My group of second grade learners this year is very unique. I feel like that every year! This year it is very noticeable that they missed the last 3 months of first grade, a time us educators know where students take off and make great gains. At first, this bunch was a group of reluctant writers (save a couple who naturally loved to write). Their work was simple, difficult for me to decode, and there wasn’t much in the way of output.
Significant time has passed and of course overall they have improved, but the glaring challenge is conventions! Capitals, punctuation, correct grammar, spelling of sight words – it’s just a mess! It needed to be addressed, but I had to be creative because I didn’t want to squash the amazing ideas the children were now writing.
Then I remembered about ten years ago, author Ralph Fletcher visited our school and talked about mind maps and how he got ideas for his books. The idea was that you drew a map of your house and surrounding areas, marked where you had a memory, and then wrote a story to tell about it. So instead of buried treasure, you had buried stories to write all about.
Around the same time I remembered the mind maps, I also had decided that I would participate in the March Slice of Life Story Challenge. I thought I could even use some of my own slice writing as an example for my students and figured I could mesh the two concepts of mind maps and slicing. I hoped the students would be hooked and I could sneak some writing conferences in around conventions once they started producing stories from their mind maps.
It took off all right! I modeled with my own mind map of my childhood house and I had mesmerized the kids. They got large pieces of paper and went to town drawing their own maps and labeling their buried stories. Enter the power of sharing. As students shared with each other, they sparked new ideas. Students scrambled back to their map to add where THEY had lost their first tooth, scraped a knee, or played in a fort.
After several days (I didn’t want to rush it) their mind maps were done. They added a coveted section to their writing notebooks: a Slice Story Section. To begin with, they chose one story idea from their map and simply wrote. I went around conferencing and it was magical. I conferenced about beginnings, endings, vowels and word patterns, editing symbols, referring to spelling and ABC resources, punctuation in dialogue, and on and on. I didn’t stick just to conventions because I believe in tailoring those conferences to each student’s needs. The fact that they had more output provided a meaningful opportunity to help them strengthen their writing through the conferencing.
On a day when nothing else seemed to be going right (the end to a week full of several difficult meetings with parents and administrators that I won’t go into here), I presented a simple lesson on using descriptive sentences and let the class just write. I felt like I had no more gas in my tank. That day my students surprised me by writing for 45 minutes and it made me so happy I could cry. I saw so much growth thinking back to September. We took our time leading up to the actual writing in this unit and they had loads to say and the stamina to stick with it. After that, they all wanted to share. They all did – even my most reluctant writers. The sharing sparked additional story ideas – a diving board incident, riding a bike for the first time, a snapped key in a lock.
Not all of my ideas turn out great. I do think this one worked out and I am so proud of how our writing community has grown. I won’t be waiting ten more years to try out the mind maps again, and I will be looking forward to the classroom slicing challenge next month with these students.