Rolling Snowballs in Summertime: Using #100DOSW18 to Encourage Deeper Writing Next School Year

Remember how Olaf, the snowman from Frozen, sings about how excited he is to experience summer after Arendelle’s deep freeze? Consider me his opposite. As summer (and summer writing!) approaches, I, ever the Wisconsin girl at heart, am thinking about snow.


I’m thinking specifically about a snowman-size snowball, the kind you make by rolling a small ball across a snowy yard like a hay bale until, layer by layer, it grows to ten times its size. Or the kind that rolls down a mountain to become something comically gargantuan and even village-engulfing.


Now, lest you think that I’m wishing Wisconsin’s 30-inch April snowstorm upon my new (and usually milder) climate in Virginia, let me clarify. I’m thinking about snowballs because, as I review the last pieces of writing from my seniors, I’m not seeing as much snowball writing as I’d like.

What’s snowball writing, you ask? It’s what I’ve decided to call the paragraph or the essay that builds momentum. The writing that–through the growing strength of its layered evidence, interpretation, and analysis–becomes a force of nature, an argument that bowls over the reader. 

As I look at my students’ writing, I realize that, in my eagerness to prepare these new students at a new school for two big essay exams, I rushed us into writing whole papers (snowpeople) when we probably should have spent some time building the pieces of those papers–the individual snowballs, if you will. Quotes and other pieces of evidence were just dropped in front of readers like the remnants of poor Olaf on a warm day. So my challenge for the summer is to develop more opportunities for deep, layered, ruminating analysis, and a great place to begin is the Moving Writers 100 Days of Summer Writing challenge. (Is my excitement for #100DOSW18 be inspiring all of the strange metaphors in today’s post? Probably!)

What I’m thinking about works as a continuation of Rebekah’s introductory lesson. Yesterday, Rebekah shared a fantastic set of questions to help students connect with a notebook prompt; today, in the spirit of the Mindfulness Monday activities my homeroom and I recently enjoyed, I offer some suggestions for “meditating” on some of the #100DOSW18 slides.

Strategy 1: So What?

I’ve asked a lot of questions in the margins this year, and every time I wrote one, it made me think of the drafts I wrote in college, which were peppered with big red pen question marks and a scrawled “so what?” from my professor. What Dr. Pennington meant was “Why does all of this matter?” He needed me to push my discussion further and draw some conclusions about the evidence and interpretations I was sharing. Many writers ask and answer “so what” on their own, but some might need a little prompting. (Kelly Gallagher also discusses a strategy like this one in Write Like This.) Why not use it as a “mantra” for a few days of writing this summer?

Let’s use the opening image in the slide pack as an example:

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 3.05.02 PM

One of the suggested questions for notebook time with a photograph is: What do you wonder?

A “so what” response might look something like this (note–I did not follow the link below the image to learn what was actually happening in the picture):

What do you wonder?

I wonder how old this picture is.

So what?

Because if it’s a new picture, then that leads me to believe that it’s taking place somewhere unlike the places I’ve been, since I’ve never seen animals this big and people traveling in the same compartment!

So what?

When I think about how strange or absurd the image looks to me, I’m even more puzzled by the woman, who looks so calm as she knits.

So what?

So I start to wonder whether it’s my perspective that’s off, how what seems funny and strange to me (or what might have appeared amusing or humorous to the photographer) can be everyday to someone else.

So what?

So I think that if this were displayed in a gallery, maybe it would be used in an exhibit about travel–how we get around or what we learn when we do! It even offers some fun examples of what we do to pass the time as we travel; the woman brings along knitting to keep herself occupied; the reindeer prefers to watch the world go by.

The goal here is for students to keep pushing the writing forward, keep rolling the snowball. “So What?” could be the engine some of your reluctant writers need to keep going on a lazy summer afternoon. Then, in the fall, we can use “So What?” to propel an analysis of a quote, moment, or passage in the reading we explore as a class.

Strategy #2: Object Inquiry→ Passage Inquiry

Back in March, I mentioned taking my students on a virtual field trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. During our “field trip,” students performed “object interrogations,” asking questions of the historical artifacts they selected from the museum’s digital collection (some of these questions are like those Rebekah and Alison use in their “Question Flood” strategy for exploring ideas in Beyond Literary Analysis–that whole section is a treasure trove of methods for encouraging snowball writing!). Some of my favorite questions in the series asked students to think about how the objects related to people and or how the object’s meaning may have changed over time. Here are a few of the questions students considered:

  • What relationship between people does the artifact represent?
  • How could it have united people?
  • How could it have divided people?
  • Did it give a voice to a particular group of people? How?
  • What was the artifact’s original meaning?
  • Has the meaning of the artifact changed over time?
  • What developments caused the change?
  • Did the artifact play a role in causing the change?
  • What does the artifact tell you about the social conditions of the era?
  • What cultural issues does the artifact raise?

Since many of us will be teaching classes, lessons, or units that ask students to make connections between literature and its historical or cultural context, why not turn some of these questions toward the passages and images in the #100DOSW18 Notebook Time prompts? Some of the questions can be answered just by looking at a slide; others can be helped by clicking the links that many slide contributors have provided.

Or perhaps challenge students to work with a slide twice: write once to record noticings and first thoughts; write again to explore how the image or passage is working to cause all of those noticings or craft arguments about history, culture, or society.  

Strategy #3: Turn the prompt into evidence!

At the bottom of a few columns of Rebekah’s “What You Might Write About” list is this question: “What writing might come out of this?” One way to think about that question is how the passage or image could be used as evidence. What claim might it help a writer prove? Why would it be a good piece of evidence to use? To explore that further, students could consider the questions in the “Justify Your Evidence” strategy for exploring ideas in Beyond Literary Analysis

What I’ve suggested here might be tough to facilitate while away from your students, but perhaps you can create your own set of slides or a sheet of questions to help students push a notebook time response one snowball layer further, or, if you are tired of the snow, dig just a bit deeper into the sandbox. Many students are doing this already each time they sit down with their notebooks, but some might need some more encouragement. My hope is that, by ruminating on small pieces over the summer, students will feel more prepared for longer contemplation of larger pieces when school resumes. We’re building analytical stamina.

However you choose to use 100 Days of Summer Writing, there’s a good chance the writing you see in the fall will make you just as happy as Olaf every time he thinks about summer.

Have any other great suggestions for prompting “snowball” writing? Any suggestions for a more accessible or appropriate metaphor? I’m all ears! Please share in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. 


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