Friday, November 13, 2015

(Re)vision - Linda Urban and Melissa Guerrette

Linda Urban (left) & Melissa Guerrette (right)

We love picking up a brand new book, with a seemingly perfect story inside waiting to be read. Of course, we also know in the back of our minds that a lot of work - hard work - went into creating that final story. That story likely spent a long time very far from what the author wanted it to be. Young students rarely observe that difficult process behind their books, much less participate in it. Nonetheless, knowing the work that goes into a final book helps students understand writing and improve their own writing. It also helps them realize that if their work begins in a state they don't like, it doesn't mean they're terrible writers - it only means they need to revise, just like professional authors do (and do a lot).

When author Linda Urban began her latest book Milo Speck, Accidental Agent, she knew she was at the start of a difficult process. For one thing, writing books is just hard. For another, this story would be a departure from her previous novels (Center of Everything; Crooked Kind of Perfect; Hound Dog True). Linda explains that she knew her books had "lots of character and dialogue, without a lot of plot." They were quiet books, with well developed voices in the main characters and, as her son pointed out, an absence of HAM. Humor, Action, Mystery. He wanted a HAM book because that's the type of book he likes to read. Linda promised she'd write something for him.

Creating a different style of book required Linda to find a whole new way to write. Her earlier books she wrote taking her cues from sound (for example, dialogue) and based on feeling, not visuals and action. The common writing advice of "see the story like a movie" didn't apply. Now it did. The early drafts, Linda says, read like a list of set directions. Even the stuff that always worked well for her, the dialogue and the characters' own voices, didn't work well in this new context. Simply getting her main character Milo across the room took heroic effort. (To be fair, Milo spends a lot of the book moving across rooms populated by ogres in the made up world of Ogregon, reached through a malfunctioning clothes dryer, so she wasn't moving him across any old living room. It was nevertheless frustrating).

At the same time that Linda was working on Milo, she was also in communication with Maine-based teacher Melissa Guerrette. Melissa's fourth grade class had won a Skype visit and doughnut party with Linda as part of the promotions for her earlier book The Center of Everything. Linda had been impressed with how engaged Melissa's students were. The students were full of enthusiasm for their own reading lives, and full of advice for books Linda should read to inform her next writing project. An author-classroom learning partnership seemed like a good idea.

Linda sent 5 chapters of Milo to Melissa's class for feedback. These weren't the early super, super messy attempts, but they were also several steps away from what the final product would be. The students loved getting a look at these drafts; they wanted more.

"I know we were just talking to you, but now we just can't stop thinking about Milo, like we want more, we want more. Some books are like that. Some books are that good - people just say please make a book about the same thing, the first one was so good. I feel like those people about this book Milo Speck," one student explained.

The students sent Linda a stack of cards with the general theme "You Can Do It". As one student counseled "I agree it's hard to revise but in my opinion it feels good when you finish."

Linda naturally enjoyed a pep talk. She also honestly valued feedback these students, her future readers, might have. And she knew a close look at a writer's process could change how the students approached their own writing. Melissa, from the teacher's role, didn't correct the letters, but she did read them. . . and learned about many things students hadn't necessarily shared with her directly, their hang ups, concerns, frustrations about writing.

The attitudes students carried towards writing had previously raised concerns for Melissa. Many students arrived in 4th grade with negative feelings, convinced they weren't writers and resisting regular practice in the classroom. She worried about a classroom emphasis on deadlines, and mechanics, and not on creating a writerly practice. Students didn't appreciate writing's potential to let them share the ideas in their heads with the rest of the world.

Melissa's students' attitudes changed over the course of the two years she worked with Linda.

One major point of change in students' approach to writing came with their writing notebooks. Linda keeps multiple notebooks for each project: messy notebooks, more task-oriented project notebooks, and during the Milo project she even began a progress notebook (reflecting on the day's work) based on the recommendation of business writer David Allen.

Page from Linda's notebook

Melissa's students had kept notebooks for class assignments, but they'd viewed them as simply that - a place to complete assignments. Even the way they took care of the books physically reflected disinterest (and sometimes resentment). But, Melissa says, the classroom time dedicated to working in the notebooks soon became a chance to develop their writing practice, with ". . . authentic conditions for writing, not just moving through a check list" and the notebooks themselves were seen as "a place that took care of their ideas."

Linda explains it this way: "A writing notebook is supposed to be a playground. . . a safe place for yourself and others, and within that you can do whatever you want."

And the half ideas, doodles, story boards, random thoughts in notebooks did evolve into polished pieces of writing. Melissa's students were okay with the idea of very messy starts followed by a lot of hard work to get to a final product. As one student described, all the arrows connecting his different ideas were "showing the roads to victory."

Linda and Melissa worked together on ways to help students navigate those roads to victory from what can be rocky beginnings. Below are slides from Melissa showing examples of two exercises:

Exercise comparing two passages (pre-and post-revision) from Milo and discussing what changed, and speculating on why it might have changed. Melissa notes that this exercise was part of thinking about how "writers act deliberately" and their revision goes beyond a spell check.

Exercise in description and action - page from student notebook.

Melissa and Linda both feel that their project can be replicated in other classrooms. Finding classroom time for the work proved challenging, especially since it had many phases of exploration -- with all the expected dead ends and backtracking inherent in exploration. Melissa notes, though, that curriculum standards emphasize quality of writing and that, ultimately, this process produced high quality writing, so it fit into those priorities. She also adjusted her own attitude towards notebooks and early drafts, letting go of any expectations she had of what students would produce. Another challenge is finding those author-educator partnerships. Linda notes that it's a rewarding form of community service, and the author role could be filled from any genre or style, since the need for thoughtful, deliberate revision holds true at the heart of most writing.

At the end of the Milo-based partnership, Linda traveled to Maine for a surprise visit to Melissa's classroom, where she met with students in person and had writing conferences with students who wanted to share their work with her. Now, Melissa reports, her students feel a great pride of ownership in Milo Speck: Accidental Agent, and she herself has returned to doing more of her own writing.

If you're interested in more thoughts on writers' notebooks check out:

This Collection of Blog Posts by Melissa
This Collection of Blog Posts by Linda
If you're interested in other examples of authors working with students on writing skills, check out these earlier Author-Educator workshop notes:
And, finally, we hope you join us for our final fall Author-Educator Workshop on Saturday, November 14th, at 11:00 am with Kekla Magoon and Will Alexander as they discuss "Creating Heroes." As usual, it is free, open to the public, and comes with refreshments. 

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