The Writing Cycle in Picturebooks

The Writing Cycle (with credit to Randy and Katherine Bomer).

Working with writers means digging into the writing cycle. Not the 5-step writing process that’s codified in books or in nifty posters you can put on your walls. I’m talking about the writing cycle that involves collecting ideas over the long haul, tuning into your own thoughts, pulling out ideas and refining them, pounding through a draft, revising more than you ever thought possible, nit-picking every comma (and hiring an editor), and then finally sending it out in the world. That writing cycle. The one real writers live.

Making sense of this writing cycle can be tough, especially when you’ve been sold a bill of goods about those 5-steps. Students and teachers, when trying to move toward a more authentic writing process often struggle to forget those 5-steps because they lack a model for a real cycle. So I’ve been working to put together a set of books — picturebooks , specifically— that offers a model for this more real writing cycle. The stories I’ve collected offer ways into the various moments in the cycle, show characters experiencing the same kinds of thinking and struggles that writers — whether students or teachers — face.

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George Washington’s cherry tree never goes out of style

The stories we tell — or fail to tell — our children say a lot about who we think we are

A plate from Cobb’s New Spelling Book (1842).

Curriculum is a story we write, out of all the possible stories, to teach our children of our world and our place in it. That’s why curriculum is such a contested thing and the debates around the Common Core or evolution or who Bill Martin is (the author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, not the philosopher) are so heated: people care a lot about the type of story we teach our children about ourselves as a world, a nation, a people. And people should care! These discussions are often hard, heated, and yet have the potential to be moments for growth and change. We — as a nation, as individuals, as families, as cities — should think about and discuss the stories we tell and consider the stories we aren’t telling, especially because schools can’t ‘cover’ everything in the limited time they have (especially when so much time is spent on testing).

What does all this have to do with George Washington chopping down a cherry tree? Because how (and if) we tell Washington’s story is an indication of what we — which is a naturally limited and contested ‘we’ at any given historical moment — think about ourselves in that historical moment. I’m currently editing a manuscript about my research on the early dissemination of Washington’s story, so I thought I’d share some of my explorations here.

The manuscript began as project for class called The History of American Reading Instruction. For the final class project, I ended up looking for every instance of the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree that I could find. And between the UT Library’s extensive collection and Google Books, I found a lot. I also found, as I read these stories, that they reflected exactly those cultural and societal shifts that Nila Banton Smith had outlined in the text on the history of reading instruction, appropriately titled, American Reading Instruction. The stories moved from Nationalistic/Moralistic, toward Intelligent Citizenship, through Cultural Asset to Scientific Investigation (see below for a more detailed chart).

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