The late, great Donald Murray, University of New Hampshire professor of English, Boston Globe columnist and the best teacher I ever had, once said this about the essential element of surprise in the teaching of writing: “Surprise should be encouraged and cultivated in the writing classroom. We do it by respecting individual diversity of vision, connection, thought and voice, by revealing there are few rights and wrongs ... we need to rid ourselves of our learned fear of surprise and embrace the unexpected in our classrooms.”
I’ve taught sixth-graders long enough to “expect the unexpected.” I try to demystify the writing process for my students, give them what they need right away, in the beginning of the school year. Then I unleash them, and expect to be surprised.
This year, Jacob, is Exhibit A. Notice how he begins his personal narrative about the demise of his Chinese dwarf hamster, Big Eyes: “Three visitors came to my home one fateful night. Numbers one and two were my friends Jared and Trevor. The third and most unexpected guest: Death.”
Jacob took to heart my instruction regarding how to craft an effective lead -- pull the reader in and give them a taste of what’s to come. I didn’t tell Jacob to channel Edgar Allan Poe. That was his idea. Brilliant.
The reader soon learns that the writer is just like most 12-year-old boys, engrossed in video games with a couple of buddies. Then read what happens next: “Our hamsters, Big Eyes and Frank, got into a brother-versus-brother argument. All I could hear was ‘Squeak! Squeak, squeak, squeak!’ I murmured, ‘Shaddup!’ and my fuzzy friends did just that. But Frank must have gotten REALLY angry, and the killer was revealed.”
You might say Jacob rushed through the most important part of his story. I teach my students to “explode the moment,” to slow down the action and add specific details. Normally, I’d agree, but this is no “normal” story.
Jacob writes, “the battle lasted past 1:00 in the morning.” He figured “they were on the hamster wheel all night and got pooped.” Then he explains why he never checked in on his pets. So engrossed in his video games, Jacob was “distracted ... it isn’t every day you have ‘newbs’ that you can beat on your favorite game.”
Jacob then writes that his mom did notice the carnage. “Big Eyes was really hurt in both arms and a leg ... Frank barely had a scratch ... proud to have the cage to himself, and to poop all over Big Eye’s side.”
Specific details, and a snarkily hilarious aside.
Great writers often find a way to inject a little levity into the most serious of subjects: “The doc had to sadly put Big Eyes down ... his ghost, I believe, confronted Frank with his sins and he died half a week later. I am, however, glad they never met my snake amigo Smaug. They’d be lunch.”
I teach my students the importance of finishing with a bang. If a writer can grab a reader at the beginning and provide great supporting details in the middle, don’t fizzle out like a dying sparkler at the end.
No worries. Jacob is writing this baby: “One thing for sure, though. Big Eye’s death was not in vain for he is most likely in pet Valhalla.”
While it’s true I’ve come to “expect the unexpected” in young writers, it’s a bonus when a writer like Jacob exceeds those expectations beyond my wildest dreams.
John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.