After defining an essay topic through brainstorming, writers can be challenged to define three or four ways in which the defined topic is important or meaningful. For example, if I am choosing to characterize my husband, I might decide to elaborate on how wise he is, how funny he is, and how devoted he is to his family. At this point in the process, I have a thesis statement as well as supporting details. This is hardly innovative, I know. But picture this: once students have a similar structure in place, they can then create what Calkins referred to as “folders” for each of these supporting details. They aren’t actual folders, of course, but mental structures that allow students to consider how great essays might often include stories within them.
In my example, then, I would elaborate on each supporting detail by sharing a story about my husband that illustrates each essay point. In this way, our notion of the deadly four paragraph essay is transformed, students are offered choice and provided the ability to write about what they know, and teachers no longer have to dread the thought of reading through dozens of potentially well-organized but unbearably boring drafts.
What I love about Calkins’s process is that it brings teachers and students together as writers. In modeling this work for students, teachers must tell their own stories and share their own thinking as writers. This morning, I shared Calkins’s strategies with a team of teachers that I’m coaching this year. They’ve been asked to implement a new textbook series, and much of our work together this year involves putting a critical eye on the series and determining how to enhance what it may offer in the way of instructional strategies. This strategy was a perfect fit for their current unit of study and much more engaging then the prescriptive bit of modeling that was suggested in the margins of their teacher’s edition. I had a great time walking teachers through this process and listening to their own stories, too. I’m excited to learn how they might use it with their own students in the weeks to come.