Each year I try to recreate this feeling in my classroom as students invite family and friends to room 356 for the evening to premier their digital memoirs. They have worked for weeks on this project that is more than just demonstrating their skills as a writer. This first unit of the year is one that builds our classroom community and allows us all to get to know each other a bit better. Students explore in their writer's notebooks personal topics to find that just-right subject to share something significant from their lives as they examine who they are and why.
While I have done this unit with my 7th graders for many years, I have never followed the same lesson plans. Each year I rethink, re-tweak, and revise the way that the students in front of me might best come to accomplish this project. This year, I added a few new memoir examples, or mentor texts, for my students to study. Three of the seven that we read were written by former students of mine. Students who had sat where my current students are sitting. And while these texts might not fall under the category of "rigorous" as deemed by the new Common Core Learning Standards, they were the most important texts that we read this year. My students were truly inspired by reading the work of other students. Each year, we have always read examples by published authors, which we did as well this year, but the substitutions I made with writers who my students knew had to struggle with the same task as them made all the difference.
Upon reading my students' first drafts, I was amazed at the quality of work that I received. I was able to give each of my 114 writers feedback via Google Docs in order to let them know what was working and what they needed to work on. These first drafts were unlike any other year I had previously though. While I do have some very talented writers, it was more than that. It was as if through reading the examples of my former students, my 7th graders felt a greater confidence when writing about their own experiences. I could hear them through looking at their drafts announcing, Hey, if they can do this, I can too.
Since we had read these student texts, we were then able to view their digital versions to gain an understanding of how one takes a piece of writing and then creates a movie of it. This was an experience I had never been able to give my students before. While we always had watched digital versions in years past (usually my own that I had created in graduate school), we had never read a draft and then had seen it come to life on the screen. This too I think was extremely valuable to my students as they set off to gather images and photos to accompany their words in order to bring their pieces to life on the big screen.
So as the audience settled back with a treat from those that generously brought something to share and the lights were dimmed, I felt that moment of happiness of sharing time in the darkness watching stories on a screen. But this night, of course, is more magical than your average night at the movies. This night is populated with friends, family, my students and my colleagues. It doesn't get more magical than that.
*This photo is courtesy of Lisa Michaels.