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Writing Project Woes

Written by Shelby Sullivan
April 27, 2022

The Overview

One of the first things you learn as a teacher is to be flexible because not everything will go according to plan. I was reminded of this lesson recently as I attempted to host a community writing project. 

The original plan was to complete my writing project with adults in the bariatric community (weightloss surgery for those that are unfamiliar with the term). I was excited. I had buy in. I made all the activities. This was going to be great. Then came our first meeting. As you may have noticed in the opening sentence of this paragraph, I said “the original plan” which means that this project, the one that I was so thrilled about, did not work out as I expected. In fact, not a single person showed up to the first meeting. I reached out to the people that signed up, turns out two of them were attending the bariatric retreat in Vegas and didn’t have time to commit to the project anymore, one of them was going on vacation, and two others decided that they just didn’t want to participate anymore. A few people never got back to me at all, and now I was back at the drawing board. That’s ok. I can pivot with the best of them.

The school’s book club happened to be wrapping up some activity that they had just held, so I reached out to their advisor–the school librarian. This was a fortunate turn of events because not only had she actually done a writing project in the past and loved it, but she was looking for ways to incorporate into book club. Suddenly there was a light on the horizon. Magic was in the air again. Unfortunately, all magic comes with a price, and this was no different. 

The price of doing the writing project during Dragon Book Club meetings meant that I had to conduct the project during their meeting windows. You might be asking yourself what the big deal is with that. Well, dear reader, the Dragon Book Club only meets on Wednesdays during lunch. I, being the dutiful teacher that I am, had planned the writing project activities “bell to bell” (or minute to minute in this case), and I had planned them for 1-hour sessions for adults. Suddenly I was being given five 30-minute sessions with students of varying ages. I also had to alter the activities to have clear enough directions that the librarian could lead the activities with the second lunch kids since I would be back in class.  All of my prompts were thought-provoking, so the 30-minute lunch period just wasn’t enough time to get kids thinking, brainstorming, writing, and sharing. Especially since they were also coming in at all different times depending on whether they packed a lunch that day or were buying lunch in the cafeteria. Y’all, I am not exaggerating when I say that this was beyond a chaotic mess–it was a straight-up cluster. 

The Project

The first week was purely a meeting filled with logistics. I introduced myself to the kids. I shared the slideshow with all of the students, had them make a copy, and share it back with me as an editor so that I could add the weekly slide to everyone’s presentation. We did the “write into the meeting” prompt so that the students could get a feel for the writing project’s theme: Identity. Then I told the students to bring an artifact for the following week’s artifact share and we parted ways.

When week two arrived, I was hopeful for this project’s potential. It was going to be our first week of real writing and sharing. First item on the agenda: the artifact share. Everyone rave’s about this activity, so I wanted to incorporate it into my writing project. I thought we would bond and get to know each other a little better. ONly one student remembered to bring an artifact. Two others were able to describe an artifact they possess that was meaningful to them. The next activity was a fill-in-the-blank poem. I showed the students the template and read my example. The bell rang as kids were halfway through their responses. My excitement took a slight hit, but I wasn’t giving up just yet.

Week three rolled around and I was determined to make this writing project work. I opened the meeting by asking students to share their fill-in-the-blank poems. Two people shared. Most either didn’t finish or they just didn’t want to share. The wind was leaving my sails, but we sailed on. This week the students had the choice to do a “Where I’m From” poem using a template or to do an “I Remember” poem using examples and directions. We spent the remainder of this meeting writing. 

I had wised up for week four’s meeting. I got rid of “write into the meeting” prompts and I had students anonymously write a golden line from their writing to share. This approach yielded better results. Admittedly not by much, but still better than we had previously. The activity options this week required a lot of thought, so I knew that the students would need this meeting and the last meeting to work on them. Their options this week were poems for two voices and reverse poems. This week was the most challenging. The students loved how “cool” the final products were for these poems, but struggled with writing either. The librarian informed me that one girl in the second lunch group even cried because, even with the template, she just couldn’t figure out how to make her reversal poem read in the way she wanted it to.If I were to say that I wasn’t glad week five was our last meeting, I would be lying. I wanted students to see how great writing is and how it can help us to declare and shape our identities. Instead, I made a girl cry into her Cup of Noodles. 

The Reflection

Even though this project felt like a complete disaster, I would actually do it again in the future. I feel that the litany of downfalls and mistakes has given me a pretty clear picture of what not to do next time, so I feel more confident that it can be successful with some minor (and some major) changes. 

Though many of the students didn’t complete more than one poem in its entirety, many of them have some truly golden lines or ideas that could be workshopped into meaningful pieces of writing. I believe that this project could have exceeded (or at least been closer to) my expectations if I had a full hour for meetings like I originally planned. Thirty minutes is not nearly enough to complete the tasks that I had created. The group of kids that showed up on a regular basis tried their best. We all made the best of what we had at the time. Unfortunately, the limitations on our time made it feel as though we were trying to create while stuck in the confines of a box. Hopefully one day I will see the amazing works students can produce when they aren’t restrained by time. 

Like one of my participants said in a poem, “I am from every bad decision I’ve ever made” and while thinking I  could successfully complete a meaningful writing project in five 30-minute sessions was a bad decision, it has made me more aware of how to better plan for my next attempt.

Happy writing, folks.