Liz Exton--Metzger Fellowship Essay

Becoming a Writer


“Can I go to the bathroom?” Jesse asks again. I nod and turn my focus back to the student at my table, “Tell me more about skiing with your family.” Sophia responds about the chairlift and the candy cabin. She and I fall into a deep conversation about her ski trip and her colorful illustrations. I am drawn into her enthusiasm about skiing and being able to write and draw about it. She is so proud of her work, and keeps asking, “Is it my day to share?”

I have no idea how much time has passed, but I look up and Jesse is still in the bathroom. I knock on the door, and say, “It’s time to come out.” He washes his hands and returns to his seat.

I look around the room. My students are seated at their tables for Writing Time, most of them putting something on paper. Benjamin and Haruka color, Charlotte and Max write slowly, their mouths over-enunciating each sound in the word. During Writing Time students work independently transferring ideas from their heads onto paper in a way that is appropriate for them. Kindergarteners use their personal interests, their open-mind, and their excitement for learning to express themselves freely through drawing and writing.

I love the promise Writing Time brings at the beginning of the year, and I anticipate the celebration in June the way Kindergarteners anticipate their birthdays. Students publish a piece of writing, recognizing that their ideas are powerful - worthy of being saved and shared. Kindergarteners learn that everyone has something important to say, that everyone can be a writer.

But I also love how Writing Time offers me a glimpse into each student’s passions and interests; it tells me who they are and what’s important to them. Through conferencing I spend time one-on-one with each student learning about them and what they care about; I connect with them.

Back in my classroom Jesse builds a marker sword. He flicks the markers off the table and then gets up to get them. I keep watching, “I should sit with him,” I think. “He needs my help.”

I didn’t know how I was going to get him to write. I hadn’t yet connected with him. I sit down anyway; it is my job to help him become a writer.

“Hi Jesse, tell me what you’re working on.”

“It’s a book about how to build a ship.”

“Oh wow! Do you know about building ships?”

 “No, not really, but I like ships.”

“Great, well let’s think more about how to build a ship, so you can get something down on your paper.”

“You just build it,” he says.

 “Let’s go to the block area and try to build a ship. Maybe that will help,” I get up

and walk over to the block area. Jesse follows me reluctantly. I get out some blocks and start building, determined to get Jesse to build a ship and write about it.

“Look, let’s put this piece here,” I say placing a long wooden block on the rug, “And then we add a mast.” I am building a ship out of blocks, and boy, am I good at it. Jesse rolls around on the floor, picking up staples from the rug. “Can I go to the bathroom?” he asks. 

I let him go. I’m not getting anywhere anyway. I look at the clock. Writing Time will be over soon, and Sophia bounds over asking me if I’ve decided who will share today. “Um…sure. You can share,” I mumble.

I knock on the bathroom door again, “Your time is up. Let’s go.” Jesse comes out again and plods back to his table. “Why don’t you write a title?“ I suggest. “Then at least you’ll have something on your paper.” 

I survey the room one last time before asking the students to clean-up. Mei, an ELL student, draws detailed pictures of her family, James bounces on a yoga ball as he writes, and Hannah sequences photos about feeding her fish. I feel warm inside. 

My eyes scan to Jesse’s table. He is picking the staples out of his book, and pressing the marker into the paper so hard it creates a hole. His book is blank. Well, at least the other 20 kids are writing. I can’t get them all to be writers. It’s just Kindergarten, right?

But this is MY Kindergarten, a place where students feel a sense of belonging, they take risks, and they become writers. After fifteen years, I thought I had strategies for transforming all Kindergarteners into writers, but with Jesse I was coming up short.

I reach out to colleagues. My Literacy Specialist suggests I ask his parents about his interests. Their response: Minecraft.

The next day I sit with Jesse first, “Hey, I hear you like Minecraft. Would you maybe want to write about it?”

His eyes light up and he starts talking. I pull out some sticky notes, and try to get down his ideas. I slap the sticky notes into his five-page book and say, “Great, now you have some reminders about what you told me. Go ahead and get started.” I walk away.

I sit next to Noah, “Tell me what you’re working on.” Noah reads his book to me. “Dogs can fetch. Dogs can eat. Dogs can poop.” He doesn’t even laugh. He’s not being funny. This is serious stuff, this writing, and he is taking it seriously. Sure, it’s in all capital letters without spaces between the words, but he’s getting his ideas down on paper. I remind Noah about using lowercase letters and using spaces to make his writing easier to read, and then I move on.

“Thomas, Anna, tell me what you’re working on,” around the room I go. I pull out step-by-step drawing cards for some kids, I gesture to the alphabet chart for others. “Hmm, I wonder how you could add more details to this picture?” I say.

I look up. Jesse is nowhere to be found. The bathroom. I knock, his little voice replies, “I’m in here.”

“Ok. I need you to finish up and come out.”

I glance at his paper. There are some scribbles and something resembling a square that might be related to Minecraft. I really don’t know. Another day with nothing.

I was stumped. Every child has a story to tell and can be a writer, but it wasn’t coming for Jesse. What was I missing? Was he too young? Were his hands too weak for writing and drawing? I hadn’t let that stop me before.  

It was about the process, not the product, I reminded myself, but Jesse wasn’t even participating in the process; I was dragging him through it. I wanted Jesse to feel like a writer, like he had something important to say. I needed him to realize that his ideas were valuable enough to share with others.

I had exhausted all my options. I felt defeated. Was this really going to be my first student who didn’t have a published book at the Publishing Party?

That afternoon as I shuffled papers, I noticed Jesse’s name next to chess on the after school activity list.

The next day, I offer up chess at the games table. Jesse falls out of his spot and onto the pieces when I call him to make a choice. At the table he talks with Nathan, “Okay, so here’s the pawn, and this is a bishop, and these are knights. You want to be black because then you have an advantage.” Children start to gather at the table to learn more. I sit down, too. “Jesse, you know so much about chess. Maybe you’d like to write about it.”

His eyes grow wide, he smiles, “Yeah, I know so much about chess. And I’m really good at it. Can I write about it right now?”

“Well, you can, but you’re in the middle of the game. Maybe after?” I offer.

I feel hopeful, but have I squashed his excitement by not letting him run right over to the writing table? There’s always that doubt. Did I do enough? Have I tried everything?

When Writing Time starts the next day Jesse is one of the first students to pull out a pencil and get started writing and drawing. He draws a chess board on the cover. “ABOWT CHSS,” he writes. He turns the page, “There are sixteen pawns…” There he is writing and drawing, his ideas falling onto the pages, saving his important ideas on paper, like a writer. 

I conference with students, “Tell me about what you’re working on…”

Jesse approaches me. “Bathroom?” I ask.

“No, do you have a stapler? I need to add more pages to my book.”