I can't remember when I started using this prompt: "I like..." Finish the sentence. Do one long, run-on sentence of Faulknerian length or do a list or a couple of sentence. Tell the world what you like."
My friend, Rusty DeWees, uses it sometimes. He even wrote a column of I Likes. For those of you who don't know Rusty, he may be better known as The Logger. Rusty's brilliance is in his ability to spin humor, a routine even, out of a tiny detail, even a mistake, that he jots down and works over in his mind or his writing.
Several months ago I was at a school and taught a class to a group of struggling readers. The teacher and I spoke beforehand. She wanted to start them on a new book, Old Yeller, and was planning to read to them three pages or so and then give them a comprehension sheet afterwards.
You know what I'm talking about. Those hideous little tests designed to determine how much you were paying attention. My brain screamed: OH MY GOD! Are you serious? You have a class filled with reluctant readers and you are going to give them a comprehension quiz? No wonder they hate reading.
I did not say it out loud.
We came upon a different solution.
I knew the book, so I gave a dramatic reading to the first four pages. Then I asked them all the comprehension sheet questions and I wrote down their answers on the chalk board. They knew the story was in East Texas, shortly after the Civil War. They remembered how far it was to drive the cattle to Abilene. They provided all the details and then some.
Then I asked them to do the "I like ... " prompt, but I asked them to make believe they were Travis, or some other character in the book living in that place in that time. I gave them seven minutes.
Remember, now, these are the ones who don't like to read, don't like books. Some are trouble makers, kids who really don't see the point of school. They struggle.
I then asked them to share:
"I like that there is no posted land," said one boy.
"I like that the river water is clean, and you can drink it," wrote one girl.
"I like the quiet," said another.
"I like that there are no fences," said another boy.
So here were the 'bad' readers who were able to comprehend four pages of a new book, imagine what life was like, imagine how it differed from their own, and then make the determination of what they'd like better about life back then. All in a seven-minute writing exercise.