Many of the second graders were bent over their desks, writing. Others were rereading their work with pencils in hand, like diminutive journalists editing reports in a newsroom. A few more looked off into space, thinking, before returning to the pages lying before them.
One of the joys of my role as literacy coach is getting to write with students and teachers across grade levels. The previous day I had come to model realistic fiction writing for this class, focusing on how to bring the stories to life with detail and dialogue:
“When I write realistic fiction, ladies and gentlemen, I often use what has happened in my own life. That’s why you were sad when my main character’s favorite toy got ruined – you felt what she felt, because it was something that had happened to me. I could give a lot of descriptive detail because I really lived it. That’s why you laughed at the conversation between my characters, because those were real conversations I had when I was that age. I just let my characters say those things. If you want to bring your realistic fiction to life, try using some things you have really seen, said, done, or felt.”
The children decided individually whether dialogue or more detail in setting was the thing they most needed to work on, and today I was back to see how it was going. One by one, I knelt beside them to hear revisions they’d made. I noted excited twitches as I approached – these kids knew their work was better.
I paused by a desk where a girl was absorbed in writing. I remembered her piece from the day before, in which she described a porch where two little girls were having a conversation. When she’d read it aloud, I could envision the girls sitting together on the porch, but the dialogue didn’t seem to be about anything in particular. “Try to think of what might matter to these girls,” I had advised. “Are they happy about something? Worried? Think about what matters to you and see if you can help your characters have a meaningful conversation that a reader would want to read.”
Now I knelt beside her. “Do you want to read your writing to me, or keep working?”
“I want to read it to you.”
She did. As I listened, a line from Emily Dickinson’s letter to a publisher sprang to mind, asking if her verse “was alive”: Should you think it breathed – and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude . . .
“What a major improvement in dialogue! This part, here, where your main character tells her friend that she’s excited about getting a stepfather to do things with, but is also a little afraid – that’s the best line in your story. This is where it really comes to life. It’s great writing.”
She looked up at me, eyes big and solemn. “I did what you said. That’s how I feel. My mom is getting married again.” And she bent back over her writing, drawn like a duck to water or a swallow to the air, a compulsion I fully recognized, for when we write, we are putting pieces of our souls on the page. Facing our fears, meeting ourselves where we are, daring to hope, finding a safe haven, maybe to heal. Even in the second grade.
Very real, indeed.
Reflect: What truth will you write about today?