This week in our class we abandoned a project...sort of. We had been using interactive writing to write about a field trip we had taken near the end of October. The day we let the project go, 2 student teachers from other schools were in our room observing, and they were curious about that decision.
They had seen our class meet on the carpet and heard me remind the kids that we had a decision to make--keep going with our writing about the trip, or let it go and move on to a new project. The kids all wanted to move on. We had printed pictures from the trip, mounted them and had written captions for all but 2 of the events from that day. Most of the pictures and captions were already hanging in the hallway, and the energy created by the trip and our remembering it had been slowly waning over the past week. While the kids still remembered the trip and wanted others to know about the trip, they were not all that interested in writing about it any more.
As soon as the kids went to recess, the questions came. "Why did you abandon the project--and what really does that mean? Does it happen a lot?"
"No," I replied, "not often. But it does happen sometimes and it's hard as a teacher to let it go. Especially if in my mind it's a great project. In this case, the energy from the trip has sort of died down and the kids just weren't engaged in the project any more--even though it was their idea." I went on to explain that abandoning the project just means that we aren't going to work on it as an interactive writing project any more. I took about 1 minute to have the kids tell me again what was happening in the 2 remaining pictures and I quickly wrote it down without any further comment or teaching. The project will remain displayed in the hallway outside our room.
The other student teacher piped up, "But why didn't you have the kids go ahead and finish it? I thought that interactive writing means the kids help write down things." She's right--that is a large part of it. But not all.
Interactive writing is a powerful instructional piece in which the teacher and kids share the task of choosing a writing project based on some common experience or learning, negotiate what kind of text will be created and what it will say and then work together to write the actual message. It's a place where the teacher supports kids in using all they know and are learning about writing and about how letters, sounds and words work. But the key to the power of interactive writing is in the engagement of the kids. If they are not engaged in the work--if they don't feel a strong sense of ownership and control over it--then they really don't gain anything from the experience.
"That's what was happening here," I explained. "The kids had lost interest, probably because it's been a while since the trip and we've been studying some other things that they are really into right now. I was working my rear end off trying to keep them focused and they weren't really getting anything out of it.If I'm the only one really working and still interested in the project, that's a problem."
What I had realized was that I was plowing ahead just to get the thing finished. Then I stopped to think about why I use interactive writing. The goal isn't to get really cool looking projects hung in the hall outside my room (though I have to admit, I do love that part!)--it's to support the kids as writers. To help them think about what they want to share with the world and how they want to share it and then how to do it.
In the real world, writers often have multiple projects going and regularly set aside or abandon projects that no longer seem to hold their attention. Interactive writing should work the same way. I wasn't abandoning the important things. I was just letting go of that particular project, and in the process was showing my young writers that sometimes that's what writers do. Calling it done so we can keep working on the same things but within a new project--something the kids are excited about and genuinely want to share with others.
I'll admit it's not easy for me to walk away from a project or to end it before it gets to be what I had envisioned. But if I'm honest with myself, it's better this way--knowing when to abandon a project and then being willing to do it is not easy, but I also have to admit that I can't wait to see what the kids have in mind for our next project. So in thinking back, I'm glad those student teachers were there that particular day, and I'm glad they asked the questions they did. It made me think over my decision and realize that it was the right one for now--and that while I was abandoning that project, I was not abandoning the powerful learning and teaching that happens during interactive writing.