This is the third in a series of reflections made upon my return from a study tour of Reggio Emilia schools. You may find the other posts here, as I complete them.

Print is one language, but there are so many others, and when we offer children the option to learn and communicate with them, the understandings and theories they share expand far beyond the boundaries that print creates.

And it does.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to young writers build incredibly complex stories around the figures inside of a dollhouse. I’ve watched graffiti artists turn a wall into a powerful claim. And I learn just as much about gardening, cooking, advocating for social justice, and lexicography from YouTube than I do from newspapers, journals, and books.

When we invite writers to use the mediums and modalities that they prefer, at least initially, it elevates the complexity of their work.

“But how do we get them to transition to print, after we’ve had them make things?” I’m asked nearly every day. 

That’s a good question, and here are a few others, inspired by most recent work inside of classrooms where children make writing:

  • How might we help children write with just as much beauty and sophistication as they do when they build?
  • How might we protect the complexity of their ideas, as they switch from one medium or modality to another?
  • How might we help them choose the medium or modality that best enables their expression?

I carried these questions with me as I traveled to Reggio Emilia, and the answers that I found there took me back to my own roots as a writer. Perhaps they will help you remember, too.

Do you remember when your writing was full of wonder? Do you remember being curious and fearless and bold with your words? When stories were great fun to write? When you were certain that your ideas and your opinions mattered?

If you do, then you might remember this as well: Before you had print, you used similes to make sense of your world. You used symbolism and metaphor and personification, too. Paint and clay aren’t the only things that children play with. They play with those tools, too.

In Reggio Emilia, I learned how each of them helps us communicate the complexity of our ideas long before we have the power of print. And I find that this is the case no matter how old or experienced we may be.

When we’re trying to communicate complex ideas, symbolism, simile, metaphor, and personification are power tools that help us scale print barriers.

Take a peek at these samples of student work. In each case, writers were not coached to use symbol, simile, metaphor, or personification in their compositions. They turned to them intuitively as they tried to explain the intentions behind their designs.

Making inspires this kind of thinking, and this kind of thinking inspires beautiful writing.

The first two examples were ones that Terra Lynch dropped into an email exchange. She’s a learning specialist who also teaches sixth graders about Spanish culture at Headwaters School in Austin Texas. I’m grateful to her for allowing me to include these peeks into her classroom. The others were taken on site during my tour of Reggio Emilia Schools.


So, how might you inspire the intuitive use of simile, metaphor, personification, and symbolism? These are my first thoughts. And I’m still thinking.

Be intentional about the languages you offer.  Each resource, tool, and material has unique properties and characteristics. Every language functions differently. Clay works differently than blocks do. When children work with tin foil, it’s not the same as paper. Play with the materials you intend to have kids work with. Notice what they offer and what they don’t. Combine them with other materials. What kind of dialogue does this create?

Hang implicit questions in the air. Rather than being explicit, consider how the languages you invite students to use might raise questions themselves. Consider how your pairings and challenges do the same. Experiment with the contexts you’re creating. Notice how it influences the meaning that children make.

Question with intention. Frame your questions in ways that evoke the use of simile, metaphor, personification, or symbolism. These are powerful prompts, when they’re framed around an inanimate build: What does this remind you of in nature (or in another context)? What might you compare this to? What’s the most important thing your build might say? How does it feel? What does it represent?

Make it a game. In Reggio, I learned about Taboo Stories: Challenges that inspire children to retell popular stories while placing constraints around certain words. In the example we studied, children retold the story of Little Red Riding Hood without using the words wolf, Little Red Riding Hood, forest, woods, grandmother, or teeth. This pushed far more creative thinking and writing.

But, how do we help them preserve the complexity of their ideas as they transition to print?

Invite writers to document their learning. Ensure easy access to the tools that help them photograph, video, and audio record their learning, thinking, and work throughout the process. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It doesn’t have to be polished for an audience. It only has to mean something to them and provide them something that they can return to and use as a scaffold, when it’s time to transition to print.

Transition bit by bit. Rather than expecting writers to transform entire builds into completed narratives, why not help them use bits of their builds to compose bits of their drafts, one manageable piece at a time? Why not start by using some portion of their build to brainstorm detailed descriptions of their settings? Why not focus on creating compelling character descriptions? Why not invite them to write just the very beginning of their stories?

Label. If they’re struggling for words, challenge them to label every element of their builds. They may use sticky notes or index cards or simply keep a list inside of their notebooks. The labels can help them craft sentences. Sentences become paragraphs. Invite them to improve their choice of words by searching for synonyms. If they can’t create labels because they don’t know how to print the words they wish to use, audio record their explanations and invite them to use inventive spelling. Create word walls. Use apps that convert speech to text. They’re imperfect, and that’s okay. We want to encourage writers to share and use rich, complex ideas. It’s the stretch that matters–not their perfect spelling.

Share the pen. Stand back and observe as writers build, transition bit by bit, and start tinkering with word choice. Show them how they can use those labels to begin framing sentences and paragraphs. Invite them to revisit their documentation to get great ideas for their written work. Focus them on their use of simile, metaphor, symbolism, and personification. Show them how you use these in your own writing. Encourage independence. Share the apps that enable this. Then, and only then, intervene as needed. Some kids benefit from the use of sentence frames or starters. Others simply need to take a peek at your example or other mentor texts that inspire. Scaffold as needed–especially when they’re striving for higher grade level standards, and in my experience, most do. Just don’t assume you will be needed. Follow their lead–this is the most important thing I learned.

Do you have other ideas about helping students communicate with complexity even when print creates a barrier? Come find me on Twitter or drop into the Building Better Writers group. This is experimental work. We need your brain and will welcome your voice!


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