National Writing Project

Growing Writers Through Collaboration

By: Kathy Brody
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 10, No. 1
Date: 2005

Summary: Brody recounts her fourth grade class's inspired collaboration in writing and illustrating Animalogies: A Collection of Animal Analogies, which won Scholastic's Kids Are Authors contest in 2003 and has been published by Scholastic.

 

It was the colorful, childlike illustration on the cover that first caught my eye. As I browsed through the shelves at our school's annual Scholastic Book Fair, many of the titles were familiar to me. An avid reader of children's books and a regular visitor to the children's section at my local bookstore, I keep current with children's literature. But the book that caught my attention was one I hadn't seen before. Picking it off the shelf, I took a closer look. Little did I suspect that the picture book I was holding, Who Let the Cat Out of the Bag? was going to take me on one of the most gratifying journeys of my professional career.

I have just completed my 28th year of teaching elementary school. Currently I teach fourth grade at the Six to Six Interdistrict Magnet School in Bridgeport, Connecticut. For some time, I have been fascinated with the process that young writers go through as they learn to craft a piece of writing. This passion has led me to explore the art of writing through readings, numerous workshops, and, most recently, the summer institute of the Connecticut Writing Project–Fairfield. Under the leadership of Faye Gage, the writing project site director, I spent four weeks with a group of other teachers learning to think like writers: discussing theory, collaborating on new insights and ideas, and sharing our own writing. Rarely has a workshop so clearly spoken to me and my beliefs about children as writers. I returned to the new school year armed with a determination and resolve to equip my students with everything possible to nurture the writer inside each of them. So, on an otherwise uneventful fall day, just a couple of months into the new school year, I found myself side-by-side with my fourth-graders, perusing the book fair selections for additional examples of good writing.

As I examined the book's cover, I noticed that the authors and illustrators were fourth-graders in a California elementary school. And in the cover's bottom right corner was a circular gold medallion. Although it looked similar to the foil medallions seen on Caldecott and Newbery Medal–winning books, the emblem was different from either of those. With a closer look at the medallion's embossed letters, I discovered the line "Kids Are Authors." Now my curiosity was piqued.

Minutes later, with book in hand, I was back in my classroom, gathering my students on the rug to share my discovery. As with any new book, the children were excited about listening to the story, but when I read aloud the title and author, "Who Let the Cat Out of the Bag? by the Fourth Grade Students from Reseda, California," their anticipation grew. Sitting just a little taller and with eyes focused even more intently than usual, they readied themselves for the reading.

"This book was written by students your age!" I exclaimed and, turning to the first page, I began to read.

A book about idioms, Who Let the Cat Out of the Bag? is a charming compilation of these expressions, one to a page and each creatively illustrated with painted paper. Reading to the class, I was struck by my fourth-graders' reaction to this student-created book. Completely engaged, they buzzed excitedly as they tried to convert the literal meaning of each expression to its idiomatic meaning. By the time I finished reading, there was no doubt that every one of my students, having had no prior knowledge of idioms, had, in just 15 minutes, learned the meaning of this sophisticated new concept.

"I bet we could do this," I impulsively announced after reading the last page.

My spontaneous suggestion was met with equally enthusiastic cheers: "Let's try it! Let's write our own book, too!" And it was that enthusiasm—that unbridled energy—that served as the catalyst for the book that Room 202 was about to write. Although we had not a clue about what the book's topic might be, one thing was clear: Who Let the Cat Out of the Bag? had ignited such a spark inside these fourth-graders that they were determined to write a book of their own for Scholastic's Kids Are Authors writing competition.

During the next couple of months, amidst our daily classroom routines, we began to consider ideas for the book. The first stages of the writing process had begun. We collected and explored a number of possibilities, but none seemed to fit perfectly. One day in early January, I was in the middle of teaching a lesson on analogies—a new concept for the fourth-graders—when it occurred to me.

"Has anyone ever read a book about analogies?" I asked. Having never even seen one myself, I suggested, "Since none of us has ever read an analogies book, what would you think of writing one ourselves?" When the students' cries of approval died down, I breathed a sigh of relief. Our idea had been planted.

Over the next several weeks, the class immersed itself in the study of analogies—reading them, writing them, and illustrating them. In the beginning, I modeled different types of analogies—part to whole, action, characteristic—and then I gave the children worksheets in which they were asked to fill in the missing word for each analogy. ("Glove is to hand as sock is to _______.")

When they became competent completing these partial analogies, they began creating their own. At first, they wrote analogies about themselves and their families:

Mother is to father as aunt is to uncle.

Then they moved on to writing analogies about our school.

Principal is to school as teacher is to classroom.

After each analogies assignment, the students would share their ideas aloud, and I would list them on chart paper and hang it up for every-one to see. As our classroom walls filled with student examples, it was easy to see that Room 202 was becoming a class of "analogy experts."

To watch the children in action as they modeled the true spirit of collaboration throughout the entire book publication process made me unbelievably proud.

One day a student suggested that the class try to write analogies about animals. Remembering discussions from the summer institute about the power of choice, I encouraged the children to try this new idea. Suddenly all 16 students were completely absorbed in creating analogies about their favorite animals. As the remaining empty spaces on our classroom walls soon filled with new chart paper lists, it became clear that the analogy theme for our book had been narrowed even further. Room 202 was writing a book about animal analogies.

Eventually it was time to select the actual text for the book. "How do we decide how many analogies go into the final book?" one student wanted to know. "How do we choose which analogies to use?" another asked. Some of the questions we answered together through whole-group conferences. But to answer some questions—such as how many analogies would fit in the book—we needed more information, so I printed the Kids Are Authors contest guidelines off the Scholastic website. The guidelines stated that the page total needed to be between 21 and 29 pages, so, with one analogy per page, almost 30 analogies could be included. As we continued to discuss the page plan, we came upon the idea of presenting only half of each analogy per page, modeling the layout after the "guess-and-turn-the-page" format of Eric Carle's book Do You Want to Be My Friend? In the end, the class preferred this arrangement, and based on a total number of 28 pages, we calculated that we could include 14 analogies.

Once the number of analogies had been confirmed, the final selections needed to be made. To begin the selection process, we agreed that each student would nominate one analogy for the book. A nomination could be any analogy from the entire list of student-created analogies; it did not have to be one that the student himself had written. When all 16 students had chosen one analogy, we discovered that several of the nominated analogies mentioned the same animal. Since the class had decided to include each type of animal only once in the book, a couple of the analogies with repeat animals were eliminated. In a short time, our original list of analogies had been whittled to 14, and we were ready to go.

With the analogy choices and page arrangement dilemmas solved, the students turned their attention to the next phase of book production—illustrating each analogy. As a class, the students decided to use printed paper collage for the illustrations—a technique with which the children were familiar. Looking at the final list of analogies, each student signed up for the analogy that he or she was interested in illustrating. Since the original list of analogies had shrunk from 16 to 14 entries, two of the students agreed to illustrate an analogy with a partner.

On the first day of illustrating, I began the process with a conversation about printed paper and color selections. "What if you're making a tree, and there is no solid brown paper for its trunk?" I asked. The children decided that any color or print could serve beautifully as a tree trunk—using their imaginations was going to be the key. I laid out dozens of sheets of printed papers on the longest table in our classroom. After the children received plain white sheets of construction paper for their backgrounds, they were off and running.

We watched the book take shape over the next several weeks as the pictures emerged on each page. Observing the students as they problem-solved, coached each other, and persevered when initial cutouts didn't turn out the way they had hoped, I was amazed. Everywhere in the room, the students were making collaborative decisions. "What colors do I want to use for the dog?" "What prints will look like seaweed in the water?" "Now that my animal is done, what do I want to include in the background to make it look more realistic?"

When all of the illustrations were completed, the young authors still had several final decisions to make. How would we title the book? How would the cover be designed and who would do it? To whom would the book be dedicated? Of these concerns, the title came surprisingly easily. One day, as the class pondered this decision, the children began playing with the words, repeating them over and over: "Animal analogies . . . animal analogies." Suddenly, one of the boys raised his hand and offered, "What if we put the two words together to make one—Animalogies?" Voila! Our book had a title.

The decision for the cover design is also a testament to the team spirit and strong sense of community that this class had fostered and now shared. As we discussed this important aspect of the book, one of the students suggested that whoever's page ended up being last in the book should also get to have their page grace the cover since, of course, no one wanted her page to be last.

Finally, the class was ready to write the dedication for the book. As a homework assignment one night, I asked every student to write one idea for the book's dedication. The next morning, everyone took out their ideas to share. To the delight of the class, nearly all of them had chosen to dedicate the book to the fourth grade authors of Who Let the Cat Out of the Bag?—the book that had inspired them all. Student writers had become inspirations for other student writers.

The attention to detail, the thinking, and the learning that took place in the course of creating this book was obvious. But for me, as a teacher, the most exciting facet of the children's work was the incredible collaboration that took place at every stage of the process. Comments like "I'm not sure about this part" brought helpful suggestions from several students; "Let me see if I can help you" became a frequently heard remark. To watch the children in action as they modeled the true spirit of collaboration throughout the entire book publication process made me unbelievably proud. In the end, just before submitting the book to Scholastic, I thought about having individual students sign the bottom of "their" pages but then realized that in many cases we'd have to include a whole list of student names if we were to accurately reflect those who contributed to each page.

Finally, less than twenty-four hours before the deadline, I mailed our book, Animalogies, to Scholastic. Whatever the result of the contest might be, I told myself that day, I knew that we had all contributed to something incredible—not only the final product of our collaborative efforts but especially the powerful process that we had all undergone to create this picture book.

In early May 2003, the news came: Our book had been selected as the national nonfiction winner of the Kids Are Authors contest! Animalogies: A Collection of Animal Analogies was about to be published and would be sold in schools all over the country at Scholastic Book Fairs, just like the one at which our journey had begun.

Several months later, as I stood on our school's stage during the publishing ceremony for Animalogies, I couldn't help but think about the journey I had taken since the Connecticut Writing Project–Fairfield Summer Institute. In particular, I remembered conversations with other teacher-participants about our teaching experiences. Over and over again, one common obstacle to creating accomplished student writers seemed to surface: "How do we get our students to want to write?" During the course of the institute, we considered numerous strategies to address this pressing issue. Among them were: give students choice, use examples of good writing as models, and reinforce the students' ownership of the writing through conferencing and revisions. In creating this class book, I had tried to incorporate these crucial strategies into my classroom's writing process. And the reaction from my students? They were completely engaged from the beginning to the end.

When I see Animalogies on my shelf today, I like to think about the book being sold in Scholastic Book Fairs at schools all over the country. I sometimes imagine that our book and the story of our experience writing Animalogies might inspire another teacher and another classroom of students, just as the book by the fourth grade students from Reseda, California, inspired me and my students. I see the differences that good models and collaboration make at all levels—whether students or teachers—and I am inspired and encouraged anew.

About the Author Kathy Brody is a teacher-consultant with the Connecticut Writing Project–Fairfield. She teaches fourth grade at the Six to Six Interdistrict Magnet School in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

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