The third graders were having a hard time.
“We’re writing pourquoi tales in this unit,” explained their teacher, “which have to be based on the students’ research of frogs. We practiced writing one together and now they have to write their own, but they keep coming up with stuff that doesn’t quite work. I’ll end up with twenty stories about ‘Why Frogs Have Eyes’ or something.”
So, as extra practice, I agreed to come help the children write pourquoi stories on topics of their choosing. I modeled writing one of my own composition, “Why People Wear Shoes,” incorporating their artistic contributions along the way (my main character meets a talking owl and the kids said it needed to be huge so that my character could ride on its back, which greatly enhanced the story).
Then we brainstormed ideas that they might write about:
Why there are stars
Why there are oceans
Why the ocean is salty
Why zebras have stripes
Why there are colors (challenging!)
Or anything else in the universe that might make a sensible pourquoi.
“Remember,” I told them, as they settled on their ideas and started to write, “you can have fun with this. You can make animals can talk, you can make mysterious things happen, but your stories have to clearly explain why or how something is the way it is.”
When I returned the next day, the teacher said, “You’ve got to hear this!” She asked a boy to read his draft to the class. A quiet boy who hadn’t seemed especially interested in writing.
I sat down and listened. He’d chosen “Why the Ocean Water is Salty.” A man working in the mountains delivered salt to people in a stagecoach. Thieves threw a stick of dynamite into it, which frightened the horses. They drove over a cliff into the sea, where the dynamite went off, dispersing “billions of salt” throughout the water.
Oh, and the driver survives, retires, and decides he’ll just fish and hunt for the rest of his life.
He finished reading. His classmates applauded enthusiastically.
Must have been a full minute before I thought to close my gaping mouth.
“Amazing!” I finally managed to say. “What made you think of a stagecoach?”
“Well, first I wrote that the man was breaking up rocks on the mountain and hit one accidentally with his foot. It rolled down a cliff and knocked other rocks in, but then I thought, that doesn’t make sense. Rocks won’t make the ocean salty. So I thought about a stagecoach with salt in it. Then I needed something to explode in the water . . .”
—Makes perfect sense to me.
The moral of the story:
We can show them the stagecoach
but if we never let them load it as they please,
they’ll drive only so far.
Set the wheels in motion,
hand over the reins,
jump out of the way.
See what astonishing routes they take.