It’s often said that writing is a solitary act. The word writer calls to mind a wooden desk, a few pens, a notebook, and a lone writer hunched over a trashcan of crumpled paper. While certainly romantic, this imagery doesn’t represent the whole truth of the writing life — writers don’t always work alone.
I think of my favorite writing professors in colleague – most of them were married to other artists with whom they frequently collaborated. Professor Spaar’s husband set her poetry to music. Professor Orr’s wife, a visual artist, depicted his poems on oversized tapestries that hung in the McGuffey Art Center. Collaboration, it seemed, was another part of the writing process – a thing writers and artists did in addition to planning and creating and revising and publishing. A place where art both began and ended.
Planning out my year, I knew I had to give my students a taste of this — an opportunity to work with other artists to create something bigger and more meaningful than anything they could do on their own.
The first thing I did was plan a collaborative study of children’s literature. As a young mom, I had already done a lot of the mentor text reading at night with my son! And lucky for me, I happen to work at a school with a very strong art program and wonderful art teachers. I knew at least one of them would be excited to collaborate.
As in all good writing studies we began with mentor texts. I selected a handful of children’s books that Katie Wood Ray calls odes, or “books where it’s clear the author has an interest, fascination, love for a topic and crafts a text to help the reader see whatever it is through that lens.” Here are the special books we worked with:
We studied the craft of these books, dreamed up plans for our own stories, and begin writing. Students wrote on everything from guitars to the beach to hiking and biking to tennis to the imagination!
Along the way I taught lessons on clear, engaging titles; creating voice through surprising or invented words; adding rhythm through sentence length; building “word music” with alliteration and other sounds; and using figurative language to show something familiar in a new way. We wrote, studied the mentors, conferenced like crazy, revised, wrote, and finally polished. This process took about three weeks.
Once the text was set, I sent the writing to my colleague Meredith in the art department to distribute to her artists. We decided to keep the pieces anonymous so the artists would choose projects based on writing they were drawn to – not people or friends they wanted to collaborate with.
The day we brought our artists and writers together to announce the partnerships that had formed out of true respect for the work was as exciting as I imagine any residency match day to be!
Here’s how the rest of the collaboration went:
- Meeting 1: Students and artists met for 40 minutes to read through the text together and talk about initial ideas
- Artists spent the following week drawing up several prototypes, based on initial conversations
- Meeting 2: A week later, students met again to look at prototypes, make suggestions, and ultimately discuss a plan for the illustrations
- Artists were given a month to create the illustrations, in addition to other class projects they were working on; my writers moved forward in their next writing study
- Meeting 3: Everyone gathered together to share artwork and discuss book layout. We shared this layout tool with students to help them decide what content would go on each page. Students then completed this template.
- Various meetings between writers and artists – some students met more frequently to discuss illustrations, ask for tweaks, etc.
- Then, once the illustrations were finished, in one week’s time, my students created and published the final books in iBooks with the help of our technology integrator
You can see samples of the amazing books sprinkled throughout this post!
Would I do this study again?
Without a doubt in my mind, I WILL do this study again! Here’s why:
This study brought out the adults in my kids
This was a surprising find. In the first few days of the study, I thought I had made a mistake in doing this study with my 8th graders. They almost seemed too close to the years of children’s literature themselves to fully appreciate this opportunity. They began to act younger, sillier. But once we really dug into the study (about a week) — and especially when we brought in the Honors artists (juniors) — they transformed into wiser, more mature young writers who had a purpose to carry out. They were forced to rise to the maturity and experience of the best artists in our school. They wanted their writing to be just as amazing. Everything we did from that point on was filled with an incredible sense of pride. And pride can do wonders for students’ writing. It was quite beautiful — watching this evolution take place almost over night.
Students became published authors overnight
iBooks is amazing! With some very basic skills, anyone can publish and sell books with iBooks Author. Students can publish hardcover books OR e-books, so cost is not an issue. They can make their books public or make their books only available to friends, family, and other people with whom they want to share it.
This study was the perfect precursor to the study that followed
Following our children’s literature study, we studied children’s book reviews from The New York Times. Students chose one of the children’s book mentor texts we had been studying over the past month to review. I’m certain their reviews would have been far less informed, confident, and smart without an extensive study of the literature itself — so much so that I’m convinced of this: if we ever want students to write powerful analysis of literature, we have to teach them and inspire them to write that kind of literature first.
Working with visual artists strengthened the visual content of students’ writing
Conversations with their artists brought to my writers’ attention areas in their writing that weren’t quite clear enough — parts of their book that needed more focus, more detail, better word choice. Students whose writing lacked clarity and specificity weren’t content with the artists’ prototypes. I would hear them say things like, “That’s not what I wanted,” or “That’s not what I had in mind.” My students literally had to go back to the drawing board to clarify in words what they wanted their artists to visually depict. No lesson I could teach in sensory detail and clarity of writing could match this experience.
In my next several posts, I will share another collaborative writing study I did with my 8th graders this year (nature essays), as well as my tips for creating cross-curricular writing studies, and my thoughts about why this kind of work is important in our classrooms. In the meantime, feel free to share your experiences with collaborative writing studies or other collaborative units that involve writing in your classrooms!