote, "This is a praying mantis," I wouldn't have very good writing. Then I focused the image (it's always gratifying to hear students gasp in appreciation as the scene becomes clear!) "Writers, I'd like you to try to use your magic binoculars to write some great details about the praying mantis. What can you say that will help readers to picture it?"

Hands went up. Before they started writing, they wanted me to answer some questions. (Wow! This was great!) Was I the one who took the picture? Where was it? What was the praying mantis looking at? Did I know what kind it was? I put the answers to the questions on the dry erase board, adding a few words that they might want to use as spelling references, like "praying mantis" and "insect".

Silence fell as they got writing. I wandered about, checking in on students, answering more questions, and watching their writing. After a few moments, we did a seat switch sharing, one of my favorite styles. (Another great idea from my mom, also a writing teacher!) I quickly moved the students to sit at another writer's seat. Their task was to read what their classmate had produced, and write a kind comment in response. (We're not quite to totally constructive comments yet, but they're developing.)

After another few minutes, they returned to their seats. "Who read some really great magic binoculars details?" I asked. They raised their hands, not to share their own details, but to suggest the details of other students. As we listened to their details and put them on the chart, I pulled out the highlights of what I heard--really specific words, new ways of looking at the picture, interesting verbs. (One student read, "The praying mantis was probably scared of the big ugly lens coming toward it with the big ugly monster holding it." Then she looked at me, realizing the implication of her words. "No offense," she added.)

In one class, I had enough time for students to look at another picture and write details; in another class, we wrapped things up here.

What's so great about this lesson? Everyone wrote. Everyone shared. Everyone received feedback about their work. There were no papers to grade. And it only took 20 minutes.

Some of the students had problems with the handwriting or spelling of the other writers. Today, I read those pieces aloud to the students. The main focus of the lesson was ideas, and I didn't want to pull the students away from that focus. Tomorrow, though, I'm going to weave that piece in. "Writers, some students felt disappointed yesterday when they had trouble reading what was on the page. What can you do to make it easier for your reader to see your ideas?"

A writing lesson doesn't always have to lead to a polished final project. Sometimes, good writing is born in the small moments, the little experiences of crafting details and responding as a writer.

Picture prompt slide show

More from Barry Lane

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