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Donna Sacco


"I saw students walking around with their writers' notebooks," recalled Donna Sacco. "They would come up to me during the school day to share something they had written. Parents were e-mailing me with pieces they had written, asking for input. I'm still getting e-mails from parents with their work attached!"

Miriam Rollin and daughter
"take time to write."

All of that activity came as a direct result of a unique evening class offered by Sacco at her school, Arlington (Virginia) Traditional School. Designed for students and their parents, the class was called "Family Writers' Workshop: Exploring Memoir Through Writers' Notebook." Sacco, a special education teacher, was enrolled in a course that dealt with strategies for teaching writing at the elementary level. During the course, she was introduced to the work of Ralph Fletcher, and it inspired her to join one of his workshops. That experience encouraged her to organize a family writers' workshop.

"At the time, I was working with students who were English language learners with learning disabilities," Sacco told Education World. "They were having a great deal of trouble getting more than one or two sentences on paper when given a writing assignment. I revamped my writing instruction, and their writing improved dramatically."

Sacco loved being asked to write in her own coursework and thought other adults would enjoy it too. Starting out with her own daughters, she invited them to accompany her on a visit to a museum. With journals in hand, the three entered the museum and went their different ways. There were no rules for the writing; they just had to write. Then they met for tea to share what they had written. Sacco's personal experiment was such a success that she knew she had to offer other parents a similar opportunity.

Writing Tips

Participants in Donna Sacco's family writing course receive the following tips:

* Give yourself the gift of time to write.
* Throw out all the rules and conventions of writing. Feel free to write as if no one will read it.
* Enjoy observing the world around you. Allow yourself to be amused or intrigued by it.
* Don't take yourself too seriously. Sometimes looking at yourself can be hilarious.
* Each day, enjoy quiet, mindful meditation. It works magic.
* Enjoy the process.

"I started my classes with a mini lesson about writing," Sacco explained. "The topic might be leads, adding dialogue, or some other aspect of writing. I shared examples from books. We then separated to write. I conferenced with individuals while the others wrote. At the end of class, those who wanted to share what they had written did so, and the class commented, sharing thoughts about what they liked about the piece and what they would like to see expanded or worked on in future drafts."

Everyone got something out of the family writing class. The parents most enjoyed being asked to write. While they liked writing, most felt that they couldn't afford the luxury of taking time to write for pleasure. They also enjoyed spending time with their children in a structured activity that was creative and fun. Of course, the students also loved having special time with their parents, and for them, writing without the constraints often dictated by classroom assignments was liberating.

"I had a huge breakthrough about my students developing a voice in their writing," shared Sacco. "Many of the students, especially boys, were very cautious about writing anything personal. This kept them from developing their voice in writing."

Sacco noticed that the boys constantly were writing tales of fantasy or listing activities instead of sticking to the "memoir" theme of the class. She had always written about her thoughts and feelings, so she was perplexed by that at first.

Michael Brock does his memoir
writing via computer; his son takes the traditional paper and pencil route.

"Then a mother told me that her son said that he would never write about what he really thought because he didn't want anyone to read that!" Sacco said. "That is when I began stressing the idea of finding things that were amusing or interesting to write about. This created a bit of a twist and helped the students find their voice a bit more easily. It all came about because family members were talking about writing. We all were talking about writing."

On the last day of class, Sacco and the families had a potluck celebration. Siblings who had not been a part of the class came to the party. A kindergarten-aged brother of one of the students brought his own work to share, and Sacco was amazed. Though the class had been geared for fourth and fifth graders, this kindergartner had benefited as well.

"The parents really loved the class the most," observed Sacco. "Those who had always loved writing gave themselves permission to take some time out of their week to write for pleasure, and it is now feeding their souls! This class has helped families connect in a different way by sharing. One student said of his father, 'He's never actually told me much about his past [before now], so for me it's kind of a way to figure things out.'"

Photos provided by Donna Sacco.

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If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected].

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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