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  • Katherine Higgs-Coulthard

Potluck - "A Roomful of Writers"

Each summer I work alongside amazing teachers to lead a summer youth writing project (SYWP) for students in grades 3-12. Founded on the tenets of the National Writing Project, our SYWP offers young writers a space to explore and expand their own voices with the support of skilled teachers.

This year felt different. We had been unable to hold our camp in 2020 due to the pandemic. Many of our campers had opted out of in-person schooling for the 2020-21 school year. We worried that our youngest campers might struggle with writing fluency more than usual. Additionally, our camp had shifted from half days to full days. How would we keep the students engaged and writing for 6 hours?

At our pre-camp planning sessions, my co-teachers and I reviewed activities that had worked in past years. At home, I dug out my teaching books, highlighting passages and taking notes. When the first day of writing camp arrived, we were ready. We printed the agenda on the board, a full slate of writing-related games, prompts, and activities that we had decided our students would need to jumpstart their creativity.

We began by asking the children to introduce themselves and share something they wanted the group to know about them. The first child told us that his name is Danny Coleman (all names are pseudonyms), that he has three goats, two dogs, two cats, one salamander, one bearded dragon, one hermit crab, and a lot of other animals, and even though his favorite genre is medieval fantasy adventure, he only writes science fiction comedic adventures.

"I'm on book four of the Sir Wilson series, Sir Wilson and the Crystal of Power," Danny informed us.

I told him I hadn't heard of that series yet and made a mental note to look it up.

"I'd be happy to loan it to you," Danny said as he reached into his backpack and pulled out four spiral notebooks, each containing a handwritten novel with the author's name, Danny Coleman, in black sharpie on the cover.

Did I mention that Danny is in fourth grade?

Danny set the tone for the rest of the introductions. The students told us about their pets, their favorite genres to read, and their works in progress. After the last one had shared, Sami, the youngest, asked, "Can we write now?"

While they pulled out their notebooks and dug in, my co-teacher and I met briefly to consider a new plan. How had we forgotten the basic tenet of writer's workshop? We needed to trust these young writers. They obviously did not need all of the pre-writing activities we'd planned. We committed to prioritizing their own projects over our activities and to support their growth by focusing on what strategies would help them most in their writing goals.

I'd like to say that first day passion permeated every moment of our week long camp. The truth is that Sami, our "Can we write now?" kid, also was the first to announce she was done writing and that mini-lessons were boring. Danny did not have a lot of patience with the princess stories his partner shared during peer conferencing. And sometimes even the most prolific writers needed periodic breaks to run around the gym in the dark playing Ghost in the Graveyard. But in the end, being in this room full of writers reminded us that sometimes students come with their own stories. Creating space for those stories and basing feedback on the authentic reactions of real readers can motivate writers to stretch and grow.

- Katherine Higgs-Coulthard

ICTE President-Elect

Saint Mary’s College

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