“Because she laughs so much, and when she laughs, it’s like music,” she explained when I asked her why she’d built a series of music notes to represent her grandmother. Fifth graders were developing characters for their personal narratives in that day’s writing workshop.
“What kind of music?” I wondered aloud.
“Gospel,” she said, without hesitation. “Her laughter is big and loud and rockin’. It makes everyone stop and listen. Yeah, it’s definitely gospel.”
I nodded. I got it. And suddenly, she seemed to be getting it, too. “Her laughter makes people want to follow her,” she smiled slowly, nodding. Her face lit up with this unexpected discovery, and I began nodding, as well. “Her laughter makes us trust her,” she concluded, just grinning.
She was pleased with herself.
“Now THAT is gorgeous writing. Hold onto that,” I urged, pushing an index card toward her. “Jot it down. Tomorrow, you can plan to work that metaphor through each bit of your draft.”
This writer was one of two dozen in the room that day whose use of loose parts was elevating her thinking and leading to the production of far more sophisticated writing than I typically see when I rush writers to print. This is what I mean by MAKING writing. I say more about this here.
The exchange above represents much of what typically happens inside of the photographic moments that I and others share on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. And it’s this learning–this complex, richly metaphorical thinking–that matters most.
Each time I’ve visited Reggio Emilia, I’ve been reminded that children have 100 languages, and every time I take a picture of children making writing, I’m reminded that it’s worth 1000 words. It’s hard to communicate this online, whenever I share photos of children tinkering with loose parts or bits of text, but I’ve begun sharing more about the greater learning context, thanks to this nudge from Diane Kashin.
My most recent blog posts are examples of this.
So, What are Loose Parts?
“Loose parts mean alluring, beautiful found objects and materials that children can move, manipulate, control, and change while they play. Children can carry, combine, redesign, line up, take apart, and put loose parts back together in almost endless ways. The materials come with no specific set of directions, and they can be used alone or combined with other materials. Children can turn them into whatever they desire: a stone can become a character in a story; an acorn can become an ingredient in an imaginary soup. These objects invite conversations and interactions, and they encourage collaboration and cooperation.”
These are the kinds of loose parts that lived inside of my own writing studio. They’re some of the same ones that I bring into classrooms nearly every week, too. I intentionally offer an abundant selection of synthetic and natural loose parts, and I’m adding to this collection all of the time, as I learn more about the different languages that writers speak. It was actually Loris Malaguzzi who taught the world that children have 100 languages. So…choice matters. I know that some writers are fluent in K’Nex. Others prefer Magna-Tiles. Tin foil is wonderfully pliant, and as many of you have discovered, LEGO writing is engaging and beneficial to learning:
But. But. But: I also know that the use of natural elements cultivates a very different set of values. When we privilege natural loose parts, we practice environmental consciousness. We also begin to attune our writing workshops to cultural and linguistic diversity. Writers come from different places, and when we invite them to make and write with the materials of their daily lives–the materials that they are intimately familiar with–we create rich and welcoming workshop environments. We also make the process more accessible to all. More on that here, if it interests you.
I spent much of last summer inspiring deeper conversations about this very thing, and beginning this fall, some of the teachers that I support began building their loose parts collections by inviting writers to contribute materials that are inexpensive and easy to replace but personally meaningful as well.
Let me share an example: My great grandmother was a Polish immigrant who spoke very little English. She spent much of my childhood trying to teach me, but I was young and foolish and more interested in watching MTV when I visited her home. She was the one person in my extended family that had cable television. She tried to teach me her language, and my aunt–her daughter–tried to teach me crochet. I taught them about hair metal instead. I am certain this granted their entrance to heaven, all. Their patience. You have no idea.
Failing to learn Polish and my aunt’s crochet remain two great regrets in my life. My Babcia was also a gardener though, and I console myself with the knowledge that I may have inherited my green thumb from her. Each time I tend the flowers in my own backyard, I remember her among her beloved roses. Those petals and stems and leaves are perfect loose parts, and when I write with them, I can’t help but feel that I’m speaking her language, at last.
In the photo above, I’m remembering the early autumn morning when my aunt drove all of us–my Babci, my sister, and I–to Letchworth State Park to look at the changing leaves. I remember that they were just beginning to turn, so the color wasn’t remarkable, but the size and variety of the trees struck all of us hard. I remember the four of us just standing there at the foot of a ravine, gaping at their enormity. They towered before us, forming a regal wall. I remember how I felt like we were standing inside of a fortress. We were all so small, but we were safe here. We were protected by the trees.
So, LEGO and Imagination Patterns and PicassoTiles are cool to make with, but there is so much more to consider as we contemplate the materials we offer young writers. Something else: Loose parts aren’t always little and kept in bins. Some are big and found in fields and forests. My friend Megan Battista shared this in our Facebook group this week: Look at all of these loose parts. Look at the potential writing happening here.
So, How Does Making Elevate Writers and Their Writing?
In far too many ways for me to document in this already lengthy post, but I’ll share the best of what I’ve noticed:
- I notice that when writers use loose parts to express themselves rather than print, they automatically think in symbol, metaphor, and simile. Consider this: If I challenged you to build a conflict that you’re currently experiencing using loose parts other than the alphabet, you might likely create a metaphor first. I feel like I’m on a swing, one writer told me during a recent lesson study. My problem feels like a mess of knots that I can’t undo, another said. Once the initial comparison is created, modeling and questioning helps writers weave these metaphors through each bit of their drafts. If you’d like to see more examples of this, take a peek at these slides from one of my recent presentations. I reference much of what I learned from my study tours in Reggio Emilia, Italy here.
- I also notice that writers use loose parts to represent big and beautiful ideas that they may not yet have the print power to pull off, but that matter very much to them. When I demand print from the outset of the process, they tend to choose simpler ideas, and they struggle to sustain their interest in them, too.
- Loose parts invite rapid ideation and efficient iteration. When writers use loose parts to prototype their drafts, they are far more willing and better able to tear ideas down, tinker with them, move them around, mix and remix them, and even hack their ideas entirely. Print is commitment that often prevents writers from chasing these invitations.
- When we center structure in our curriculum design work, we often make the process far more recursive, too. Even as we transition to print, drafts are made and unmade using sticky notes and index cards. These are loose parts, too. They enable writers to graphically organize their thinking (a best practice that I support), but keeping the dimensions loose enables far more experimentation. It also encourages risky writing. When writers know they are tinkering with a small bit of a draft, they are far more willing to try really hard stuff. And when they know that they are only going to translate one gorgeous idea into a bit of text, the effort is worth making.
- Writers gain traction and pick up speed as they gain confidence. Loose parts are open-ended, and when writers mess and play with them, unexpected and very powerful ideas often emerge. This takes many of them by surprise. I didn’t know I was this smart, one writer told me last week. I‘m not really this creative, another writer said. As they begin to translate those ideas into print, they realize the full magnitude of their accomplishments. They take great pride in their work, and that new found confidence fuels the production of even more writing. They gush. It’s gorgeous.
- Loose parts play also challenges a different kind of resistant writer. This is the kind of resistant writer that we don’t worry about enough: the print-comfy kid who thinks that it’s enough to put down ten pages of perfectly composed print. The reality is that this isn’t good enough anymore. The real world demands multi-modal writing. It wants writers who know how to translate print into different mediums and modalities. Writing in the wild requires a sort of agility that many print comfortable kids fail to develop, because print is their preferred–often, their only–medium. When we expect print comfortable writers to express themselves using any other material, they often become resistant. And that leads me to my last point.
Writers Make with More than Loose Parts in Our Writing Workshops
Loose parts play serves the writer, but writers often translate print into other forms in order to serve their audiences well, too. Research and information writing experiences result in the production of podcasts. Transmedia storytelling breathes life into flat drafts and brings readers directly into the narrative journey. Arguments become public service announcements that make a real difference in the world. Poems are spoken. Performed. Painted.
Finally, makers also write ABOUT the products they create, the processes they experience, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. Writing helps makers document their learning and share their growing expertise.
These are not new ideas, but many writers and writing workshop teachers still wonder how to work them to their fullest potential. More to come soon, and in the mean time, come find me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram if you’d like to chat more and especially, if you have other ideas to share. I’d love to continue learning from you.