Reflections from an Author: Why Teachers Must Write (Guest Post)
By Frank Murphy
Recently, Lynne Dorfman wrote a Teacher to Teacher post about using my newest book, Take a Hike Teddy Roosevelt, as a mentor text to help guide the instruction of teachers of young writers. (Of course, I was, and still am, flattered!!) Soon after, on a Saturday in January, we co-presented on the same topic for some dedicated members of the Capital Reading Council in Harrisburg, PA.
In a nutshell, I started the event off by sharing the story of how Teddy became so dedicated to environmental conservation; then Lynne went about analyzing how she could use this book as a mentor text for elementary school student writers. (If you’ve never seen Lynne present – she’s like a literary surgeon on Skittles!!). She focused on many things, from strong verbs to exact nouns. Even artful sentence fragments! (I hope she thought that one was artful!) All of Lynne’s analysis forced me to recollect so much of the writing and rewriting and imagining of writing that I did over the last few years of constructing and crafting this book in collaboration with my editor, Anna Membrino. It also made me reflect on a recent lesson that I taught to my current sixth grade students that I’ll discuss later.
After Lynne highlighted a long list of the specific nouns I used and then another list of the strong verbs I chose, she noted something that is critically important for young writers to learn – and, maybe, even more critical for teachers to be wary of in teaching writers. Lynne noticed that I used very few adjectives. Of all the points Lynne made about the text, this is the only one that I can’t consciously remember being purposeful about; I did not purposefully decide to limit adjectives. I didn’t craft the sentence “This story is about how Theodore Roosevelt protected America’s environment” intentionally leaving out the adjective “beautiful” before “environment”. I didn’t craft the sentence “Teddy had just made America’s first amazing wildlife refuge” and then take out the word “amazing” – I never even considered the word “amazing”. I knew that the adjective “first” was just enough and much more important than any flowery attempt at describing the noun “refuge”, (…but I like how I just used “flowery” to illuminate the word “attempt”!).
Now that lesson with my sixth graders – I was having them toy with the unconventional craft use of “out-of-place” adjectives. (Here’s an example from my student Emily: “Last night I saw an ocean, indigo glowing.”) Part of the lesson involved my students personally constructing two sentences that contained an adjective being used in the traditional fashion, before the noun. Then they had to re-craft it and strategically place the adjective immediately after the noun – either at the end of the sentence or, possibly, in the middle. The effect (when done well) can be powerful, making a sentence unforgettable. The process of the attempted craft move with adjectives out-of-order can help train writers of all ages. (I tell my young writers that working with the crafting and recrafting of sentences is like playing with Play-Doh!)
When Lynne highlighted my sparse use of adjectives in Take a Hike, Teddy Roosevelt, this really highlighted the next step I had my students do. They had to find a professional writer’s sentence (containing an adjective) and try to re-craft it. I had them excavate from P.G. Wodehouse’s short story, The Mixer. Now here’s what was so cool and what struck me and connected to Lynne’s spotlight on my lack of adjectives: My students had an incredibly difficult time finding many sentences with any meaningful adjectives. One boy named Connor approached me and said, “Mr. Murphy, all I could find were some “basic” adjectives like ‘good’!” The combo of Connor’s revelation coupled with Lynne’s highlighting the lack of adjectives was a reminder to me that I have to branch off from this craft lesson about out-of-place adjectives and also deliver an explicit lesson to my students about careful decision-making about adjectives and the need to write with powerful nouns and verbs. It’s true…many of the best-written pieces do not have many adjectives.
But all of this got me thinking further. It leads my mind to reaching out to teachers, at all levels. And this is something I do not necessarily like doing…here I go…I am stepping up onto a soapbox and preaching…TEACHERS MUST WRITE! We must! We must challenge ourselves in the same way we challenge our students with writing! If we write and allow others to analyze our writing, it allows us to reflect on our writing and then reflect and project on our teaching of writers. This is what Lynne Dorfman reminded me of on that Saturday in January. She pushed me to become more informed and reflective about my own writing and my teaching of writers. It’s the best way we can help our writers grow and be even more successful than they already are!
Frank, a PAWLP fellow, is the author of The Legend of the Teddy Bear, George Washington & the General’s Dog, Ben Franklin & the Magic Squares and Babe Ruth Saves Baseball. His newest book is Take a Hike, Teddy Roosevelt. He is currently working on another beginning reader about Clara Barton! The Legend of the Teddy Bear won an IRA/CBC Children’s Choice Award in 2001. Frank has book sales totaling over one million copies. A national speaker/presenter at colleges, universities, school, museums and educational organizations, Frank still loves teaching his sixth graders writers in the Council Rock School District.