Teachers Write 7.28.17 A Friday Reflection with Madelyn Rosenberg

Good morning! It’s Friday, which means there’s an opportunity to get (and give!) feedback over on Gae’s blog.

And here, we have guest author Madelyn Rosenberg! Madelyn is is the author of nine books for kids of all ages, including the Nanny X books and the How to Behave books. She wrote her newest book, THIS IS JUST TEST, with longtime friend Wendy Wan-Long Shang. You can find Madelyn online at www.madelynrosenberg.com or @madrosenberg on Twitter. Today, she’s joining us to talk about collaboration.

I sit and write in the world’s messiest office, where my only companions are often an exercise bicycle bedazzled with my most recent laundry and the braver of my two cats. Many writers I know spend their days (or nights) in similar situations, dependent, of course, on cat allergies, cleanliness habits, and whether or not they have invested in a standing desk. We take community where we can find it: In critique groups, at guild meetings, during an occasional Thursday write-a-thon at the Rock n’ Joe.

In a world that’s filled with rejection, even for published writers, it’s essential to have community support. I always find it’s easier to write knowing that someone’s out there waiting for Chapter 2. Over the past few years, I reached out to my writing community in a different way, by collaborating with a writing partner – with Mary Crockett for Dream Boy and most recently with Wendy Wan-Long Shang for This is Just a Test.

For me, collaboration was a real gift. It can be a gift for students as well. Sure, there might be frustrations if a partner takes you down a path you don’t want to follow or imbues a character with a trait you are certain she doesn’t have. But collaborative writing also gives you an editor, even as you write those first paragraphs. It helps you beat writer’s block. It gives you encouragement: you can do this, partner. With students, it also serves as an ice breaker and motivator, and increases both self confidence and self esteem (really: Google it.) I know it did for me.

All of this is a long way of getting to today’s writing prompt, which requires you to find a partner, if just for one day. You can try this with someone in Teacher’s Write, with your kid, your Uncle Buck, your mail carrier – anyone who’s willing. Two choices follow.

Your Assignment:

Option one: An exquisite corpse. You may have done this with pictures when you were a kid: someone draws the head, marks where the neck begins, folds the paper over, and hands it to the next person who draws the body without ever seeing the head. Here you’re doing the same thing, only with words. Have someone begin a story with just a paragraph or so, and pass it to the next person, who writes the middle. It goes back to player one for the beginning of the ending and back to player two for the final lines. You may take turns either virtually or on real paper. Provide your partner with the last three words from the last sentence of each section as a hook, an inspiration or a tease. The results show you how just a few words can generate thoughts, dialogue and plot.

If you want to your collaborative writing experiment to be more, well, collaborative, try option two: Do the same assignment, swapping paragraphs back and forth, only don’t hide anything. Discuss your character and plot. Give each partner a chance to tweak and edit and add lines to the parts he or she didn’t generate. If you want this one to be a little longer, that’s fine, but try to keep it to five or six paragraphs, max. (It’s a quick write, after all.)

If you have time and a willing partner, feel free to try both options.

In the comments, let us know which option you tried and how it worked for you. Were you funnier or more dramatic because you knew someone else would be seeing your words right away? More self conscious? Less self conscious? Were you surprised at the turn your story took? More confident in the final results?

I do this prompt with my family (the no-peeking version) when we’re on car trips or in restaurants. We especially like playing in large groups, where each person contributes a single line, with no clue as to what’s come the line before. The outcome is often more a surreal poem than a story, but we always end up laughing.

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27 Comments

  1. Jennifer Hernandez
    Posted July 28, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Hi Madelyn! Thanks for your post. I agree that collaborative writing can be great fun. I’ve played “exquisite corpse” in a poetry workshop. We were seated around a large table and wrote collaborative poems, one line per writer looking only at the line immediately preceding your line. Others lines were hidden through accordion folds. The results were often hilarious, almost always interesting and occasionally brilliant.

    I’ve had my students write collaborative stories using the large circle passing method and letting them read everything that had been written before. This resulted in issues with timing. I like the idea of pairs or smaller groups and only letting them read the last few words of the previous writer’s contribution. I’m eager to try this out in my classroom.

    • Jennifer Hernandez
      Posted July 28, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      I forgot to add that I’ve also had classes write a collaborative novel throughout the semester or year with one student adding a new chapter each week. That was great fun!!

      • Susan MacKay-Logue
        Posted July 28, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        Jennifer, I love the idea of a class novel!

        • Posted July 28, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

          I love the idea of a class novel, too. I’ll bet they couldn’t wait to see how it ended. I saw that Shout Mouse Press had some students do this last year, taking different characters/different perspectives on a shooting. Interesting discussion about it on the Kojo Show.

  2. Susan MacKay-Logue
    Posted July 28, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Madelyn, thanks for the great idea. I think it will help to ease my 5th graders into a collaborative writing that will help us to agree on classroom norms. I envision each table group doing the no peeking drawing activity and then sharing/debriefing whole group as to how that went for each group. Then I see us discussing how the outcome would be improved if you could see the other participants’ work as it is created. I think this will lead into how shared Google Docs can work to create a single project. After that, I think I will set the same table groups loose on Google Docs to create a set of norms for the classroom that they think will allow them to be their best selves in a learning community. After which we will share the table docs and create one big doc that will guide our learning over the year. Lots of discovery, collaborating, learning of new skills, and a finished product with student buy-in. Hopefully, students will extend this into their writing time and see that they can collaboratively write other things, like Nora and Gae’s new book collaboration. I think this will be terrific! Thank you for the idea.

    • Posted July 28, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Seems like you’ve been thinking about this for a long time! I do think setting up some rules for collaboration makes a great first step into collaboration. Good plan!

  3. Annie
    Posted July 28, 2017 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Madelyn, thank you for sharing this fantastic idea. I’m already brainstorming how I’m going to do this in my classroom. I’m going to try and do this over the weekend with family and friends and see what happens. I think it may end in hysterics!

  4. Kim
    Posted July 28, 2017 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    How fun! I’m on my annual cabin vacation with 11 family members. Five others asked to participate in the writing when I told them about it: my 19 year-old nephew, 15 year-old daughter, 41 year-old sister, 9 year-old niece, and 70 year-old dad. We had an AWESOME story. In fact, they asked to do another one!! Thank you for this writing prompt and a new family vacation tradition.

    • Posted July 28, 2017 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      Love it! That makes me so happy! We did it on a camping trip once, passing the paper around the campfire.

  5. Andy Starowicz
    Posted July 28, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Hi Madelyn,

    Thank you for this wonderful idea. To help struggling writers in my classroom, I do a similar activity. The student and I talk about a topic that we would like to write a story about, and then I write the first paragraph. We go back and forth writing paragraphs until the story is complete (anywhere between 10-16 paragraphs). It is a wonderful activity because while we are revising (through the process), we are discussing the elements of story plot. I wanted to attach a snippet of a past story, but I don’t have any examples on my home computer. It is a great way to help a struggling writer gain confidence.

    After reading your post, my daughter and I started writing a story. I’ll share a snippet when we are done (if she lets me – thirteen-year-olds can be a little shy with their writing:). Thank you again.

    • Posted July 28, 2017 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      Collaboration + modeling! I hadn’t thought about a student-teacher collaboration (though of course teachers and students collaborate all of the time). Thanks for sharing that.

  6. Posted July 28, 2017 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    This is such a fun activity! Home alone today and called someone to try to get them to do this with me but no luck yet. I’ll keep this on the back burner and post as soon as I have a willing partner. Even if it is a few days from now!

    • Posted July 28, 2017 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      Awesome! You can always find a partner over the internet, too (though I love that moment of discovery, when people read a story together for the first time.)

  7. Jen Howe
    Posted July 28, 2017 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for being here today. I have heard great things about This Is Just a Test and added it to my wishlist. I think my high school students would enjoy this prompt, and I’m going to see if I can try it with my daughter.

  8. Posted July 28, 2017 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    This is a great idea! I tried to convince my daughter to work on one with me today, but she wanted to play Pandemic instead. Oh well, maybe another day.

    In my kindergarten classroom, I have often worked with students on writing stories in a collaborative way (since their ideas are much bigger than than writing abilities). We have even created group stories by going around the circle and having everyone add a bit to a story, with the help of some story stones (stones with pictures of characters, objects and setting).

    • Posted July 28, 2017 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      I love building stories with kindergarten kids. I often do improv with them, and then have them take some of the characters from our improv and make up stories about them. I’ve seen story stones but haven’t worked with them. Thanks for this rec!

      • Posted July 28, 2017 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

        Oh, improv sounds so fun! Do you have any resources you can point me to?

        • Posted July 29, 2017 at 9:11 am | Permalink

          The games I use are mostly ones I learned in a class I took, or from watching improv performances (thanks, ComedySportz). I haven’t really looked online, but I’m betting they’re pretty standard and you could find links to them. I like 5-headed genius, Tiger, Alien, Businessman (which I altered to eliminate the businessman), teleprompter, etc. The main thing about improv is that you’re building on what someone else starts, so pretty much everything involves collaboration.

  9. Posted July 28, 2017 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Just today I’ve been talking with someone about a writing/art component for our local literary festival. My concept included a group of students collaborating on a picture book. I can see how this activity would work well for the workshop we are thinking about. I’ll probably try it out with colleagues first to get a feel for problems we may face. Thanks!

  10. Posted July 28, 2017 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    I think I’ve just found my First Day of School ice breaker activity! Another fun one is to have the class collaborate on a list of 20 details that must be in the story. But each student (or pair) write their own story and can use the details as they see fit. Students post their story on the walls, or on their computer screens, for compare/contrast and feedback.

  11. Laurel Shifrin
    Posted July 29, 2017 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    Madelyn, I’m just commenting to say that I read This Is Not a Test and loved it! Thanks for sharing your ideas!

    • Posted July 31, 2017 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      Thank you so much, Laurel! Soooo appreciated. (Will pass on to Wendy, too.)

  12. Brandy Loomis
    Posted August 4, 2017 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    I’ve done a version of this with my students. I called them pass-along stories. We all started with the same two lines and wrote for 3-5 minutes. Then you would stop even if in mid-sentence, and pass the story along to the next person. The next person would take a moment to read and then write for 3-5 minutes adding to the story. The process went on 3-5 more times. Then when it finally got back to the owner, he/she would read the whole story and figure out how best to end it. The students loved seeing how the stories turned out. It was a great activity even for reluctant writers.

    I like the first idea you shared about the no peeking story. Will have to try that with the family on our next trip!

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