Monday, August 8, 2011

Write Lit

By Sheri Edwards, Children's Literature Blogger

“Around the back is a yard, mostly dirt, and a greasy bunch of boards that used to be a garage. But what you remember most is this tree, huge, with fat arms and mighty families of squirrels in the higher branches.” from Sandra Cisneros, (2009) The House on Mango Street. Random House, New York. p. 22.

Are you there in those high fat branches with a squirrel chattering at you? Oh yes, a good book sends you into other worlds and situations, adding to what you know by connecting to what you’ve experienced. A good book lives inside you as your mind imagines through the images created by the words in that book.

I teach reading and writing, so I love books that allow me to share how a story’s world depends on the writer’s words.

One of those books is The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. The 2009 Vintage Books Edition from Random House includes an introduction by the author in which she shares how she writes--and how she combines real characters and changes real settings to bring out the idea in her story so the reader can imagine the world and relationships she knows. She also shares how she did not trust her own voice, and that she succeeded by doing the things she was afraid of. I read aloud pages xxii to xxvii of the introduction so students understand how writers are people, and they have a writer within them. This rings so true to my students, and they wonder, “Well, what did she write?”

Several copies of this book are always available in my classroom. Once we start reading and learning about writing, the students want to read it themselves.

Every few days, I read aloud a story (they’re very short). I read it once for enjoying and thinking. We may discuss, but usually I read it one more time so we can think and connect before we discuss the ideas and make connections to our lives. We share our own stories of living, laughing, relating, disappointments, sadness, loss, fear, discrimination, perseverance.

Finally, I ask students to listen for a particular elaboration strategy that they might use in their own stories, which through our discussions include new ideas inspired by that day’s story. We discuss how we see the author using the strategy in her writing. We discuss how we could use the strategy.

At some time before the next week, students will share the strategy used in their own writing, writing an example in their interactive writer’s notebook.

Some of the elaboration strategies we discuss:

The Story: Meme Ortiz, p. 21
The Strategy: Descriptions (senses/imagery -- looks like/sounds like/smells like/feels like) How did the author place her descriptions and make the people and places seem alive?
Example: ”All around, the neighborhood of roofs, black-tarred and A-framed, and in their gutters, the balls that never came back down to earth.” p. 22

The Story: Papa Who Wakes Up in the Dark, p. 56
The Strategy: Details (who, what, when, where, why, how) How did the author place her details?
Example: “I know he will have to go away, that he will take a plane to Mexico...” p. 56

The Story: The First Job, p. 53
The Strategy: Emotions (what were you feeling?) How did the author help you think about her feelings?
Example: “then break time came, and not knowing where else to go, I went into the coatroom because there was a bench there.” p. 54

The Story: Our Good Day, p. 14
The Strategy: Dialogue (conversations with your characters) How does conversation make the story real?
“We come from Texas, Lucy says and grins. Her was born here, but me I’m Texas.
You mean she, I say.
No. I’m from Texas, and doesn’t get it.” p.15

The Story: Four Skinny Trees, p. 74
The Strategy: Examples (anecdote/explanation/comparison)
Example: “They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger.” p. 74

As you can see, because the stories are short, we can in one period of our class enjoy, discuss, and learn from the story. The power lies not only in the simply written words that create a credible snapshot of her life, but in the fact that she shared how hard it was to find and share her own voice, and in how she shared part of her process. Students feel connected to that struggle. And her stories, personal with universal themes, resonate with them, and we continue our struggle to write literature.

Whether you read the The House on Mango Street for enjoyment or for learning to write, you will feel its power, because Sandra Cisneros definitely “writes lit!”

How do you teach writing with literature books? Which are your favorite?

Journal image by Sheri Edwards


  1. Wow Sheri! Great post! I love to hear how people teach writing. Connecting the writing to literature makes so much sense, yet I feel I don't do it enough! I do lots of modeling. However, this year it will be the 'Year of Literature' in my classroom and we will connect as much as we can....especially in writing.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Yes, Sheri, thank you for a wonderful post. Nancy, I have definitely been inspired to connect my writing instruction to literature more this year too. I love Sandy Cisneros' book. The chapters each stand alone and are short for a quick read.

    By the way, have you heard of the book Hairs/Pelitos? It's one chapter in The House on Mango Street that has been made into a children's picture book.

    Thank you both for your wonderful participation in the Children's Literature blog!