This American Life Writing Inspiration

This weekend I decided to head out to the gym (which is rare on a Saturday morning) and get a chance to listen to my favorite radio shows. Lately most of my car driving time means I listen to a lot of NPR news and the Diane Rehm show.

Image(Is anyone else totally shocked to know that she does not look like the crypt keeper despite the way her voice sounds?!). However, my Saturday line up included Car Talk, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and the ever amazing talent of Ira Glass in This American Life. I cannot get enough of this show and frequently find myself hoping I could be featured alongside writer David Sedaris and comedian Mike Birbiglia in the latest trio of stories.

This week’s episode focused on a 24-hour diner in Chicago, The Golden Apple. This bustling and busy restaurant was a revolving door of people from all walks of life coming in to get a bite to eat, meeting friends, or to just have a sense of order and schedule in their day. Ira suggested as he introduced the scene, what if every person that came to visit the diner was interviewed and their stories told? And so, he did for 24 hours he and his writers interviewed each and every person in the diner.

In such a wonderful way, the producers on this show are able to make you feel that you are in this diner. You can smell the burnt coffee and see the waitresses who are exhausted from their all night shifts. I had such a clear mental movie playing in my head as the interviewer described a fellow patron as “a guy who looked like he could use 6 more hours of sleep.” Without saying this, I envisioned dark circles under puffy eyes. I imagined scruffy facial hair that had no intention of being shaved soon. “A pale haze of cigarette smoke” quickly inserted the distinct smell of tobacco and stale fabrics.

This notion of going to a place to just find stories is so captivating to me. How rarely do we actually get to know the people we interact with on a daily basis? The person serving you coffee at Starbucks, the man sitting next to you on the bus, even the woman who lives next door to you. Moving to a new city has made the anonymity of the people around me even more apparent. I only know 4 people in Houston, however I have interacted with hundreds and know nothing about them. I want to know what is their story and what makes them tick?

I wonder about creating this challenge for young writers. What if they were to interview people around them and get their stories? This exercise reminded me when I was a fellow with the Central Virginia Writing Project and we went to a homeless shelter. Our purpose was to help these men and women take steps to get a job and to talk with them and get a story. I remember the man I sat with. In my mind I just classified him as “homeless” but he had such a powerful story talking not about his current situation but about his family and more importantly his sister’s birthday party when he was young. This conversation humanized him for me and his story was important.

While there are many safety concerns for having students interview random strangers there are ways to be able to have them experience the feeling of taking away the label we put on people and getting to know their stories. Think about the people students interact with but don’t really know. The custodian who cleans up the milk from the floor, the cafeteria lady who serves their breakfast, and even their bus driver. What if we asked our young writers get to know these people’s stories, what is valuable to them, and have them connect with other human beings.

I wonder about the impact it would have. How are you getting the stories of others?


Heart Maps in 2nd Grade

I had the pleasure to meet 2nd graders in Ms. Howland’s classroom today. What an amazing group of young writers! They were so eager to soak in any information and share how much they knew. Ms. Howland is so lucky to have some remarkable students. Today I chose to introduce Heart Maps to these students as a way to introduce writer’s workshop and gather ideas about writing. I was first introduced to Heart Maps after reading “Awakening The Heart” by Georgia Heard. The notion of having students examine what is truly close to their hearts as a way to generate writing topics is so smart! However not knowing these students I wasn’t exactly sure how to introduce this strategy to them.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around starting writer’s workshop to students I will be working with through Writers In the Schools. Not knowing what has been introduced before and what writing language has been used, has stressed me out. In addition, I recently discovered that I would be working with 2nd grade, 3rd grade, and 4th grade. Clearly 2nd graders being the most terrifying to me. I’ve never worked with students that young before and not knowing what would be appropriate frightened me. I needed a dry run and Ms. Howland’s class was my crash course on 2nd grade!

I recently had come across this remarkable text, “Rocket Writes A Story” by Tad Hills and fell in love with its quaint illustrations but more importantly its clear message about the writing process. I thought this might be a perfect book to read to Ms. Howland’s 2nd graders and start the discussion on what do writers do?


A summary of this great text can be found here

I asked this question before we began reading this book and they had so many unique answers. It’s really clear that they knew that writers spell correctly, have neat handwriting, use pictures, etc. However, I was surprised that they didn’t know about what writers wrote about. I keep forgetting that they are only 7 and haven’t had a chance to write like older kids have. My hope is that after today (and getting to work with them in the future) we can work on getting a chance to write and create real stories. As we read this book I asked the students to be on the look out for what makes Rocket a writer? Keeping their brains on task was quite a challenge but it was clear that their year in 2nd grade has been full of new vocabulary and exposure to how readers and writers operate.

My focus for reading this book was to gather clues about what makes a writer and understanding that sometimes writers get stuck, as Rocket does in the story. I particularly like this page where his teacher, the Little Yellow Bird asks Rocket some simple questions such as, “What do you like to do?” “What have you seen?” “What inspires you?”. These questions would be the basis for our heart maps. Image

We talked about how writers like writing what matters to them and what is close to their hearts. We looked at how Rocket wrote what was important to him, his new friend Owl. On chart paper I drew a large heart and wrote down 4 main ideas that we can use for our heart maps: what you love to do, people/animals you love, what has happened to you, and what inspires you. These ideas would help guide the students as they filled in their heart maps. I filled in my heart map as I talked out loud about what was “close to my heart”.


The students had such enthusiasm as they eagerly asked questions about whether they could put specific things on their heart map. One student’s face lit up when I informed that anything could go on their maps as long as it was really important to them and could be something they could write about. I wanted to make sure that I emphasized what could be used for writing because sometimes students can get carried away with putting down their favorite things. This was a tool that we would be using as writers to help inspire us and write stories.



Even without a template or outline, these awesome 2nd graders got started right away. Thank goodness Ms. Howland was there to remind them about making their shapes large enough to fill the page. Clearly I’m used to the older darlings who make everything double the size it should be!


I was so impressed how students used word walls and the prompts from the anchor chart to help them fill in their maps. One student was very clever to write “shooting arrows” and I asked him a little bit about his heart map. He said that he likes to shoot arrows but not to worry because they have plastic caps. I asked him if there something that has happened when he’s shot arrows before and if he thought he could write a story about that. He nodded quickly as he added more to his heart map about rocks.


When modeling this tool, I tried to show students that they could use pictures and words to make their heart maps. Some students didn’t want to waste any space with illustrations, how ever some students took time to create detailed images to represent what they love. Later after students have completed their maps, they can take time to use color and really make their maps come alive.


I can’t wait to see their finished maps and ways we can use it during their writing workshop! A huge thanks to Ms. Howland for letting me crash her classroom for a morning! Wahoo Wa! 🙂