When Tracey and I were still roommates, and the TCRWP Writing Units were brand new- over ten years ago now, we did what we knew best. We went into classrooms to try the work ourselves. We planned lessons together and then taught them separately in two different fourth grade classrooms. I remember all the problem solving and learning we did when we came back together, trying to figure out how to teach fourth graders how to write realistic fiction.
In 2015, when our district was adding literacy coach positions to each of our elementary schools, I decided to apply. Tracey also applied. If we both got the job, we knew one of us would have to move out. In the end, I left to be the literacy coach at the school literally down the hill. Our schools share a field. I remember timing the walk from one school to the other. Less than five minutes door to door. Tracey and I were literacy coaches together, but apart.
I remember that Tracey got accepted to go to a Teacher’s College Coaching Institute that fall. We were both kind of nervous about our new role. Did we even know how to be coaches? I remember when she got back, I poured over her notes. I asked her so many questions. “Tell me again about a conferring lab.” “Do we know enough to do this work?” I wasn’t even sure I knew how to confer, never mind across six different grade levels in a building full of new people.
Fast forward to a few days ago when I was working in a fourth grade classroom. I was conferring with Opal, who was working on a historical fiction piece. I had missed a lot of the planning work, but was happy to see that everyone had story mountains and historical timelines in their notebooks. I started by asking Opal what she had been working on as a writer. She said that she was really working on making her story believable. It took place in Poland and she wanted to get the details just right. She also wanted to work on telling a little bit about her characters throughout the story, just like in the books she was reading.
As I read some of her writing, I noticed the attention to detail. She had research Polish desserts to talk about as her characters visited the bakery in town. So, I decided to go with her second goal “So, what is this story really about?” I asked flipping back to her story mountain. “What does your main character really want?”
She looked at me. I could tell she had to think about that one. Finally, she replied, “Well, she wants to survive and keep her brother safe after her parents disappear.”
I drew a heart on a post it and wrote “protect her brother” inside. “So, are you saying this is really a story about her relationship with her brother?”
Opal nodded. We spent the next few minutes talking about how this motivation had to be part of all of her scenes. That’s how she could reveal her characters, bit by bit. We wrote a few examples in the air and Opal’s face lit up. She got it and I could tell she was eager for the conference to end so she could get back to work.
The next day, back in the same classroom, after doing a few more similar conferences, I stole a minute with the teacher and shared my observations with him. “It might be worth stopping the whole class and having them reflect on their character motivations”, I coached. He agreed and a few moments later he was at the front of the class, modeling with his own story.
It wasn’t until Tracey and I were talking on the phone this week that I realized the connection between my work in that fourth grade classroom and the work Tracey and I did together, all those years ago. It makes me realize that my roots may be stronger than I sometimes give them credit for.