Slice of Life Story - Avoiding Brain Drain

Returning to a class of third graders after an absence of two weeks, I began by asking them if they were able to remember what we had focused on during our previous session together. They thought for a moment and then began to recall some of the writing ideas we had previously examined. I was most impressed when they mentioned that we had been looking at the ways in which writers gather ideas. It was then a student seated at the back of the group raised his hand enthusiastically looked me directly in the eye and told me,
“ We did lots of brain-draining.”
“Close,” I said. “I think you mean brainstorming, although sometimes it does feel a little draining.”
Ah yes, from the innocent we often get refreshing honesty and accuracy.

Now that their prior knowledge had been activated, it was time to move into the new workshop. This time we were looking at the craft strategy of ‘inside/outside’ (physical world/emotional world) The teachers and I had noticed that much of their writing of personal narratives concerned itself with the physical, or outer world. Students were basically writing recounts of events that were list like in structure. I modelled an example from my own writing where I wrote about my fear when as a small boy I was asked to collect eggs from my grandfather’s chook pen (chicken coop) and my concerns about his feral rooster. In my writing I tried to achieve some balance between the physical world (chickens, rooster, collecting eggs, enclosure etc) and the inner, or emotional world ( the sense of fear that manifest itself in my increased heartbeat, sweaty palms, wobbly legs.) I shared an extract from Roald Dahl’s The Witches (Page 63) where Dahl's small boy narrator, describes the inner fear he suffers when he is faced with the prospect of being discovered by the witches as they gather for a meeting. We then discussed what they noticed about the writing models they had read.

I then invited the students to practice this strategy for themselves in their independent writing. These previously inhibited or ‘safe’ writers then produced some wonderful examples of writing that clearly showed they understood how to apply ‘inside/outside’ to their writing. They wrote about their fear of attempting things for the first time. They wrote about fear of the dark. One student wrote about the fear and trepidation he felt when his mother suffered breathing difficulties and he had to call for an ambulance. Another student wrote about her fear of going to the opposite end of the house on her own in the evening. Their writing was refreshingly honest and emotionally charged. There was a tension and clarity to the writing. It had a wow factor.

In tying up the threads of the lesson, I asked the children what they had discovered about writing from the lesson. One boy replied, “ I have learnt that it is important to have a balance between the inside and outside world in your writing. It makes your writing more interesting to read.”

In debriefing with the teacher of this class, she, like me, was suitably impressed with the way their writing had been elevated in quality by the use of this single strategy.

We had started out with brain-draining and ended up with something quite the opposite.


  1. Brain drain ... great name for a band, eh?
    I like the focus on the shift between the physical and the emotional worlds in writing ... and the reflection from your student about creating a higher level of interest from readers connecting with those two points is great insight.

  2. I wish I could sit in on your class as you do these workshops. They sound wonderful!

  3. I like that student's comment about balance. Very insightful.


  4. thanks for giving us a glimpse into your workshop. i feel like i was there with you. :)

  5. I love 'brain draining' ... it's kind of what you're doing when you brainstorm, isn't it? Taking all the ideas in your head and putting them on the page. That's actually how I think about the free writing that I do before I settle down to my 'serious' writing. It's a chance to get all the distractions out of my head so I can concentrate.


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