, Derry, New Hampshire


November 14, 2013

Column: Expecting to be surprised by my writing students

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.

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