Good morning! Ready to get writing for our final week of Teachers Write? Start with Jo’s Monday Morning Warm-Up, and when you’re back, we have a great mini-lesson today – from Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick, two great authors who have collaborated on their newest project, called TWO NAOMIS.
Many of us know the positives of collaborative work; it can strengthen higher order thinking skills and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL); can lessen stress by reducing burdens on individual students, build community, and even promote healthy competition. And since working together is often enhanced by snacking together whenever possible, it can also be an opportunity for cake. (Really, though; when isn’t there an opportunity for cake?)
There can be challenges, though: the workload becomes uneven, some voices dominate while others go unheard, students worry about being critical of peers—it’s a delicate balance.
Collaboration for us is all about conversation — asking questions, listening for answers. But it’s okay–it’s great, even–if that conversation has some surprises. In a collaborative writing piece, writers have the chance to throw some surprises at their collaborators–and it can really up the fun quotient. When one writer adds details that are new and unexpected, it can be confusing and challenging. But more often, with the right mindset, it can be fun. Imagine a juggler working with two balls. Along comes the collaborator. The juggler stands there, waiting for the third ball to be tossed in. But what if the collaborator tosses a small toaster? A giant stuffed Elmo? Or a bowling trophy? Being open to surprises and willing to work with them is one of the great joys of collaboration.
I love incorporating drama into my workshops and visits, so I often bring index cards that have characters written on them, such as “ten year old”, “toddler”, “mom” and a separate set of cards with one-word emotions, like “frustrated”, “ecstatic”, “miserable”, etc. Then we just mix and match, and act it out, to work on using descriptive language: “Ecstatic toddler!” “Frustrated mom!” We act it out, and take note of movement, dialogue, reaction, etc. and pretty soon we’ve written a scene together. Soon we throw in different settings and go wild:
“A frustrated mom at a fast food restaurant! With an ecstatic toddler! And no money!” Then the students make their own sets of index cards and do the same in small groups. Writing “out loud” in this way can free students up from a focus on writing the “right” words to the freedom of really seeing and being the words as they brainstorm together, to noticing small details that enhance storytelling and listening others’ ideas and points of view.
When we were writing a chapter about one of the first joint Naomis meetups, we started out that way:
What if Naomi Marie had planned to go to the museum with her best friend to work on the BEST PROJECT EVER, on what was supposed to be the perfect day off from school that turned into a forced outing with her pesky little sister, no best friend, AND the Other Naomi who’s threatening to ruin EVERYTHING about her life?
What if Naomi Edith loves nothing more than spending a Lazy Day Off at home, leaving home only to go to her favorite bakery for a late-morning treat, and wakes up to find that she is going to the museum (not the one that her father’s been promising to take her to), with the Other Naomi, a pesky little sister, and a mother who’s NOT her mom?
And what if that mom and that dad are nervous and preoccupied when the Naomis need them most?
And then what if that pesky little sister keeps getting lost and always needs to go to the bathroom?
My Naomi began this chapter annoyed with her little sister. As Audrey wrote her Naomi’s irritation with these moments, I was able to see very clearly how my Naomi, who was equally irritated, also began to feel protective of that same pesky little sister, and had opportunities to include moments and details that showed her tender “big sister” side as well.
Two Naomis started with a conversation – a very silly, what if this? and what if THAT? conversation. And once we settled on a story of two girls both named “Naomi”, we ran with it.
“When I was a junior and senior in college, I was part of an improv comedy troupe. Improv is very much an anything-goes kind of situation, but there’s one main rule everyone generally abides by–the YES, AND rule. If you’re in a scene and someone says, “I’m sorry you broke your arm,” you don’t contradict. You go with it. You’re now a character with a broken arm.
One of the most fun parts for me of collaborative writing is trying mightily to YES, AND any surprising elements your collaborator plants in the text and throwing her some of your own. It’s basically about accepting a premise or information. For me, it made my writing go in directions I would not have strayed, and though it can be scary, it can also be a very good thing.
Here’s how it played out in Two Naomis. We had two characters who shared a first name. We had not yet picked out middle names. And in a chapter Olugbemisola was writing, she gave the Naomi I was writing the middle name Edith. EDITH! I did not think of the Naomi I was writing as someone who would have the middle name Edith! My initial instinct was to talk it out with Olugbemisola and come up with a different name. But once I got past that initial reaction, I was ready to yes-and my way through that. The first Edith who came to mind (after Edith Houghton, the subject of a picture-book biography I had just completed) was Edith Head, the famous costume designer. And just like that I made Naomi E.’s mother, who did not yet have a set occupation, a costume designer which led me to ideas I’d have never had if Olugbemisola had given Edith the kind of middle my character thought she’d have preferred, like Violet or Ruby.
Using questions as a collaborative writing and revision strategy can help make the process less stressful and even fun for student writers. As we worked together, writing alternate chapters, instead of “critiquing” each other’s work, and simply suggesting changes or edits, we asked questions.
How do you want the reader to feel?
What do you mean by this phrase?
Why is this character doing that?
How do you think Character A will feel if Character B does this?
Why did you make her say THAT?
This strategy of focusing on meaning-making rather than “corrections” can ease the pressure of “being critical” for students working with each other on revision, and encourage student writers to dig deeper, to clarify, to figure out what they really mean. And as we believe that revision is an essential part of the writing process, we find that revisiting and revising these strategies is also vital. Give student writers opportunities for confidential assessment and feedback without the worry of stigma as whistleblowers, as well as opportunities for whole group conversation…about the conversation.
Asking open-ended questions, listening with “Yes, and…” in mind, making the “what ifs” a conversation – incorporating these strategies in the collaborative writing process opens windows of opportunity for surprise and wonder, for creative thinking, and for unique and thoughtful stories. And that is certainly something to celebrate together.
Perhaps with cake.
YES, AND ice cream.
Today’s Assignment: Want to give this collaborative writing thing a try? Find a buddy. It can your friend or partner or one of your kids or neighbors. It can be an online friend you’ve met here or a colleague at school. Try brainstorming a story idea together using some of Gbemi & Audrey’s techniques. Then come back and let us know how it went!