The new semester beckons and the promise of new faces (with fresh writing ideas) enters my undergraduate class focused on teaching young writers. A mentor, Don Graves, whispers his advice every time I begin anew: The first thing you do is write yourself.
Before I introduce myself, the content of the class, or the purpose of our time together, students open to a blank daybook page. Our composing process begins.
First, we brainstorm. I read aloud a simple book: My Map Book by Sara Fanelli. Fanelli is an artist who created this whimsical book in 1995 and it contains a collection of drawings mapping various aspects of her life. It includes maps of her town, neighborhood, day, tummy, family, dog, face, and heart. It reminds me of Georgia Heard’s excellent book Heart Maps (2016) in which Heard offers a simple tool (Heart Maps) to help students find topics close to their hearts for writing.
After I display a couple of pages, I stop and ask students to choose a map to draw. They spend five minutes creating a quick sketch. Then they find a partner they do not know, and share their drawings (and stories) with a stranger. After five minutes, they are no longer strangers.
We move back to our seats and view a couple more pages of Fanelli’s book. We pause, turn to a fresh page, and draft a second map. Again, we have choices. And Fanelli provides us several models. After another five minutes, we find a trio of peers and share again. We say our names, we tell our stories, we bond.
I finish Fanelli’s book. Again, we draw. Again, we meet new peers. Again, we share. Again, we make connections.
Finally, we turn our drawings into writings. We take a snippet of a drawing and turn it into a memoir, a poem, a biographical sketch, or whatever genre our topic needs as its form. I write alongside my students as we work to build our writing community. And after many minutes, we share our drafts with peers.
I ask two brave souls to bare their souls to the whole class in an Author’s Chair. They tell their peers the type of response they seek and we respond accordingly. When they finish I thank them. I know how vulnerable it feels to share a piece of your heart aloud. I know the risk involved in the exposure. And I appreciate their bravery.
In sixty short minutes, a classroom of strangers becomes a classroom of acquaintances. In a few weeks we will morph into a classroom of friends. By the end of the semester we will be bonded forever by this brief interlude along the timelines of their lives.
How do we build a community of writers? It’s simple. We write. And we share. All of us….together.
Thank you to Barry Lane for uploading this beautiful nugget onto YouTube!
About the Author
Brian Kissel is an Associate Professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His focus is writing instruction. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Hattie and three kiddos: Charlie, Ben, and Harriet.