Earlier this spring, I spent a fantastic day working with 4th and 5th grade writers at Chamberlin School in South Burlington. They wanted to learn about researching and writing historical fiction, so I brought in research materials and primary source documents, as well as some 18th century artifact replicas for a little experimental archaeology. We tried our hands at tabletop ninepins, wrote on slates, tasted molasses cookies, tried (again and again and again) to master the bilbo catcher, and used flint and steel to make sparks.
The kids took notes using all of their senses and used those notes to craft stories narrated by a child living in a farmhouse on Lake Champlain when Benedict Arnold’s fleet ran aground after the Battle of Valcour Island. They revised. Rock star librarian Cally Flickinger helped them form critique groups and coached them in providing constructive feedback. They revised again and posted their work to a blog where I could follow up on it a few weeks after my visit. I played editor and made one more round of comments so they could revise again.
The final result…some amazing pieces of historical fiction. Move over, Laurie Halse Anderson…
Why is there a boat in the water on the end of the field?Who are they? What right did they have to just barge in to my fathers property? What are they doing here?Questions flooded into my mind as soon as I saw the boat on the water .Questions that needed to be answered.
Check out Abby’s fantastic voice…
My name is James Greene. Today’s a special day because it’s Gramps’ 64th birthday. He’s a really nice man who has greyish-black hair. Everyone ’round the region likes him. He rarely gets into arguments and can solve problems real easy. Because he’s gettin’ old, his mind is all mixed up so we try not to confound him. We get up real early today, and we clean up the house real good. Ma, Abigail, and Andrea make molasses cookies. I’m licking my lips as I do the farm work all by myself as quick as a wink. When Gramps wakes up, we all gobble up the cookies.
During the day, we play Tabletop Ninepins. Gramps and Andrea aren’t as good as me when we play it. Every time I play, I knock down every one o’ the nine pins, making a soft clink sound when I knock them down. Ma and Abigail won’t play because they say it ain’t ladylike. I think they either don’t know how to play or know how to play but don’t like playing. I’ve seen girls as big as Abigail play Tabletop Ninepins. But, that doesn’t matter much to me ’cause I’m a boy.
Near the end of the day, we go down to the beach. The wind is blowing north. With my sharp, dark brown eyes, I spot some ships. I start shouting excitingly to Gramps.
”Look over there,” I start shouting, pointing to the faint dot of the ships. “Look over there, Gramps!”
Andrea, my twin, follows my gaze. We soon recognize the American flag flying on one ship and the British flag on ‘nother. We quickly run back in our cab’n and watch silently at the chase. The British fleet seem to be chasing the American ship. There was an enormous gulf between them but the British seem to be catching up slowly. I’m a bit scared the British would get them because the gulf between them is gettin’ smaller and smaller. But, the British suddenly got off course, and the Americans quickly drop anchor in the harbor. Men come off the ship in groups. Soon, they set their ships on fire. I think they did that so’s not to show British where they had gone. The men head toward the woods. Instantly, I notice a man with an injured arm.
Alaina’s story had a great circular structure.
Sam and Sara were sitting outside practicing penmanship on a Writing Slate it was hard to write on. Sara was really good at it and wrote it very neatly. Sara was the best at it. Sam, on the other hand, was very bad at it. But, Sara taught him and he got better and better at it. When Elsa came to Sara’s house she would always say,” Sara, I love your mother’s molasses cookies.” They were lucky to have so many cookies. This is how the story begins and how the story ends, with Molasses Cookies.
Chloe captures the frustration of that bilbo catcher in her hook.
Ugh! I can’t get the ball on to the spool! I have only done it once and that was the first time I tried it! The bilbo catcher was SO hard! I was watching mama put the molasses cookies on the tray while me and my sister were playing in the kitchen while she was doing it. cloves smeled lovely and the ginger was so strong and powdery. It smelled of, um, ah, oh! Great cookies!
Ekow included a great journal entry in his story.
Sunday, October 13th 1776
Today was one of the strangest days of my life. The morning was pretty normal. Then in the afternoon while a strong north wind was blowing I went outside to look at the sea. That was when I saw them. Two American ships.
“Run it aground! We shall not strike the colors even if it is the last thing we do!” barked one man. That was when it happened. Just like that both American fleets ran aground near where old Betsy (our cow) was roaming.
Emma captures the fear of that day.
I was so scared that I ran into my room and cried like crazy. I remembered that we have a woods in our backyard and I said to myself “I’ll be safe there”. So I snuck out in the woods tears still dripping down my face. I found my brother already there sitting in a corner crying because he was so scared. I knew why.
I love Haley’s transition from every day farm life to the arrival of the ships.
I walk over to the pile where I see my father bending over some birch bark with a flint and steel, which he is using to make a spark, but having no luck. When I reach him I ask if I can try. Father looks at me strangely, but hands over the flint and steel. I bend over the pieces of wood and scan it for a dry piece of wood. I find one piece that is perfect. I gripe the cold hard metal of the steel and bring the flint up, with my entire force I slam it on the steel. A half a dozen bright orange sparks catch me by surprise and I almost drop the steel.
My father stares at me in amazement, I see that my sparks have caught on to the twigs and started to burn.
“Was that your first time with a flint and steel?” my father says with a hint of awe in his voice.
“Yes,” I reply quietly.
We start feeding the flame with wood and brush. Suddenly my father stops and holds up his hand for me to stop as well. I freeze, not hearing what my father heard. He takes my hand and gently pulls me to the lake’s edge. I stare in wonder at the sight before me.
Some of the American fleet that had been fighting for Lake Champlain were in the bay!
Jake sets the scene perfectly for his “final final” draft of the story!
Final final October 13,
I have seen a strange site today.
My mom was bakeing malassess cookies in the kitchen and I was writing my score on tabletop ninepins with my slate. The house was tingling with the unfamiliar smell of ginger. Yesterday I beat the anoying bully, Gregory on bilbo catcher. I also showed my friend Wayne my new llama for the barn.
Jamie did a great job including information from historical documents.
I went inside and saw a flames coming from the bay. It looked about one hundred feet away. I looked closely and it looked like a ship was burning. Then I saw a bunch of people getting off from the boat and running to my backyard. I quickly ran out the door and followed them. It turns out that they were American soldiers fleeing from their boat. I met with some of them and they said that Arnold had told them to not surrender and to run aground and burn their ships. The men had an awful smell to them and a lot of them were bleeding. They said that sixty of the men had been killed in the battle.
Don’t you love Jesse’s characterization of the kids?
“Stop that” my little brother yells. I am holding the Bilbo Catcher high above my head. He can’t reach it. “Give it to me Awison”. He can’t say Alyson.
“Alyson give the Bilbo Catcher to Lucas now.” “You’re not being very nice.” my mother says.
“Awison!” Lucas screams again.
“Fine”. I finally give him the Bilbo Catcher. He runs outside to play with his friend. We are watching Lucas’ friend for the day. His parents are busy. They do very weird things. Mom always says ‘They’re just being boys. You are like them sometimes, but you are way more trouble.’ Trouble? I like the sound of that.
And Jessica shows us through dialogue that siblings argue in every century.
I shouted, “for the fifth time, no!”
Making it seem like I had hit him, he made his big brown eyes water a bit and he wiggled his lower lip.
“Sara J Hanson, how many times do I have to tell you not to hit your brother?” shouted my mom in anger.
“I wasn’t anywhere near him!” I cried.
Jessica M. describes the action of Arnold’s troops retreating into the woods.
Men were yelling “we won’t let them get the ships”. Ships were running a ground some soldiers was injured. One man jumped off the ship limping and an arm in a sling. Each man had a haversack.It looked like they hadn’t had a bath in years.
They were trying to get into the woods. They slowed down when they got into the woods. Some of them looked really tired and ragged. After all that happened my mom and dad and three brothers and me were still standing there looking in the woods.
Mariah introduces us to the fabulous Lucy.
You’re probably wondering who I am; I am Lucy Dancouver. I’m not like my mother-proper and clean. I’m not like my father-dirty and lean. I’m not like my brother-strange and creepy. I’m a 10-year old girl with big blue eyes and brown hair that sparkles when the sun hits it. My parents call me “trouble” because I’ve nearly burnt the house down several times with my experiments. I loves animals and nature. I spend most of my days in the woods exploring the surroundings with my dog, Scooter, who is a pointer. I record what I find on my writing slate.
Matt uses terrific sensory language to set the scene.
Ma and I were gathering up the ingredients to make molasses cookies for the family. My older brother Jonas just finished helping Pa with gathering dry wood for our fire place. I wish I could help but Pa doesn’t let girls use axes. Next, Jonas is goin’ to use the hard flint to start the fire so we can bake the cookies. He hits the piece of steel against the flint stone and makes a bright spark that lights the kindling wood. When we were cookin’ my baby brother Zachariah spilled the cloves all over the table. So Ma put him in back in his cradle so he won’t get in no more trouble. I had to pick them up and put them back in their container. Cloves are rough and sharp but they smell like cinnamon. I like the way they smell. It’s a strong spicy smell. When Ma and I were done with the bakin’, the sweet brown cookies tasted lovely in my mouth. I hope to be as good a baker as Ma one day.
Michael describes a day that goes from rough to rougher when the ships arrive.
October, 11 1776
I was sitting by the lake with my Bilbo Catcher, having a great time. I got frustrated a lot it’s so hard. You have to catch on a tiny wooden thing. I hate the sound when you miss it’s like clacking wood. Then my mother called me for supper.I was so angry at how hard my Bilbo Catcher was, I screamed at my mom, “I don’t care!’My mother screamed, “Thomas, that is rude!”I ended up with welts on my butt because I was disrespectful, and lost my Bilbo catcher.
Moe includes a great mix of personality and historical facts.
I kept watching the men run up the beach .Something confused me the sailors started to light there boats on fire.The fire reminded me of rain drops. This surprised me I thought you wanted to keep your boats.These weren’t very big boats either yet more than fifty men came off. As the boats burned men ran in all different directions. Most of the men ran into the woods .
Morgan’s short sentences and onomatopoeia capture the chaos of that day.
“I need help with the cookie-” *boom* *crack*
“GET OUTSIDE,” my mom yelled.
We all ran out to look out at the now dark-cloud-covered lake and sure enough there was gun-boats in full retreat.
“Why are they coming into the bay?” Asked Ethan.
“I Don’t know,” said my father.
Suddenly the Ships stopped and all the sailors jumped out with the boats lit with a Huge “ahhhhhh!”
*BOOOOOOOOOOM* the ship exploded with there flags still flying.
“Come on!” yelled a Officer on the bank of the bay as all the soldiers ran into the woods behind my house.
“What the heck!?” I yelled.
“Kids get in the house, NOW” yelled my dad.
Nina’s vivid details capture the emotion of this day.
I could still remember a couple years ago, when my mama and I were making molasses cookies with the ginger and cloves. I still remember the scent, it was the hot, warm, fuzzy scent that warmed your heart. You just wanted to eat them right up! That’s when it all happened. That’s when the swivel guns started to shoot and I got really scared. Then I started screaming. And mama came running into the kitchen asking me what was wrong.
“Laura what’s wrong?” my mama asked me
“Mama! there are people shooting, and weird people all over the place!” I said “They’re wearing the same outfits!” “strange outfits like…red coats. Because of their red coats colonists called them lobster backs.
“Wait, where is papa?” she asked me calmly, but I could see in her eyes that she was frightened.
Raisa helps us imagine what the sudden arrival of the ships must have been like.
I was practicing writing on my writing slate. I just came back from helping my dad start a fire. My fingers weretired and sore from trying to start the fire with the flint and steel.I wasn’t in the mood to practice writing but I would get in trouble if I didn’t. I wanted to play tabletop ninepins or play with my bilbo catcher. Even though I wasn’t very good at playing either of them it was better then practicing writing. I was bored and trying to write faster when I heard stentorian and unusual noises. I heard sounds that reminded me of when I help dad start a fire. Then I heard footsteps, lots of them, and it sounded like they were running. I looked outside to see what the noise was from. I opened the door. The smell of smoke filled the air. I looked out inquiringly. All I could see was fire. I took a closer look. Behind all of the fire were ships, people set the ships on fire?
Sparsh shows us with vivid detail how an ordinary day on the farm is interrupted.
Alls that it was is a normal Sabbath, Mama was making crunchy, sweet Molasses Cookies. I could smell how sweet and bitter it was from my place, playing Bilbo Catcher with Elizabeth. Bilbo Catcher is a wooden thing that is pointed at the top. It also has a ball attached with a string. You have to try to get the ball on the pointed thing. Papa was working on the farm. I was just about to go help Mama when Papa yelled, “James! come here right now!” “Good luck James!” says Elizabeth.
I went to get Papa but what I just heard stopped me. I heard swivel guns firing and above all, a great gun. I also heard a commotion, about 40 men at least. The men rushed past us. What I saw next were 3 British ships looming over the horizon, getting closer to shore firing, as quick as they could. We saw them running to the woods “Will we be alright?” I questioned. “I hope so.” Mama said in a hushed voice. Then we saw the British coming and chasing the Americans. We could only hope the American soldiers would be safe.
Taylor takes us right inside the farmhouse. Can you smell the cookies baking?
Anna was sitting there playing table top nine pins with her brother while her mom was making molasses cookies Anna asked her mom, “When are the cookies ging to be done?”
“Later,” Anna’s mom replied
“Fine, ”Anna said. Anna could see those pins fall she could hear them clunk she could smell those molasses cookies then all of a sudden she heard a big CCCRRRAAASSSHHH it was the boats coming aground
Theodore’s research on the end of the battle is evident in the conclusion of his piece.
I ran to mamma to tell her but she did not believe me and said, “I told you not to lie any more about serious things like this type of situation.” I showed her. She was worried pieces because she was upset and wooried some one might get hurt. I ran to her and said they were fighting for the continental army.
When the soldiers got to shore they looked very tired and weak from the other battles they had fought. They left the black powder on the ships and set them on fire. If you know anything about black powder, you know if it catches on fire it is sure not to be good. When they set the boats on fire, there were explosions going on where ever I could see. I could still see our grate old flag flying on the boats. When they got done setting the boats on fire they ran across the lawn and into the woods like a bunch of chikens that were getting chased.
I was truly impressed by the way these kids worked on multiple revisions and by the time their teachers and librarian dedicated to make those revisions meaningful. That kind of time for thoughtful writing can be hard to come by in public schools but is so, so worthwhile.
Thank you, Chamberlin kids, for the opportunity to work with you on your amazing pieces of historical fiction!